Twenty-one-year-old Jeffrey Fisher of Swansboro – diagnosed in October with a Stage 3 brain tumor – faces some really tough odds, but he’s doing so with optimism, a bright smile and a fierce determination to make the world a better place in whatever time he has left.
The Swansboro High School graduate and standout athlete in soccer and football, now an East Carolina University senior majoring in both sociology and anthropology, was living a normal college student’s life until he started experiencing severe headaches, blurry vision and difficulty focusing on his studies.
After about three weeks, it culminated when he passed out; the family set up an appointment with a neurologist at ECU.
“The doctor didn’t seem too concerned,” Jeffrey said, sitting on a sofa as the family dogs skittered around, checking out a visiting reporter during an interview Friday. “They were kind of vague.”
Jeffrey’s parents, Debbie and Robert Fisher, were not satisfied. So when the symptoms continued, Jeffrey dropped his classes and came home. He went to Onslow Memorial Hospital, where, on the Sunday after he dropped his classes, a CAT scan found the tumor.
It’s an anaplastic astrocytoma, which Jeffrey said doctors indicated is one of the most aggressive tumors, most often found in young children.
Doctors at the hospital said that if the tumor hadn’t been found then, Jeffrey likely would have been dead by Thanksgiving. Instead, he went directly to Duke University Medical Center and began treatment, receiving chemotherapy, through an IV and in pills.
And now he’s making plans to complete his college education, beginning in January, then join the Peace Corps and eventually earn his master’s and doctoral degrees and become a college professor. There’s no doubt in his mind he’ll accomplish those goals. He’s even found, through research, Peace Corps programs that, in some countries, allow cancer patients to continue their treatments.
Doctors at Duke, he said, didn’t initially sound optimistic at all about his chances. When he asked about a recovery, Jeffrey said, “They were kind of nervous about answering. They didn’t want to really give a timeline. But I just said, ‘Tell me. It’s not going to change my outlook. If it’s not good, it’s just going to make me work harder to beat it.’”
The doctors, he said, continued to kind of “beat around the bush,” but finally conceded that if they had to give a timeline, they’d give him a year or less to live.
That didn’t faze Jeffrey.
The family now is working with specialists not only at Duke, but also at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where Jeffrey’s college roommate’s father is an endocrinologist. Both facilities are considered among the best, if not the best, in the world at treating brain tumors.
“They said their goal is a cure,” Jeffrey said of his doctors. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that in two or three years, I’ll be cancer-free and healthy and accomplishing my goals.”
Those goals haven’t really changed, just intensified.
“I’ve always been focused on fighting poverty and improving education in … Third World and Latin American countries,” he said. “I want to start schools.”
One of his big inspirations is “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson’s book about starting schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Jeffrey’s already backpacked around Europe a few times and been to Peru.
“What this (tumor) has done is give me more of a sense of urgency,” he said. “Before, it was easy to get caught up in the monotony, the day-to-day routine. Now, I more appreciate every moment.”
In fact, that’s Jeffrey’s message, more than anything.
“You don’t want to take any moment, any relationship for granted,” he said, “because you’re not guaranteed another moment. Each and every moment should be the greatest of your life.”
Debbie is obviously buoyed by her son’s optimism and determination.
“He wants me to feel the same as he does, to be happy and peaceful,” she said. “When he first came home (after the diagnosis and the initial treatments at Duke) I said, ‘You’re going to have to give me a few days.’
“But when I see his positive outlook and his strength, I realize what I’m going through as a parent is nothing in comparison to what he’s going through. If he can walk with this kind of grace, what else can I do? We feed off of each other.”
Debbie Fisher said the family’s youngest child, Julie, a soccer player and student at Swansboro Middle School, has been “ a trooper.”
“Her brother has always been and still is her hero,” she said.
Husband and father Robert, who was outside during this interview, preparing a few banana trees for transplanting for the winter, acknowledged, quickly, that his son is an inspiration.
Of course, there are bad days – everybody gets down – and there have been the inevitable issues that arise when a 21-year-old who hasn’t really lived at home for three years suddenly resides again with mom and dad.
But on the bad days, Jeffrey said, “You’ve just got to tough it out … and get that positive outlook back.”
Another thing – in addition to his positive attitude – that bodes well for Jeffrey’s chances is his physical strength and determination to stay fit. In addition to playing football and soccer in high school, he was an undefeated wrestler in middle school. And, sitting on the sofa in the family’s Oyster Bay Road home, he looked … well, vigorous.
“I’m walking three times a day, 30 minutes each time, and today I’m starting yoga and meditation,” he said. “I’ve been a little fatigued, but I’m getting to where I can do more. I’m getting an exercise bike.”
Debbie said one of the hardest things for Jeffrey has been learning to take it a little bit easy.
“He’s an amazing athlete and he loves doing those things,” she said. “The doctors don’t want him to lift weights or run, because it gets the heart rate up too much.”
Jeffrey firmly believes he’ll get back to those things, too.
“I really feel very good,” he said. “I still have some headaches, but they are short and, considering all the horror stories you hear about chemotherapy, I’ve done really well. I’ve had almost no nausea. About the only real problem is my vision. I can really just see blurry images.”
“He’s been eating us out of house and home,” Debbie said.
Jeffrey, who has long had celiac disease – which means he has to avoid eating gluten-laden food products – has always, as an athlete, paid attention to diet. He’s more focused on that, now, too, using the Internet to learn more about cancer-fighting foods.
He considers himself very spiritual and believes that’s an advantage in this battle, too.
“I believe in doing good things for people because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s going to benefit you,” he said. “I’ve always felt that way, but I feel even more that way now.
“When you might have limited time to accomplish the things you want to accomplish, it gives you even a greater drive to go out and help people any way you can, even if it’s just a small thing, like making someone smile or helping out with some small task.”
Although some groups – sororities at ECU, the Swansboro Soccer Association and the Jacksonville Area Soccer Association – have already had or will have fundraisers to help the Fisher family, Jeffrey wants to get involved in fundraisers for others.
His girlfriend, Chase, who stopped by during the interview and quickly called Jeffrey “amazing,” wants to be involved, too.
They’re not looking at fundraisers only for cancer-related causes, either.
“I just want to help people with good causes,” Jeffrey said. “We want to be a part of as many good causes as we can.”
Debbie emphasized how much she appreciates the love she has felt from the Swansboro-Onslow community since Jeffrey’s diagnosis.
“Everyone has been so loving and so supportive,” she said. “So many cards and phone calls. People have offered food, places to stay up at Duke. It’s just been amazing. I believe part of it is just Jeffrey’s personality. He’s always cared about other people, touched a lot of lives. And now they’re giving back.”
Jeffrey, although optimistic, is realistic. In spite of those odds, he’s not afraid.
“There’s nothing that worries me,” he said. “I’ve been as much at peace as I’ve been all my life. I’m not scared to die. Everyone dies. It’s just a matter of when and how. I could walk out the door right now and trip on the steps and break my neck. The only thing that scares me is not being able to accomplish the things I want to accomplish.
“I’m feeling more pressure than before to do anything I can to better other people’s lives in any way possible.”