One Family's Journey to Find a Cure

One Family's Journey to Find a Cure
Update - 2017: Find the latest update on the Giving Back Memories CD

Update - 2015
: The Giving Back Memories CD is now available!

Update - August 2014: Andrew's father John is working with a family friend to develop a CD that will honour those affected by a brain tumour. The goal is to make music inspired by the journey that so many Canadians endure - and to make the compilation reflective of the scope of those affected by the disease. 

When 182 family members, friends and supporters stepped up to the start line on Sunday, June 10, they held onto the memory of 24-year-old Andrew Szpecht throughout the Calgary Spring Sprint (now called Brain Tumour Walk).

Just one short month after their son’s passing, Glenda and John Szpecht, along with Andrew’s siblings Heather, Amanda and Colin, ran in honour of Andrew, and to celebrate what was a full life, ended too soon by a brain tumour. John even wore his son’s running shoes as a tribute to Andrew’s hopes to have taken part in the Sprint.

“We were touched and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from so many people — people who knew and loved Andrew’s amazing smile, his ability to make them laugh and feel good about themselves, and his incredibly generous heart; also people who didn’t know him personally, but who were saddened by the loss of a young man in the prime of life and inspired by his courage and good nature as he faced this dreadful disease,” says Glenda.

Andrew was only 23 when he was diagnosed with Grade IV glioblastoma multiforme. It was while he was spending a year abroad in Australia that the symptoms first appeared. Andrew noticed he was having minor headaches around Christmas time, while he was visiting family friends in Sydney. It was in early January 2011 when the seizures began. “One week before John and I were to meet Andrew in Melbourne, he had a series of small, focal seizures,” remembers Glenda. “Andrew kept travelling through the Australian countryside and when we met up with him, we noticed mild weakness on the left side of his body: an asymmetrical smile, some difficulty with fine motor skills in his left hand, and minor dragging of his left leg when he walked.”

On January 21, the Szpechts brought Andrew to Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, where he underwent MRI and CT scans that showed a mass on his right frontal lobe. Within 24 hours of taking Andrew into the emergency department, he had a craniotomy, removing 80 to 90% of the tumour. In the six weeks following, Andrew faced 30 rounds of radiation therapy while still in Australia, as he couldn’t travel so soon after surgery. Throughout the aggressive treatment and immediate surgery, he never lost hope.

“Andrew said he had no doubt in his mind he would beat the cancer. His attitude was, ‘Why get upset about something over which you have no control?’” Glenda recalls. Andrew adapted to each change in his condition with the determination to make the most of his situation. Even when he was told he could no longer drive due to the seizures, Andrew thought of it as a cash-saver, saying he would conserve money since he didn’t have to pay for gas and other car expenses.

When the six weeks of radiotherapy finished, the Szpecht family flew home to Calgary to continue Andrew’s treatment. He began high-dose temozolomide chemotherapy in April 2011, with his twelfth and final cycle scheduled to begin February 28, 2012. It was that winter day, at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, that the Szpechts received the news that Andrew’s most recent MRI showed signs of tumour progression and that further surgery or radiation therapy were not possible. Andrew decided to enter into a clinical trial, but he continued to experience further symptoms from the tumour’s growth: blurred vision, reduced sight on his right side and memory loss. Another scan confirmed the cancer’s spread and Andrew stopped his participation in the clinical trial so that he could begin more courses of chemotherapy.

Over the next few weeks, the symptoms kept appearing and worsening. On April 14, Glenda and John took their son to the Foothills Medical Centre emergency department because Andrew was having as many as 30 partial seizures a day. It was there he became unresponsive. After a week at the medical facility, Andrew was transferred to Rosedale Hospice, where he passed away on May 7, 2012.

Throughout Andrew’s cancer journey, he practiced three fundamentals that helped maintain his positive attitude and quality of life: eat a highly nutritious diet, maintain a rigorous exercise program, and continue to foster close relationships with family and friends.

Looking back on her son’s battle with a brain tumour, Glenda fondly recalls a talk they had about taking part in fundraising runs, as she herself is a cancer survivor and has been a long-time participant in an event benefitting breast cancer research.

“We didn’t hear about the 2011 Spring Sprint until after it had happened but Andrew said how important it was for him to join in the next year’s event.” And though Andrew couldn’t be there in person, he was definitely part of the Szpecht-acular Sprinters team.

Donning green headbands in tribute to Andrew, the team of over 180 people raised more than $57,000 for brain tumour research and programs for those affected by the disease. Not only did they walk or run in the 2012 Calgary Spring Sprint, but loved ones across the world took part in commemorating Andrew and his tremendous courage.

A friend from Australia, who now lives in France, held a memorial run at the same time as the Sprint; a nurse from Alfred Hospital held a tea and bake sale in Andrew’s honour; and even one of the Szpechts’ relatives from the Maritimes, who couldn’t make the trip to Calgary twice, forwent attending Andrew’s memorial service so she could be with the Szpecht-acular Sprinters on the day of their run. From donations to the team, head shaving, raffles, and gifts of flower bulbs to sell at the Sprint, it was clear just how much support and love there is for Andrew.

This may have been the first year the Szpechts participated in Spring Sprint, but it certainly won’t be the last, pledges the family. They have made a commitment to continue to stand up and run for those impacted by a brain tumour, and celebrate the life of the son and brother who inspired them to take their first steps in the journey toward a cure.

Thank you to the Szpecht family, friends and supporters who came together to honour Andrew. Your generous support for the Spring Sprint program helps lift the burden of a brain tumour. 
Giving Back Memories CDSince this story was originally written in September 2012, the CD Giving Back Memories has been generously created by the Szpecht family in Calgary, AB with the support of Chris Wiebe and 40+ volunteers and musicians.

Contact Suzanne today on 1-800-265-5106 ext. 227 to find out how you can obtain your copy of this CD.

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