HARVEST, Ala. (WHNT) – There’s a lot of love in the halls of Harvest Elementary School.
On a recent visit, principal Chris Gunnels greeted some kids with, “Hey guys, how are yall?” He loves his kids. And they love him. He was catching up on missed hugs and high-fives. He explained to one student, “I lost all my hair. They had to do some surgery on me. Can you believe that?”
Chris, who is 42, has been away since a trip to the emergency room last November. “They thought I had a stroke, so they sent me through a CT scan, and it came out I had a large mass. So, from there, it was emergency surgery,” he told me.
His tumor was sent to the Mayo Clinic, but the results were inconclusive. Chris and his wife Kendall turned to UAB for a second opinion. The team there recommended another surgery. “They were like yeah, there’s still a large tumor in your brain. We’ve got to get it out immediately before it ruptures or something. I went, oh my word,” he said, “And this was right at Christmas.”
The diagnosis was not the gift they wanted. “The doctor at UAB says hey, and I also think it’s glioblastoma instead of ependymoma, so we were devastated because we were thinking, oh, we dodged a bullet,” Chris said.
Glioblastoma is the most aggressive brain cancer. Right now, there is no cure. Life expectancy is 12 to 15 months. “Six percent make it five years,” Chris told me, “So when we heard that, it’s sorta a kick in the gut. Their fight took them to the Cancer Center at Duke. “That’s where we are now, just going through their program and fighting every day,” Chris said.
The Athens family was led there by research and faith. “The Lord has just orchestrated our path and so we’re forever grateful and Duke has been a blessing to us,” Kendall told me. “I wouldn’t be here without Duke,” Chris added. Kendall looked at him and said, “That’s right because we’re looking at six months now from our initial, from our very first surgery. Truly, as big as it was and as aggressive as glioblastoma is, he’s truly our little miracle.” She added, “And we’re thankful.”
Every other month, they go back for another scan. “This is our new normal. We’re looking at every 60 days, oh my goodness, please don’t tell me it’s back. And we don’t live in fear, and we don’t worry. We do trust His plan but at the same time, we’ve got two little girls, 10 and 14,” Kendall said, “We try to be normal and do all the normal stuff but in the back of your mind, it’s always there.”
It’s a prescription of medicine and prayer. “The only thing getting us through every day. We know the Lord has a plan for not just me, but our family and we just have to trust in Him and just lean on our faith,” Chris said.
He finished six weeks of radiation chemo at Vanderbilt in Nashville and is now taking a round of pills. That will last for one year. He’s also going to go to Germany for a series of shots. “They’ll take my tumor and my blood,” he explained, “They’ll sit down and figure out what they need to do to my blood to make my immune system fight the tumor so if it ever starts growing again, my immune system will kill it.”
Insurance doesn’t cover the cost. “The treatment alone is $85,000,” Chris told me. I asked how someone raises that kind of money. Kendal smiled and said, “Your church family, your friends, your community. They have flat-out loved us.” That village of people helped raise enough money to pay for the cost of the treatment.” But it does not cover the cost of travel and expenses while there. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page called Chris Gunnels’ glioblastoma cancer fundraiser.
Kendall said, “For your community, for your people, for your church just to rise together and say, hey, we want to make this possible, they’ve truly given Chris a second chance at life.” The Gunnels are sharing their story to raise awareness. 15,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma every year. “We’re fighting for a lot of people, not just me,” Chris said. They’re holding onto hope. He looked at me and replied with a simple, “Yes.”
Chris and Kendall want people to know, there is hope. And for those who find themselves on the same journey, there are options. And they want to help. To follow Chris’ journey, the family has set up a public group page on Facebook to keep everyone updated on how he’s doing. Just click on the links. We’ll keep you up to date as well.