Paul Wiezorek's radiation mask rests on the table just a few short feet from him. It's Paul's spunk and generous nature - coupled with his determination and willingness to help others battling a similar journey - that dramatically fills the room as he lifts an electro-larynx to his right cheek, assisting him in sharing his story about his radiation mask and cancer journey.
"If I can help someone else out," the lifelong Dubuquer shares with a shrug, "that's just what it's all about."
Cancer can so quickly be the reason a person's life is flipped upside down without warning, resulting in a rollercoaster of constant ups and downs. For Paul, it was no different. A year ago last June after experiencing pain and trouble breathing, as well as noticing a lump on his neck, Paul visited his ENT specialist - this was a Wednesday. The next day, Paul underwent a biopsy, and it wasn't 24 hours later - that Friday - when he was told he had cancer. Two days later, as the cancer aggressively grew around his larynx and throat, Paul underwent an emergency total laryngectomy, voice box removal, as well as a tracheotomy to preserve his ability to breathe.
"The doctors told me I probably wouldn't have seen the 4th of July had I not gone in when I did," says Paul. It only took three days for cancer to grab ahold of not only Paul's life, but his family's as well.
Eight weeks after his surgery, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments started and lasted for seven weeks. Fitted for a radiation mask that protected his head and shoulders from the powerful treatment, Paul underwent intensive radiation therapy at UnityPoint Health Finley Hospital's Wendt Regional Cancer Center. "The radiation gave him pretty bad sunburn, and the chemo started to slowly take away his hearing just as he was learning to talk with the electro-larynx," shares Paul's sister.
With the loss of his voice, his ability to taste, and now his hearing, cancer seemed to be taking control of the way Paul lived. That is until Finley Hospital's Laura Duerr, RN, BSN, suggested the idea of working with the Dubuque Lion's Club to donate specialized hearing aids for Paul. Laura, Finley's Nurse Navigator for the Wendt Regional Cancer Center, supports cancer patients through the intense treatment process and onto survivorship. Whether it's assisting patients in making ends meet, arranging transportation to and from treatments, or working with them to get the equipment and additional medical care needed, Laura is dedicated to alleviating the anxiety and unrest that so frequently comes with a cancer diagnosis. "I consider it an honor and privilege to be able to come alongside patients, like Paul, during a time like this," shares Laura, "It's patients like Paul who continue to teach me that life and relationships are gifts." Laura's help, along with the support of the Dubuque Lion's Club, helped Paul one step further in the fight to control his diagnosis.
"The day was Friday, the 13th of March, when life changed again for me," shared Paul, "I received my hearing aids, and I don't think I smiled that much in a long time. After my audiologist turned them on, I was in love. I walked outside and heard the birds, the cars, the wind, the bugs, the noise - I was so happy that I sat in my truck and just listened. I texted my family, some friends, and all I could say was 'I love hearing.'"
The rollercoaster ride with cancer wasn't over for Paul just yet. After a PET scan in January of this year, Paul learned that the cancer had spread to his lungs, liver and around his heart. This news, however, hasn't halted Paul's giving nature or positive attitude - it's only shifted his focus from cure to control. Understanding the financial stress, physical pain and mental exhaustion of those dealing with similar head and neck cancer journeys, Paul has donated all of his extra and unused tube feeding equipment to the Wendt Regional Cancer Center. "When I no longer need this," shares Paul, shaking his right hand holding his electro-larynx, "I'm donating it as well." The impact he has had on other cancer patients at the Wendt Regional Cancer Center is impactful and immensely respected.
"Paul helped about five people who didn't have the means to pay for their tube feedings and other supplies," shares Laura, "When you give someone this, who is unable to get it on their own, it's a beautiful thing."
Paul's control over his diagnosis didn't stop there. His radiation mask - so frequently seen as a startling and unsettling object used for treatments - he decided, was getting a makeover. Paul's cousin, Greg Howell, owner of Dubuque Tattoo Club, as wee as Mark Weiland, lead artist at Dubuque's INK Tattoo Studio, teamed together to make this possible. Using an airbrush technique, Mark and Greg's collaboration resulted in Paul's radiation mask turning into a heroic bust of Spiderman. After successfully completing his radiation treatments, and with his cancer slowing down, Paul donated his mask to Finley's Wendt Regional Cancer Center in an effort to inspire and give strength to those going through similar journeys. When asked why he decided to donate the mask and not destroy it as so many patients do after completing the treatment process, Paul states, "You can't destroy the positive."
"When you first start this, it's pretty scary," shares Paul, glancing at his mask, "When a doctor walks in and says you have cancer - it about floors you. You just have to take it one step at a time."
So often, this disease takes the lead as the aggressive fighter in stories about those diagnosed with cancer. Not in this case. The amount of teamwork and perseverance by not only the medical professionals of Finley's Wendt Regional Cancer Center, but within the Dubuque community, shows that cancer has always been the weak one in Paul's story. Paul's positive attitude, kind heart and incredible strength surpasses any type of control cancer has, or will have, on his life.
"Helping others," Paul shares with a shrug, "that's just what it's all about."