Gary Long’s Road to Recovery

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Professor Gary Long opens up about his battle with urothelial carcinoma.

By Miranda Weippert

Gary Long saw his wife Kathryn pull into the driveway as they looked into one another’s eyes. As she told him the news she had just received from his neurologist, Long found himself falling to his knees and into the arms of his wife.

Long, a biblical and theological studies professor, was diagnosed with bladder cancer, urothelial carcinoma, in January 2014 during J-term at Bethel University.

“Hearing the news was devastating,” Kathryn Long said. “Especially for a second time.”

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Gary Long show of his Jihad beard he grew for a charity campaign he created called BreakingBLAD. | Photos by Emily Durenberger

This wasn’t the only time cancer had struck the Long family. Alan, Long’s son, is a cancer survivor himself. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma the summer before his senior year in high school.

“It killed me to think of my family having to face this brand of fear and pain again,” Alan said. “But as someone who has been through it and is now studying it, I have come to appreciate just how diverse the disease can be and my immediate response was to learn as much as I could about it.”

Alan received biweekly infusions of gut-wrenching poison that not only knocked out his long hair but made him puke up his favorite foods. His treatments happened on Fridays – he would be sick all weekend – then he’d go to school Monday morning regardless of how he felt.

“Watching my son battle cancer is what gave me strength to battle my own cancer,” Long said. “My son set an unbelievable example.”

In November 2013, Long started experiencing symptoms, such as blood in his urine. Although Long’s wife is his go to for all medical things, he waited to tell her about the symptoms.

“I didn’t want to go and get them checked out,” Long said. “It was around the holidays and you’re not supposed to get bad news around the holidays.”

Not long after finding out he had bladder cancer, he decided to grow out a Jihad beard and create a charity campaign called BreakingBLAD.

“Jihad means struggle,” Long said. “After spending a few years in Jerusalem  I thought a beard would be good symbolism. I would be Jihad against my cancer.”

The BreakingBLAD campaign is still an ongoing initative and contributes most of the money to the University of Minnesota’s Bladder Cancer Research and Education Fund. The money raised goes toward ongoing research in identifying new treatments.

The BreakingBLAD’s goal is to raise $5,001 and they have currently raised $4,405, which is about 88 percent.

“A lot of the money has been raised by Bethel faculty and staff.” he said. “I can’t explain the appreciation I have for them.”

Although he knew things would get tough, Long decided to take the cancer one step at time and continued to teach at Bethel while undergoing treatments.

“They caught it at an early stage,” Long said. “I also got diagnosed with the good bladder cancer.”

Good bladder cancer meant that the cancer would stay within the lining of the bladder because it was non-invasive. While bad bladder cancer meant the cancer would invade into deeper layers of the bladder. This kind of bladder cancer meant it was more likely to spread and more difficult to treat. However, Long did have one downfall in getting the good bladder cancer diagnosis:  There is a high possibility of the cancer recurring.

“There is all sorts of stress involved when dealing with cancer,” he said. “And there’s a hell of a lot of decisions that come with treatment.”

Before deciding where to go for treatment, Long and his wife did hours of research before deciding to pursue treatment at the University of Minnesota.

This isn’t something you fight alone and we have been a team for over 35 years. Kathryn Long

“Bladder cancer is the seventh-most common cancer,” Long said. “And the treatment they use for it is decades old. It’s a few steps above leeches and blood-letting. The bladder gets no love.”

Doctors told him his treatment would last about three years and that is still what it’s expected to be. Before Long could even begin treatment, however, he had to undergo surgery to remove two quarter-sized tumors.

“I was always with him at everything – doctor appointments, treatments, check-ups – everything,” Kathryn said. “This isn’t something you fight alone and we have been a team for over 35 years.”

Long’s treatment started out once a week for six weeks and as time progressed it went to every three months. He is still undergoing treatment but it is now just every six months. His treatment is called immunotherapy, the use of medicines to help a person’s own immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells. The medicine was put directly into the bladder through a catheter.

It’s like peeing out razorblades for a few days after. Gary Long

Although treatment only takes about 15 minutes, Long is not allowed to urinate for two hours afterwards and is put in many different poses.

“This treatment is basically destroying everything in your bladder,” he said. “And it’s like peeing out razorblades for a few days after.”

Throughout all of this, Long hasn’t lost his sense of humor and has even grown in his faith.

“Gary is a dear friend of mine,” biblical studies professor Juan Hernandez said. “When he first told me he had bladder cancer – I laughed. We have gallows humor.”

Long was doing theological research during the time his son was diagnosed. He looked into both Proverbs and into Job. Proverbs suggests if you do X, you’ll get Y. For some there is a correlation – if you love God and God loves you, you’ll get through. However, Job suggests that we reflect on how the human condition can sometimes be good and sometimes be bad.

“In life, there is chaos and order and in this case the chaos was cancer,” Long said. “But it has nothing to do with good or evil. This was liberating to me. I no longer had to question why.”

Long has been cancer-free on the cellular level for two years while doing treatment a total of two and half years. Come Friday Dec. 16, Long hopes to endure his last treatment.

He hopes to be a survivor.

“My rule of thumb,” Long said, “(is) the people who are usually going through these things always have it on their mind, so they don’t need to be reminded. However, silence is often the worst thing. You should acknowledge them and their suffering. You won’t offend them.”

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