ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It would be wrong to characterize Zak Lannon as living large.
But he is living, which right now is plenty large enough.
“For someone who’s been through what I’ve been through,” he said, “I’d like to think the worst is over.”
It has to be, right?
While his friends and peers laugh and celebrate and enjoy their youth free from distraction or disease, for Lannon the goal has been simple: stay alive.
Over the last 12 months, there have been surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy and months away from his family. He leads a life full of side effects, as is often the case with cancer patients.
But the 18-year-old Lannon, who graduated from West Mesa High School in May, is, he believes, on a road to recovery and normalcy.
It was nearly a year ago that Lannon, who is afflicted with desmoplastic small round cell tumor, a cancer that originates in the abdomen – the survival rate is considered extremely low – traveled to New York for a risky and complicated surgery.
He was cut down the middle of his chest, from the pecs to the waist. All his major organs that are in contact with the stomach, where this cancer grows along the stomach walls, were removed and cleaned, Lannon said.
The 13-hour procedure, performed at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, removed 95 percent of his cancer.
“It’s like a factory,” Lannon said of the hospital. “Nineteen floors of pure cancer patients.”
He spent two weeks in the hospital, and another several months in New York, living in the nearby Ronald McDonald house with his mother, Rose. He also received an experimental treatment, as a catheter delivered radioactive isotopes into his body to help coat the lining of his stomach.
He continued to be treated and radiated in New York until just before Christmas, when he and his mother returned to their West Side home.
Spirit, fight and support count for so much for a cancer patient, and Lannon’s got an abundance of all three.
These days, Lannon’s dark hair is growing back. He even has a summer job, working the floor and the register at House of Football in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. The HOF has been extremely active in helping the Lannon family financially through fundraising activities, so Lannon – smiling – figured he may as well ask them for a job.
“I’m feeling about 75 percent,” he said during a break in his shift earlier this week. “Better than I’ve been, but not necessarily to how I was before.”
He was diagnosed in March of last year. This type of cancer is extraordinarily rare; there are only a couple of hundred documented cases in the last 25 years.
He has endured multiple surgeries, and he became perhaps Albuquerque’s most recognized cancer patient. He received, and continues to receive, an outpouring of support, both local and national.
House of Football sold over $15,000 worth of T-shirts to support Zak and his family, and numerous memorabilia items from pro athletes and professional sports teams were donated for the Zak Lannon Cancer Fund.
After returning to New Mexico, Lannon has continued to receive chemo treatments, but he donated the memorabilia items to the Children’s Cancer Fund of New Mexico.
The CCFNM is having an auction Thursday, where these items will be available. There is a charity golf tournament Friday at the University of New Mexico Championship Course.
Zak chose the CCFNM because of its support for him and his family.
Of course, the physical ordeal has taken a toll. Lannon lost his hair and, last fall in New York, dropped 60-70 pounds as a result of the radiation treatments, which were harsh.
He’s gained back about 15 pounds, he said, and his appetite is good.
“I feel like I’m getting control of my life again,” Zak said. “But you can never be too sure.”
This is the daily mantra of every cancer patient. For Lannon, this is especially pertinent given the destructive nature of his illness.
He’s got a scan scheduled next week, and after that, doctors will determine if he needs to continue with the “maintenance chemo” that he’s been receiving the last few months, most of them at his home.
“It’s been hectic,” he said, describing the last year of his life.
But it wasn’t without highlights. He got tickets to see a variety of New York sports teams, including the Rangers, Knicks, Giants and Jets.
When I first sat with Zak and his family in June 2013, he was confident that he’d beat cancer. I asked him this week about his outlook on life.
“I was optimistic from Day One,” he said.
Now, probably more than ever.
There are no more surgeries on the horizon; the chemo may soon end, too. College? He’s not ready to think about that until he knows for sure his body can withstand the grind, but it is on his to-do list.
And the worst, he believes, is behind him. On this Fourth of July weekend, Zak Lannon is not only happy to hear the fireworks, he’s looking forward to making plenty of his own.