By Mara Klecker
Note: Erich passed away on September 28th, 2022, the same week his story ran in our newsletter. We continue to share his story because he exhibited great strength in staying positive, and he can continue to remind us to cherish the moments we have with our friends and family. We send Jenn and family our most sincere condolences.
Erich Djordjevic wasn’t feeling well in the fall of 2021. When he and his wife, Jenn, started noticing that his motor coordination on his left side was off, they headed for the hospital. A CT scan revealed at least 13 lesions in Erich’s brain. Some of them were bleeding, causing glitches in his motor functioning.
As soon as she heard about the lesions, Jenn’s mind flashed to 2013, when Erich was diagnosed with Stage IIIB melanoma. He had a lymph node removed from his left armpit and opted to continue regular bloodwork and scans for the next five years.
“We got thrown back into the melanoma world very quickly,” Jenn said. A scan of Erich’s chest in 2021 revealed another mass, not far from where his mole was in 2013. A biopsy of that mass confirmed Jenn’s suspicion: The melanoma had returned.
Over the past nine months, Erich has been in and out of the hospital. He’s gone through periods of time where his entire left side is paralyzed because of the tumors in his brain. At one point, when doctors were fighting to relieve his brain swelling, they approached Jenn about the idea of calling in hospice care.
But she and Erich, who is 48, weren’t ready for that. She thought of their 8-year-old son and pleaded with a neurosurgeon to take Erich’s case. She was convincing – the surgeon decided to operate and removed three large tumors in October.
Since then, he’s been in and out of the hospital, and it’s been a constant battle to keep his brain swelling down so that he can go off steroids long enough to receive immunotherapy, including Opdivo (nivolumab) in combination with Yervoy (ipilimumab). He’s also received chemo and several rounds of whole brain radiotherapy.
In April, after a couple of months of improvement, Jenn noticed Erich’s speech was slurred and when he smiled, only the right side of his mouth was upturned. She called an ambulance and once he arrived at the ER, Erich suffered a seizure on his left side. Another CT scan revealed that the tumor in his frontal lobe was bleeding.
“It was like ‘Here we go again,’” Jenn said. “We’d been moving in this good direction.”
The neurosurgeon operated again to remove the tumor.
The long hospital stays–sometimes stretching several weeks– have proved emotionally and mentally exhausting for the family, Jenn said. They had to cancel a long-awaited family trip to Florida when Erich had to be admitted to the hospital for his third craniotomy. He’s also had a couple bad falls, including one that broke some facial bones.
Still, Erich’s personality and cognitive ability are largely intact.
“It’s unbelievable that he still has his sense of humor and his memory is better than anything,” he said.
Jenn’s own faith has also remained unwavering.
“I told every single doctor we’ve seen – even in intensive care – that we are going to come back to the hospital one day and Eric is going to walk in, cancer free,” she said. That faith has carried her through even the hardest moments when she wondered if she should start planning a funeral.
“None of us know what’ll happen tomorrow,” Jenn said. “I just need to stay grounded the best I can to help my family through this.”
Erich’s mother helps out, but Jenn’s caregiving includes making meals, helping Erich with daily tasks like showering and getting dressed. Because Erich is a fall risk, Jenn needs to stay home with him.
“Everyone in our family has experienced a loss in some way,” Jenn said. “Living with a cancer diagnosis just means we find ways to work through that loss while making the most out of the days we still have together.”
Although cancer and caregiving has changed their relationship dynamic in obvious ways, Jenn said she and her husband are now more patient and understanding of one another. And the experience has brought her closer to her son and showed her how much support she has from friends and family.
Erich is now planning to move forward with radiation and Jenn is by his bedside, still imagining that day when he’ll walk through the hospital doors with news that he has no evidence of disease.
“It’s been quite a roller coaster,” she said. “We are still fighting like crazy.”