He does his chemo while he’s on the air, he treats each day as a gift, and he still plans to kick cancer to the curb.
Finding out you have cancer is devastating. Discovering it has gone into remission in record time is cause for celebration. But finding out it has come back was an extreme disappointment, says Morning DJ Scott McKenzie. Scott got to release another huge sigh of relief when his cancer went into remission again.
But how do you handle the emotional rollercoaster when the cancer returns a third time?
Scott has been the morning guy for 24 years at Mix 105.1 in Orlando. His fun, upbeat personality, even through his diagnosis and treatment, is astonishing to some.
He shared his emotional journey as we talked on the phone while Scott was hooked up to a portable chemo pump. With the pump, Scott has the ability to be part of morning radio, getting chemo during the show instead of in the hospital or infusion center. That’s the good part. The bad part is that, no matter where he gets it, chemo treatments make him weak and sick and, susceptible to germs.
When the initial diagnosis came, Scott said he was shocked, but the doctor reassured him he would get through this. The success rate for remission was high and indeed, nine weeks into the 18-week chemo protocol, cancer was just a blip on his radar that moved on.
When cancer returned four years later it hit Scott hard. As he said, “You think you are past this and it comes back.” Scott’s fans knew he had beat the first cancer diagnosis and he dreaded sharing the second wave news because he didn’t want to be known as “the cancer guy.” As luck would have it (if you can call it luck) the new chemo cocktail did not cause hair loss, so there were no obvious outward signs. Only his immediate family and closest friends knew. He did have to deal with the stress from disappearing for chemo or when he felt sick. He wasn’t able to easily explain missing meetings and appointments.
After his second remission, Scott and his doctors began preparing for a stem-cell transplant, one that would take Scott’s blood and separate out stem cells that would be returned to his system after a strong round of chemo. The stem cells would graft onto his bone marrow if the procedure went as planned. Unfortunately, Scott never had enough stem cells to go though with the transplant so the search for a donor began.
And then the unthinkable happened. The cancer returned for the third time and had morphed into a different, more aggressive form. And although a donor match had been found, that had to be put on hold.
Scott’s mindset took an even bigger hit. Thoughts of “what’s going to happen to me” were in the forefront and he felt a loss of control of the situation. He even asked the doctor how it had happened. As a kid, he remembers chasing the DDT truck down the block on his bike so he could cycle into the mist. Could that have been the culprit? His doctor said no, his cancer was a genetic issue, a mismatch on a chromosome.
Scott’s wife Fran has been his partner on this journey, every step of the way. She has his bags packed, ready to go to the hospital if need be. Scott says he remains pretty even-keeled with his emotions, but shares that you can read Fran really easily. “If she is feeling great, she is beaming. If not so great, she will cry. But she is always looking out for me and thinking about what she can do for me, even when she is down,” he said. “There is no way I could have done as good a job if the roles were reversed. It has truly personified our wedding vows and made us even closer.”
With daughter Lauren, the journey has been a little different. What do you tell your daughter when you have cancer, and how much do you share? With each bout it has been different, mainly because of her age. “She was only in high school the first time. We told her the same day but held back some details. With the second round, we shared more. This last diagnosis, she told us, don’t hold anything back, no sugar coating anything.” Now 23, she lives in New York, but wants to come home more often and worries a lot. Between chemo appointments, and as Scott is feeling better, they have found more reasons to schedule trips. Recently, they flew back to Ohio for a family reunion. Lauren came home for Scott’s birthday and again for Fran’s birthday, which they celebrated in the hospital over chemo and cake.
“They are always looking out for me, they want to protect me,” he says. “And I want to look out for them. If cancer’s intent was to take us apart, they have messed with the wrong family.”
There are days he can’t make it into the studio. Lauren’s bedroom has been converted to a home studio so that when Scott is feeling low or his immune system prevents him from being around others, he can join the broadcast at the station via digital remote.
