And he’s not letting it get him down.
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to sweep across the globe, one New Mexico man has been caught up in a storm of bad news: his tourism business is on the verge of collapse, half of his family is stranded in Honduras, and to top it off, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Chris Cole’s story starts on a cool afternoon in early February, a few weeks before COVID-19 crippled the U.S. The 58-year-old, who is a sustainable tourism development consultant and the founder of Outbound Expeditions, was visiting his two teenagers in Sarasota, Florida, when he started feeling dizzy. That evening, he went on a date, and as the pair walked side-by-side down a sidewalk, Cole kept veering to the left.
“All of a sudden, I could not walk in a straight line. I kept running right into her,” he recalls. “I knew there was something wrong. My perception felt off.”
Cole called a friend, a doctor, to talk over his symptoms. Suspecting the onset of a stroke, the friend urged Cole to get to the emergency room immediately. After a CAT scan, MRI, and biopsy, Cole’s doctors presented the diagnosis on February 6: Stage four glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).
“I knew there was something wrong. My perception felt off.”
GMB is a highly lethal, aggressive, and rare type of cancer. There are roughly 18,000 new GBM diagnoses in the U.S. each year, compared to the estimated 270,000 new cases of breast cancer and 190,000 of prostate cancer in 2019.
That night, they told Cole he has “about two years to live.” And since the tumor was pressing on the right side of his brain, he also needed to have surgery the next morning to avoid a stroke and remove as much of the tumor as possible.
The diagnosis could not have come at a worse time. Just days earlier, Cole’s mother, an 89-year-old German-American who retired to Honduras in 1992, fell gravely ill due to complications with ongoing thyroid issues and dementia. Cole hoped to see her as soon as possible but his diagnosis complicated this plan.
While Cole navigated his new reality, his ex-wife, Rosario “took the bull by the horns,” he says, to take care of their two teenagers, his mother, and legal issues in Honduras. “Rosario and I have always had a good relationship, which I am so thankful for. First, she took my son, Marco, to see his grandmother,” says Cole. “After she returned to the U.S. with Marco, she then took my 19-year-old daughter, Andrea, on March 6.”
It was during Rosario’s second trip to Honduras that the new coronavirus outbreak hit North America, triggering restrictions around the region. “Honduras went into lockdown, so Andrea and Rosario have been staying with my mother since then,” says Cole. “My daughter is going stir crazy. At that age, you miss your friends and you’re just more active. Somehow, somebody scored her a kayak the other day, so at least she can go kayaking in the Caribbean right in front of my mom’s house.”
Back in Florida, Cole recovered from surgery. He then drove back to New Mexico with his son on March 12, where he visited the University of New Mexico Cancer Center (UNMCC). A set of tests revealed great news: his tumor had shrunk by 90% thanks to the surgery and a series of lifestyle changes.
“The doctors said there’s a chance we could beat this,” says Cole. “That was music to my ears. Of course, there are still no guarantees. But I’m not going to give up.”
As part of his treatment regime, Cole must undergo radiation for a total of six weeks. He’s currently on week three and says it’s going well so far. Ever proactive, he has been reading as much as he can about GBM and has adjusted aspects of his lifestyle to improve his odds. For instance, he takes immune-boosting vitamins every day, eats an all-organic diet, and processes his water through a Japanese ionization machine called a Kangen, which claims to hydrate the body more effectively than typical tap water. “I’m drinking about five gallons of water a week—staying hydrated will help to diminish the side effects of radiation, things like nausea, dizziness, and headaches,” he says.
“The doctors said there’s a chance we could beat this. That was music to my ears. Of course, there are still no guarantees. But I’m not going to give up.”
Around the time Cole started his treatments, the governor of New Mexico imposed restrictions on social gatherings, restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses due to the coronavirus outbreak—but he kept thinking of his family in Honduras. “The state of New Mexico is under a sort of partial lockdown, but nothing like Honduras. I mean, they have military and police out on the streets—you can’t even go to the grocery store unless it’s your assigned day of the week. They base it on the last few digits of your government ID. It’s a lot stricter there.”
Even with relatively more relaxed circumstances, Cole says the outbreak has taken a heavy toll on small businesses like his. Before business plans were put on hold, Cole had been working with the Pueblo of Abiquiu in northern New Mexico to develop a sustainable adventure tourism program that includes horseback riding, kayaking on the Rio Chama, and immersive historical and cultural tours.
“It’s just been devastating. I designed all of the itineraries, got all the approvals, completed a public referendum—it was all ready to launch this March,” he says. “My company should be off the ground by now, but instead, I am sitting here with absolutely no income. It’s been a really, really rough road for me.”
But, Cole is not one to dwell on the negatives. He has a knack for seeing the big picture and focusing on the silver lining, no matter how trying the circumstances. “I feel very blessed, honestly. My ex-wife and so many friends have come out of the woodwork to support me, my tumor is shrinking, and my mom is still alive and kicking,” he says.
“I need to stay upbeat and optimistic: first, because I want to be a good role model for my kids, and second, because feeling depressed will not help me heal. I have no choice but to be positive and keeping fighting like hell.”