It takes a unique person to pair visible gratitude with overwhelming joy, and to simultaneously speak as highly of a medical care team as they do about their own family. Somehow, 49-year-old Chris Laskey effortlessly does all of that – and so much more.
In late 2019, Chris began struggling to eat his food: he could chew and swallow, but the food would get stuck in his throat and couldn’t travel any further. After this happened a couple of times, he and his wife, Denise, made a gastroenterologist appointment – for March 17, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that appointment didn’t take place until September 10, 2020.
“I come out of anesthesia, thinking everything is fine, but the doctor says he found a tumor and it’s cancerous,” Chris said. “I’m half with it, half not, in this anesthesia fog and I don’t know what’s going on. The doctor asked if I had an oncologist, and I’m like I have a plumber, I have an electrician, but I do not have an oncologist on call. And what even is an oncologist?”
The stage III tumor was located in Chris’ esophagus, right at the junction where it met his stomach. After proton radiation and chemotherapy, a January 2021 surgery removed his esophagus and one-third of his stomach, then used another third to make a new food pipe.
At the end of the month, Chris was deemed cancer-free. With minimal changes to his standard of living, this was an all-around reason to celebrate. However, only three months later, the cancer came back, metastasized to his peritoneal cavity, and increased to stage IV. Thankfully, this health whirlwind didn’t last long.
“On September 10, 2022, my scans came back with the words we’re all looking for: no evidence of disease,” Chris said. “I’ve now lived ten months with no evidence of cancer, and this September will mark one year.”
In such a short time, Chris’ daily life was turned upside down. However, due to his existing interests in philosophy and stoicism, he was well-prepared to process all of it.
“When I was first told that I had cancer, it was a shock. The first night was a lot of confusion, but the second day was the emotional one,” he said. “That’s when I learned that I have a 2% chance of survival. I have an 10-year-old and a 6-year-old and a wife; this is not a good day. But I woke up the third day, and everyday since, completely fine. I was able to use stoicism to address what I could and couldn’t control – so I focused on what I was putting in my body, why I was doing it, and being present for my family.”
Through all of it, Chris’ already tight-knit family only grew closer. While he did step away from coaching Abbey and AJ’s sports teams, he’s recently returned to these roles and has found immense joy in it. Nowadays, the more challenging emotions come from other circumstances.
“Now, on the backside of cancer, the question is why. Not why did I get cancer, but why don’t I have it now,” he said. “I really feel like I need to pay it back to Penn Medicine because they saved my life, but I really have a need to pay it forward, too. I just keep asking, ‘What can I do to help? What else can we do?’”
The answer to this question came in the form of the Breakthrough Challenge benefiting Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center. He first joined the fundraiser in 2021, showing up on a Huffy from Dick’s Sporting Goods while all of the other riders looked ready for the Tour de France. He’s learned a lot since then, and will celebrate one year of being cancer free while participating in the 50 mile race later this year.
“I’m now a co-captain of the Beam of Life team – named after the same proton beam that was sent into my body as treatment,” Chris said. “I’m going into this year with the mentality that I have another year of biking and training under my belt, and as long as nothing mechanical happens out there, there’s a good chance I can win this thing.”
Every dollar raised through these rides go directly to the Abramson Cancer Center, bringing us all one step closer to the future that Chris imagines.
“When I was first diagnosed, I had a 2% chance of survival. At last reading, it’s 20%. That happened in only two years,” he said. “I want to see more people experiencing this, and I want to see that percentage go up to 40% and 80%, and I want more therapies that can help more people.”
Until that dream becomes reality, Chris can only ask other cancer patients for one thing.
“You need to know that your primary caregiver wants to do everything, but they can’t do a single thing, and that makes it extremely hard for everyone,” he said. “If you’re angry at the cancer, don’t show anger to the people who are trying to help you. Slow down your mind so that you can have control over your decisions and make the right choices for your care.”