Heath Gibson served with the Navy for three years in the Middle East. But the battle he’s fighting now is his biggest yet.
In January, Gibson learned he had Stage IV gastric adenocarcinoma, a stomach cancer.
He went to the doctor because he was having problems digesting food and drinks, like orange juice, acidic fruits, bread — even water.
At first, doctors believed he had acid reflux disease and prescribed him some medicine.
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“I took it for about a month, then I was like, ‘This is getting worse. There’s a problem.’ I was showing them my weight loss, ‘Look, I’ve lost 20 pounds my first month. Something is not right. I can’t eat. I am having problems sleeping, everything,’” he said.
On Jan. 10, Gibson learned it was cancer.
Eight days later, he and his family learned it was Stage IV.
“The cancer part didn’t shock me, because I had actually had cancer taken off my face because of being in the Middle East. It’s the only thing that was exposed, because we wore our sleeves down in the Middle East,” Gibson said.
“When I heard Stage IV, it bothered me a little bit,” Gibson said, glancing at his 6-year-old son, Hunter, quietly playing on a cellphone. “He went through my mind.”
Gibson is a 41-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran. His oncologist, Dr. Shadia Jalal, believes his cancer may be related to environmental and chemical hazards he may have been exposed to during his military service, since he has no lifestyle or genetic risk factors.
“I have to admit, I’ve just looked to the back of my mind so many times wondering where and how? I just can’t pin it down,” Heath said.
The cancer has spread to his abdomen and into bloodstream.
Heath and his family are staying positive, and his church family is rallying around him as well.
His mother, Judi, won’t forget what her son told her about his cancer diagnosis.
“His first words to me when we found out Jan. 10 was, ‘Mom it’s a win-win.’ I think that will always stay with me. He goes, ‘I’ll either be cured, or I’ll be in heaven with Jesus.’”
“He’s young. I told him, ‘Your job and your only job in your life is to fight this with everything that you’ve got and to stay here for as long as God will let you for this little guy in your life,’” Judi said.
Heath worked as the Midwest regional manager for VMacs Vision selling medical equipment before his diagnosis.
He retired from the Navy in 2012 and moved back to Brown County with his family.
“I could probably work, but there would be days when I would be wasting somebody’s money, especially after chemo days,” he said.
Heath won’t receive Social Security disability benefits until July or August. His wife, Joan, works, but it’s not enough to support the family of three.
Heath’s cousin set up a GoFundMe account to raise $7,500 to help the family. As of March 22, the account had raised $6,890 — some of it donated by strangers, the family said.
“It’s overwhelming. I got all of the feeling sorry for myself out in the first two days (after the diagnosis),” Health said.
“If I cried after that, it was because of the overwhelming responses of all the people around me.”
On April 8, Unity Baptist Church will stage a benefit auction. It will include antiques, furniture, a lawnmower, various tools and donated gift baskets from local businesses.
Heath is a 1993 graduate of Brown County High School and attended Indiana State University. He expects to see people from all stages of his life at the auction.
“A lot of those folks have been really, super supportive, too. It’s been awesome. That’s the best thing about living in a small town like this, knowing a lot of people.”
Heath said all the support has been “very humbling.”
“It’s been unbelievable for us to see how everybody has come out of the woodwork,” Judi said.
Help has come in the form of dinners being brought to his home, flowers left on his doorstep anonymously, a stranger paying his gas bill and the Unity Baptist Church donating the Sunday offering to him each week.
They’ve been members of Unity Baptist since 1990. His father, Duane, is a deacon there.
Church member Dave Pate and his wife, Gail, have been neighbors to “Gibsonville” for years — so dubbed because because Judi and Duane, Heath and Heath’s brother Nic all live next to one another.
Pate said the Gibson family is “very solid with the word of God.”
“They demonstrate in just the generosity they do and they don’t want credit for,” he said.
“They are probably the reason we haven’t moved after living here for 35 years.”
They are usually not ones to ask for help, Duane said.
“We’ve always tried as a family to do the work ourselves and call later if we need somebody, which most of the time we can figure it out ourselves,” he said.
Health said his faith, family and friends are what keep him going now.
“We gain our strength in the Lord and our church and the wonderful people in Brown County,” Duane said.
‘The war against it’
Heath will never beat this cancer; he can only manage it and put it in remission, his mother said.
“This will be a lifelong battle for Heath because it can pop up anywhere,” Judi said.
Because of that, Heath will have to have a CT scan every three months or so for the rest of his life to monitor and make sure the cancer doesn’t spread.
“It’s just something you’ve got to deal with, you know? When you get thrown a curve ball, you’ve got to wait on it,” Heath said.
“The beautiful thing is with all the prayer that we’ve gotten — and the people out there have been just amazing — it’s working. The cancer is getting smaller.”
Chemotherapy has shrunken the tumor, which had been growing out of his esophagus and over the top of his stomach.
Before starting chemo, he wasn’t able to eat and lost 40 pounds in two months. Now, he has his appetite back, he said.
He takes five chemotherapy pills a day and will take three IV chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for four months.
Heath has also taken Haelen 951, a Mongolian soy supplement that is supposed to kill cancer cells in the bloodstream. A bottle costs $7 or $8 and Heath takes a bottle and a half a day.
Credit can also be given to Dr. Jalal.
“When he was given the Stage IV diagnosis, she was, like, right there to his face. She said, ‘I’m not giving up on you. You’re 41, you’re young and you have a lot of fight, which this diagnosis is not usually a diagnosis of a younger person, so you have so much in your corner that you have years to fight this. You have to be willing to wage the war against it,” Judi said.
The family also has been happy with the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.
“You hear a lot of things on the news about the VA. I am telling you, I have seen nothing but fantastic up here in Indianapolis,” Judi said.
That hospital was quick to treat Heath when he visited after his first IV chemotherapy treatment. Doctors diagnosed him with blood clots in both of his lungs.
Judi has been a neonatal intensive care nurse at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health for 23 years. “I know what they’re saying when they say it, which is a good and a bad thing when it’s your own son,” she said.
Living for today
Judi said she can’t think about what the future might hold. “I can’t go there, so I am living today and appreciating today,” she said.
Heath feels the same.
“It’s one of those things. You could get hit by a car. (I could) get in a car accident five minutes after I leave this room,” he said.
His parents said Heath — their first child — is the glue that held them together at the beginning of their marriage and he is still playing that role.
“Anybody who serves this country is like a hero in my eyes,” Duane said. “I admire his intelligence, his strength.”
“His courage,” Judi added.
Heath is on prayer lists from Hawaii to Italy, and that is a great source of peace for him, he said.
“If it wasn’t for the power of prayer, I have so many people praying for me, I have no doubt that I am … going to manage it,” he said.
What: Unity Baptist Church benefit auction for Heath Gibson
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, April 8
Where: Unity Baptist Church, 7361 Spearsville Road, Morgantown
Donations: Will be accepted until 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 5. To organize a donation pickup, call Dave Pate at 317-439-0207 or Duane Gibson at 317-979-2415. Items up for auction include furniture, antiques, tools and gift baskets from local businesses.
Buying items: Cash or a check with identification will be accepted.