Cancer survivor with roots here up for Man of the Year

(From March 22, 2012)

A Stagg High School graduate and former Palos Hills resident who has survived two bouts with cancer is hoping to be named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Man of the Year.

Brian Sladek, 32, of Chicago, has been nominated for the award by the executive director of the society's Chicago chapter. Sladek was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma when he was 19. Ten years later he was diagnosed with the same disease in a different part of his body.

"I was diagnosed just after my first semester of my junior year [at the University of Central Florida]," Sladek recalled. "The last thing on your mind at that age is cancer. I had a lump under my collarbone, and when I went home for Thanksgiving, my dad mentioned that he could see it under my shirt. I went back to Florida and they took x-rays and told me to go to the emergency room right away."

After CT scans, blood tests and a biopsy, doctors confirmed Sladek had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"It floored me, the thought of cancer never crossed my mind," he said. "My parents flew down, and within a day or two I was meeting with the doctors at Rush [University Medical Center] in Chicago for my first chemo treatment."

Sladek said a lot of his friends from Florida visited him during his treatment, including Kate, a friend from high school who would eventually be his wife. He endured six rounds of chemotherapy, but the tumor that had started to shrink grew back to half its original size.

"It was just another bump in the road we didn't anticipate," he said. "It really knocked the wind out of my family. It broke their hearts."

Sladek underwent a successful stem cell transplant using his own stem cells in 2000. He spent three and a half weeks in the hospital after the transplant, but the lymphoma was declared in remission in September 2000. He has run three marathons since being diagnosed with cancer, including the 2009 Chicago marathon.

Kate Sladek, 32, said it was very difficult to watch Brian go through the ordeal.

"I was in college in Colorado when he called me and told me he had cancer, and he just kept saying, 'I'm going to be fine," Kate said. "He was the strongest out of everyone."

The two had always been close friends and began dating in 2004. They married in 2007.

"Timing is crazy," Kate said. "We moved back to Chicago in September 2009 because I had been offered a job at Brookfield Zoo, and we knew something was not right with his health."

Sladek's doctors again found non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - but this time near his groin.

"We originally thought he had hernias from working out," Kate said. "It was pretty shocking to watch him go through this again. I felt like we were in the clear, because it had been 10 years. I remember visiting him during his first diagnosis, and holding his hand, and praying to God that I would do anything if he made it through cancer - little did I know we would end up together."

The second diagnosis was much more difficult to handle emotionally than the first, Sladek said.

"I had just gotten married in 2007, and we planned on having a family very soon - all of that as put on hold," Brian said. "Mentally, it was a lot tougher the second time. You start planning for the future, and then you start thinking, 'should I not do this because I might not be here in another 10 years?'

Sladek received another stem cell transplant using his own healthy stem cells from 10 years earlier. His family joked that he was 21 years old again, and his mother even made him a t-shirt that said, "30 on the outside, 20 on the inside."

ary School in Hickory Hills.

"When I was 19, I didn't want to be defined by cancer," Sladek said in reference to being nominated for the Man of the Year award. "I never brought it up in conversation, and it was something I wanted to move past. When I got my second diagnosis, I thought there was some reason for me to have to go through this twice, and that it would be a waste not to share my story."