Featured Survivor Story:
by Vallerie A. Malkin
In March of 2014, a month before his 23rd birthday, Dylan Slattery, like many other 20-somethings, found himself dogged by the question: “Why am I here?”
Most young people take the frustration of not knowing the answer in stride, but Dylan felt a sense of urgency. Little did he know, three troubling events would occur in quick succession that would test his moxie: Dylan was about to learn what he was made of, the hard way.
A Regular Enough Course
Despite the absence of his real father (Dylan’s father committed suicide on March 28, 1991, a little less than a month before he was born), Dylan had a pretty happy childhood. He credits an amazing mother for that; she would go on to marry again and have three more sons.
His stepdad had a job that took him out of town frequently, but he still found time to lead Dylan’s Boy Scout troop. Athletic, popular, and active in the community, Dylan developed a deep relationship with his mother and a strong bond with his brothers. Life was pretty good.
It was sports that put the wind in Dylan’s sails. He played and coached baseball under legendary baseball coach Tom Jenk, Jr., a pivotal role model and mentor at Dyersville Beckman High School, who had a distinguished 42-year record of coaching, teaching, and inspiring young people. The wisdom Dylan picked up during his seasons with Jenk would become indispensable tools for managing adversity later on.
Dylan graduated high school in May of 2009, enrolled at a community college, and transferred to the University of Northern Iowa. Because he excelled in economics, his advisor urged him to take a double major in Economics and Social Studies education.
Despite holding a 3.8 GPA, Dylan says his studies didn’t supply much inspiration. “It never felt like a calling,” he explains.
Curveballs: One, Two, Three
In February of 2013 life threw Dylan the first of three curveballs: His four-year relationship with his girlfriend ended.
“For the first time I struggled that I wasn’t good enough for someone,” he recalls. He masked his disappointment by escaping in food, alcohol, and drugs. He went through the motions of studying and socializing but felt disconnected.
By April, another curveball came unexpectedly when the suspicious mole on Dylan’s neck started to change shape and bleed. Not terribly worried, he had it looked at.
A voice mail from the doctor’s office told him he was scheduled for surgery the following week at Mayo Clinic; when he called, he was told he had melanoma – a lethal form of skin cancer.
Dylan emerged from surgery with a seven-inch scar that started at his right ear and went down his face all the way to the middle of his neck. A scan of his lymph nodes was clean, so Dylan was in the clear and free to resume life as he knew it.
The third curveball came in the form of a tragedy. One night during Christmas break he was riding with friends on an icy Iowan highway. Suddenly their truck crossed the center line and rolled over six times, landing in a creek bed.
Partially ejected from the truck was Dylan’s classmate, Brittany. Dylan pulled her out from under the truck but he could not revive her, and she died in his arms. The other passengers were in shock, but relatively unharmed.
In the months to follow Dylan grappled with survivor’s remorse.
“Brittany brought so much happiness and joy to this world that I would think, ‘Why didn’t you take me instead of her?’”
Dylan went down into the abyss. He went deeper into drugs and alcohol and started sleeping 16 hours a day. On March 28th, the 23rd anniversary of his dad’s death, dark thoughts bled into a few conversations he had with friends.
“Thank God I have great friends who hold me to a higher standard,” he says. They contacted his mother immediately.
Dylan’s mom showed up at his bedside the next day, wondering why he wasn’t in class. He confessed he hadn’t been to class in months and that his 3.8 had dropped to a 3.2.
Working with his advisor, he determined he had enough credits to graduate with a B.A. in Liberal Studies and a minor in Economics. He moved back home to Dyersville to try and get back on track. He assumed the role of assistant coach under Coach Jenk for the Beckman Blazers.
Then, during a visit to the University of Iowa for a football game, Dylan woke up with a golf-ball-sized lump under his jawline, inches away from his surgery scar. “I knew my cancer had returned, I just didn’t know how bad it was,” says Dylan, who headed with his mother and stepdad to the Mayo Clinic.
