Dan Garson considered himself “a pretty regular guy” before bone cancer took his left leg below his knee. Now he considers himself a pretty regular guy with a prosthesis that’s given him a leg up on heckling his golf buddies.
“If they win, they’ve beaten a man with one leg. If I win, they’ve been beaten by a one-legged man,” he joked.
A dry sense of humor, positive outlook and dedicated work ethic drove Garson through the cancer treatment process, down the path of healing, and back to the links.
“Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to me. That’s what everyone says, but it’s true. I’m a pretty regular guy,” Garson said.
He’s also a survivor, a “lucky one.”
“I’m not worried about it coming back. If it comes back, it comes back,” Garson said.
Garson had suffered ankle pain for as long as he could remember.
“It was no big deal,” he said.
Actually, it was no big deal until it got in the way of his passion: his golf game.
In November 2013, an excruciating bout led him to the emergency room.
“I was truly fortunate that the ER doctor became very uncomfortable with what he saw. He referred me to my family doctor who also became very uncomfortable and sent me to an oncologist,” Garson said.
Within two weeks, he was at City of Hope in Southern California with a diagnosis of osteosarcoma, bone cancer.
“I was so lucky to be diagnosed. This is a cancer that adults don’t get. It’s usually found in younger men or teenagers, especially girls, people who are going through a lot of growth spurts. The thought is that I’ve had it forever, and perhaps something triggered it,” Garson said.
The good news, he said, was that they’d found it at all, and began treatment immediately. The bad news, he said, was that chemotherapy was involved, and the removal of his lower left leg.
“It felt like the process took forever, but I was diagnosed in December, the amputation was done in February, I was done with chemo in the spring, and tried to start walking sometime in June or July. Then it was a long, uphill climb,” Garson said.
He split his initial chemo treatments between Mission Hope Cancer Center and City of Hope.
“I remember seeing this guy who’d had half of his face taken off. I looked at this guy and thought, ‘Oh my God! I’m just losing a leg. He lost half his face.’ I clearly walked away with an understanding that, as bad as I might have it, I can turn around and find someone who has it [worse] than me,” Garson said.
With the support of his longtime golf buddy, Dr. Robert Dichmann, Garson was able to transfer all his chemotherapy sessions to Mission Hope, which offered a method that worked better for his overall well-being.
While he was no stranger to the cancer treatment process — his wife, Vicki Garson, had gone through it years before — he said he gained an entirely new appreciation for it after experiencing each step firsthand.
“If you haven’t been slapped in the face, you really don’t know what it feels like to be slapped in the face," Garson said. "Whether you go through cancer, a heart attack, any of those things do force you to take stock of life. I did. I came to numerous conclusions about the way I live my life, including coming to terms with the fact that we’re all going to die. So what? I’m not going to walk on eggshells. It’s about making choices about the way we live.”
He’s more appreciative of his days and weekends, playing golf with his buddies, feeling more empathetic when he sees someone else struggling. He’s especially appreciative of his wife, who was by him throughout the diagnosis, treatments, amputation and recovery and sticks with him to this day.
“I can appreciate what they’re going through much more clearly now,” Garson said. “No matter how bad I have it, it could have been worse.”
During his darkest days, he turned to work with home building company Wathen Castanos to keep his mind off the cancer, the treatment, the potential outcomes.
“I was back at work a week after the amputation. I had to go to keep myself from sitting at home crying," Garson said. "I’m sure I was only operating at 40 or 50%, but I was doing it; I was doing something. I needed that.”
He hadn’t realized how much muscle wasted while he was down. When his prosthetic was fitted, he stood but could barely walk.
“It was a long process learning to walk again with this thing that some days I silently curse, but other days I don’t even know I have on,” Garson said.
These days, his chief worry is his short game.
“And, honestly, that needed work before,” Garson said.
He still golfs with his crew, shoots the breeze and gives his buddies a hard time whenever he gets the chance. In spring, he and his crew will head to Ireland for a whiskey, Guinness and golf tour, though not likely in that order.
“I have a chip on my shoulder about golf," Garson said. "When I play, I don’t play with cripples; I play with all the regular kids. I take great pride in going at it again. I can hit just as far. For me, it’s become more motivation to play. It took me a long time to get back. At first it was painful to hit, but over time we all recover. Golf is great for the hip, working on balance, rotation, all those things the physical therapist worked on with me to get back to walking.”
While he can’t see himself playing the brutal, single-malt scotch, day-after-day Scottish course tour again anytime soon — he still needs to rest after an 18-hole day — he’s not cutting his games short.
“I can walk 18 holes in a day. I still play in tournaments, travel, that old group of buddies remains with me. We’re all 14-year-old boys in the bodies of grown men kidding each other, razzing each other, smoking cigars, drinking, talking about pretty girls. It’s good fun and great therapy,” Garson said.
Now he’s back to full steam.
“Here I am, in 2019, pretty much normal. I don’t run anymore because my knees and hips aren’t as cooperative as they were when I was younger. I’m 61. But I play golf, still ride my bike, use the elliptical, work out at the gym. If I had pants on, you probably wouldn’t know. A physical therapist would see a hitch in my giddyup, but I seem pretty normal otherwise.”