Port Angeles man fighting third bout with cancer
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Alfred Charles, left, and Derek Charles are shown near their home on the Lower Elwha Klallam Reservation. -- Photo by Arwyn Rice/Peninsula Daily News

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Derek Charles of Port Angeles has spent nearly half of his life fighting cancer.

Charles, 39, who has been treated for cancer for 18 years, first fought cancer as a child and now is battling it again as an adult.

He will make a bid to defeat the cancer once and for all when he undergoes an eight-hour surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle to remove a new tumor in the third round of his bout against cancer.

A Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member, Charles is a fighter, a man who has been through nearly two decades of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgeries, beginning as a toddler.

In 1977, when he was 3, Charles’ right leg shattered.

Doctors discovered it had been weakened by Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that primarily strikes children and adolescents.

There are only about 300 cases of Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosed in the U.S. each year, with a rate of 1 case per 1 million population, according to the National Cancer Institute.

For six years, he was in and out of the hospital while doctors said he wasn’t expected to survive, said his father, Alfred Charles, Sr. 70, who acts as his son’s full-time caregiver.

“He was robbed of his childhood,” his father said.

All the things other children did, from Disneyland to simple day-trips to Seattle’s theme parks and activities were out of reach while his son fought for his life, he said.

Doctors told the family to say their good-byes three or four times — to not expect the boy to wake up the next day, Alfred Charles said.

“He was skin and bones,” he said.

In 1983 the cancer went into remission. For another six years he was continuously tested and he was declared cancer-free by 1989.

His survival was so unexpected that a panel of cancer specialists convened to study his case to discover why he survived when so many children did not, his father said.

Alfred credited his son’s positive attitude during the long childhood illness for his continuing survival.

“He always had a smile on his face,” he said.

However, the cancer left lasting effects.

His son’s right leg never grew as long as his left, and left him with difficulty walking.

He has tried to take his life back, but has struggled to keep a job.

“I worked wherever I could,” Derek Charles said, adding that he enjoyed working at stores, helping customers find the products they sought.

In 2007, the cancer returned.

“It was almost 30 years to the day [of the first diagnosis] that it came back,” Derek Charles said.

Tests had revealed a new cancer, a rectal cancer that included both his tailbone and nearby soft tissue.

This time, he had young nephews and nieces to provide inspiration to keep going.

A pile of toys sits in a corner of Derek’s home, waiting for the children’s visits.

“If not for them, I might have called it quits,” Derek Charles said.

Surgery removed that tumor, although it caused partial paralysis of his legs.

In 2012, doctors discovered that cancer had metastasized to his stomach.

The mass on his stomach wall has not responded to the latest round of chemotherapy.

“It’s possible he will lose a rib, and the cancer may have reached his liver,” Alfred said.

The medical plans are that Derek Charles will be hospitalized for at least five days following the surgery, then will enter another round of chemotherapy.

“I think it’s the second round of chemotherapy that will kick my butt,” Derek Charles said.

The trip, the stay at the hospital, and expenses for family who will be in Seattle to support Derek Charles during his initial recovery add up quickly, and the family needs some help, they said.

An account has been set up at First Federal bank to help the family, and donors can deposit funds in his or his son’s name at any branch of the bank, Alfred Charles said.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 16. 2013 6:12PM
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