He was mercilessly poked and prodded: A nurse pushed a needle into his lump and drove another one, bigger than he’d ever seen, into his liver.
A round of scans revealed melanoma in Dylan’s neck, lung, and liver as well as three inoperable tumors in his spine. Doctors diagnosed him with Stage IV melanoma and delivered the horrible news that he had less than a 15 percent chance of survival.
Dylan’s mother went to see the mother of a high school friend of his who had died of melanoma, and Dylan could see that she felt defeated.
“My mom thought it was over,” says Dylan. “I felt like people had written me off and you know, every time someone tells me I can’t, it stirs a little fire.”
It is here that Dylan drew on his baseball training under Coach Jenk. If the team was down in the last inning, Dylan explains, the players strategized to crowd the plate and take a strike, putting pressure on the opponent. By this logic, restraint, discipline, and mental toughness can turn things around.
To keep the life he had been so on the fence about, Dylan knew he had to focus on the long game. He threw down a challenge to his mother: “You either believe in this, and me, and that we’re going to beat this, or you don’t.”
Dylan explained that all he needed was a one percent chance to make this battle worth fighting, and they had given him 15 percent. Dylan’s mother, who he says loved him “more than anything,” rallied.
In October of 2015, Dylan underwent an intense treatment regime at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (UIHC) in Iowa City so he could be close to family and friends in Dyersville. Dylan was assigned to a clinical trial, which included extremely high doses of Interleukin 2 and Ipilimumab three times a day for three months. He lost 35 lbs. between January and March.
According to his doctor, Dylan’s immunotherapy works much like a computer reboot: You have to shut everything down before you can restart the computer in order for an update to be installed, i.e., re-train your body’s cells to fight cancer. If this sounds unpleasant, he says, it was.
Dylan endured an onslaught of treatments every eight hours and suffered extreme side effects: One minute he would get so cold he would go into full-body convulsions. The nurses had to layer seven blankets on him and put a heating pad between his legs. The next moment he would break into a fever of 104.
When the nurses administered Demerol to relieve the discomfort, he would start vomiting. To keep on enough weight so that he could continue fighting, he would force himself to choke down high-calorie meal replacements.
Dylan continued to clear out any negativity around him that could throw him off track. He even asked that one of the nurses be removed from her shift one night for making him feel like a burden: “I was fighting against the worst odds, so it was critical to my survival that I protect my energy.”
Sometimes the chemicals taxed his organs to the point where they would start shutting down. Once, his blood pressure plummeted and the medical team rushed at him with paddles to restore his heartbeat. Though the organs started working on their own again, Dylan recalls seeing his life flash before his eyes.
His mental resolve grew with every cleared physical onslaught. Eventually, Dylan was not just fighting melanoma; he was killing it.
“I wasn’t really ‘with it’ in the hospital most of the time,” says Dylan, “but my mother remembers.” Every night she slept on an inch and a half pad in the windowsill, similar to something off a porch swing.
His mother’s unconditional love and devotion brought him another bead of wisdom in the hospital: If she could love him as weak and desperate as he was while fighting cancer, he realized that he could probably love himself.
“So much about life isn’t about us, but the people around us,” says Dylan. “Relationships are everything, whether it’s with other people, God, and faith, or with yourself.”
One night, a patient on Dylan’s hall died. As he and his family observed the other family process their grief, relaying stories about their loved one, Dylan contemplated his own legacy: What stories would people tell if he died? How would he be remembered?
Something clicked and Dylan made a mental note that he would come back to later: “When I beat this thing I’m going to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Pass the Torch
Dylan finished the trial and the initial report came back clean. True to his vow in the ICU to help others if he made it, Dylan began sharing his story, appearing that year at the Relay for Life. The first person to greet him after his first gig speaking at the Relay for Life was his mentor, Coach Jenk.
