For Wayne Hollenbaugh, the beginning of his journey through terminal illness began innocently enough, as it does for many people.
The 57-year-old father of two was looking for ways to motivate his teenage son and daughter to train for an upcoming cross country event in October of last year.
“I can beat you in a race around the block,” Hollenbaugh said, knowing he wouldn’t win.
The trio set off around their Greenville neighborhood. All was fine at first. Then Hollenbaugh, who enjoys playing sports in his free time and considers himself relatively healthy, started to feel uneasy.
“I took a left turn and then my gas tank ran empty,” he said. “Once I got back home, I sat on the recliner and that’s the last thing I remember.”
When Hollenbaugh woke up in Vidant Medical Center a day later, he learned what happened: He had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital for treatment and testing. An MRI and a CT scan showed a spot on his brain’s right occipital lobe where his eyesight is processed. The tumor was the size of a grape, and though surgeons removed as much of it as possible, the diagnosis was grade four glioblastoma — the most aggressive cancer that begins within the brain.
“I did my research on glioblastoma so I felt prepared for what they were going to tell me,” Hollenbaugh said. “I was hoping for grade two. Once they told me it was grade four I went through a period of being emotional about my situation. Finally, I decided I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself because I have a family to take care of. The doctors were going to do their part and I had to do mine.”
Though glioblastoma is considered a rare disease, Dr. Jasmin Jo, a neuro-oncologist at Vidant Cancer Care, is no stranger to it. In fact, most of her patients suffer from it. Every diagnosis is different, as is every reaction. Still, she said most patients and their loved ones show a strong sense of resiliency.
“It is inspiring how they deal with this,” Jo said. “I am open and honest about the disease and the prognosis so to see their strength is incredible.”
Jo describes Hollenbaugh as realistic but hopeful; he understands what his diagnosis means but he doesn’t let it control his life. This, she said, is important both physically and emotionally.
“Trust is the most important thing you can build between a doctor and a patient,” Jo said.
That trust is what convinced Hollenbaugh to start chemotherapy, which he was hesitant about since he knew that it would leave him exhausted. The process is demanding: 12, 28-day cycles. Still, it was Jo’s compassion and honesty that ultimately persuaded him. This is the type of relationship they have built.
“I can talk to Jo freely with no reservations,” Hollenbaugh said. “It’s important to connect to a doctor on a personal level. We’re dealing with a terminal illness so to have someone that is both honest and comforting means a lot to me.”
More than a year since his diagnosis, Hollenbaugh is adjusting. He’s changed his diet to cut out meat, bread and anything that may have come in contact with plastics. The chemotherapy treatments are ongoing. What’s really making a difference, he said, is the support he’s received from those he knows and loves.
“People continue to come up to me and ask to pray with me and for me,” Hollenbaugh said. “That really touched me. I tell them ‘I’m not going anywhere soon.’ I plan to be here for another 10 or 20 years.”