It is as though Scott is right in the studio with fellow anchors Dana Taylor and Jay Edwards. It was awkward at first, not being able to see each other. There is a chemistry that is part of the broadcast that comes from being in the same space. Connecting by Skype gave them the visual connection they needed. The sound is so crystal clear listeners don’t always know when Scott is broadcasting from the studio or from home.
Sharing with the radio audience has been different each time too. It was important at some point to share. The first time, Scott recalled, was like looking at a wedding list. There are rings of people around you. How far do you go out? The second time, he was able to keep it under wraps. Now he might mention it, but doesn’t talk about it a lot. Pictures and personal stories are shared on his blog. But Scott also says he is no more special than anyone else and his story is similar to others. “I don’t want to write about it all the time. I don’t want to be a ‘me, me ,me’ kind of guy. I am truly one of many.”
Scott has an incredibly positive attitude and is always upbeat on radio. That comes in part from being on the radio. “It’s hard to explain how much I love this job,” he said. “I went to college for it. It’s not about being a radio personality. I love the nuts and bolts and the creative production. I’ve never taking that for granted.”
His love for radio and music was behind his band Simulcast which he has had to bow out of for now. His stamina is low and he can’t be around people when he is on chemo. He says it’s been a year since he’s played.
There have been some other notable changes too. His calendar used to be filled up with activities including events he would MC, radio appearances and speaking engagements. Now, it’s mostly medical appointments and a grim reminder of his cancer diagnosis.
His routine these days depends on if he can go into the studio. “I used to get in early and stay late. There are a lot of behind the scenes activities to being on the radio, including meetings and production work. But since I can’t be around people in close quarters, on days I can go in, I get there later and then leave right away. Although I can work from home, it’s not the same. Sometimes I miss out on things; some great conversations happen in the hall.”
Mornings are about taking inventory. If Scott goes to bed with a fever, he takes Tylenol and lets his standby DJ Adam, know he is on call. Then he takes his temp again when he wakes up and that guides his day. He is acutely aware of each new pain, sometimes in his back, ribs or lymph nodes. “When you have had cancer, suddenly every bump, spot, ache and pain is a fear. Is this something new? Has it come back? You become paranoid.”
But if he can make it in to the studio, it’s a great day!
Scott’s mindset now is that of playing defense. He is not in complete remission But he feels like he is managing and keeping things under control and remains very hopeful. He is still a prospect for the clinical trial in Philadelphia and his doctors are looking at another trial in St. Louis. He intends to stick around and believes that eventually there will be cures for all of this. He says he is not just buying time, but enjoying time. “People are working on a cure every day. Within my seven years of having cancer, the treatments have changed. The fight is very hopeful. I assume when I go to bed tonight that I will wake up tomorrow. There are people working to find a cure and they are waking up excited too. So I don’t sit around and mope.”
Through this journey, Scott says he has learned that other people care about you more than you think they do. “They made sure I was taken care of. I didn’t think I was that big a deal to others, but people let me know I was important.”
The management at Mix 105.1 could have found a new morning guy, but they also wanted to let Scott know he was being taken care of. Recently they made a point to reassure him and his family that they were in his corner and wanted him to stay, presenting him with a new three-year contract.
Scott would like to encourage everyone reading this to give blood. He stressed that people shouldn’t have to asked, he thinks it should it should be an obligation. It should be automatic, like getting your driver’s license renewed. Yes, it takes a little time and people get busy, but if everyone could, it would be amazing. Go to OneBlood.org to find out how you help. There are not enough people in the pool and it takes people going through needing blood to tell people the opportunity is there.
While you are giving blood, get swabbed for BeTheMatch, the life-saving organization that matches donors with patients. You must be in general good health, but the payoff is huge if you are willing to spend a couple of days to harvest stem cells to save a life.
For more of Scott’s story read Your Morning News with a side of Chemo – This DJ does both – also by Barbara Abramson on Talking About Men’s Health