Dylan was excited to get back into the world. He had started planning a move to Colorado. Despite the success of his treatment indicated in the initial scan, an advanced report showed two small tumors in his liver.
He went ahead with the move but the next chapter was interrupted two months later when further testing revealed the tumors had grown, so he headed back to Iowa City for treatment. Doctors put him on the drug Keytruda.
During this time he held down a full-time job and continued to coach for Jenk, which buoyed him psychologically. In a moving, “pass the torch” gesture, Jenk gave Dylan his own father’s jacket (Jenk’s dad had been the long-time assistant coach before he died). Dylan was helping pitchers and catchers come up with a game plan from the dugout.
Jenk’s presence was one of the reasons Dylan stayed strong but in December of 2016, Jenk was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Jenk was able to coach the baseball team to state championships until he was forced from the dugout to the hospital – but his team kept winning, which is further testament to the strength of the program he built over the years.
In a gesture of respect, love, and appreciation, the team dedicated their win to Jenk, each team member pointing up to the press box where Jenk watched the game and the team dogpiled after the final out of the State Championship.
Win the Last Game
Dylan finished Keytruda in January of 2017. His treatment had been a success. When his appetite returned, he ballooned to 260 lbs., which tanked his energy again. So he quit drinking, stepped up his exercise program to include weights, and adopted a strict diet. He lost 60 lbs. in 18 months.
On October 29, Dylan’s beloved mentor Tom Jenk passed away with 1,088 career wins to his name, 300 of which Dylan had played a role in as a player or assistant coach. After Jenk’s death, coaching wasn’t the same, so Dylan shifted to umpiring at the high school and college level and also for the Team of Dreams event at the famous Field of Dreams.
Says Dylan, “Coach Jenk said, ‘If you win the last game you play, you’ll always be remembered a champion’” and that idea stuck with him.
In May of 2018, Dylan moved back to Colorado, where he took up mountain climbing. Leave it to Dylan to push past his comfort zone: He set his sights on the 14ers – mountains with 14,000 feet summits – and has climbed nine of them so far.
“Every time I climb, it’s like beating cancer all over again,” says Dylan. “When it gets tough and I want to quit and turn around, I remember those hard days in the ICU. If I put my mind back in that place and I know I got through that, I know I can do this.”
Today Dylan is happy to report that he is still “NED” (a medical acronym for ‘no evidence of disease’).
It’s About Life
After wrestling his cancer demons down, Dylan still felt stuck at Stage IV in other areas of his life. So he set out to work on those using the same mental techniques he had used when taking his treatments. He also made good on his promise to make a difference and set out to share the valuable lessons he had learned.
“I want to be that ray of light for others when they feel as hopeless as I did and make people see they have a choice as to whether they are just passing by or really living,” explains Dylan. “I fell in love with the impact I could make on others by sharing my story.”
Dylan now speaks about reframing adversity at numerous events sponsored by universities, corporations, and non-profits across the country. In his talks, Dylan emphasizes the benefit of adopting a growth mindset and implementing healthy habits.
His talks resonate with the audience, and almost by accident, Dylan has leveraged his calling into a new career. He also started a podcast where he interviews some of the writers whose life stories he really admires.
“This story is bigger than cancer, it’s bigger than mental health, it’s about life. Life brings adversity, and how we respond defines us more than the circumstance does,” says Dylan.
In addition to his podcast and speaking gigs, Dylan is trying his hand at writing a book with his mother about their experience with melanoma.
His podcasts and talks have caught fire, and he actually got to share the stage with TV journalist Katie Couric in New York City in September.
“The timing of my illness was perfect,” says Dylan. “Cancer was the best thing for me at that point in my life. I’m making it my mission to earn the second chance I’ve been given. Cancer truly gave me something to fight for at a time when I was questioning if life was worth fighting for.”
To hear Dylan’s podcast, https://www.stagefour2onstage.com/podcast