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Updated 4:00 PM May 18, 2004



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Spotlight: Groundskeeper given a new lease on life

Don Griffis is a live-your-life-to-the-fullest kind of guy. He's an eternal optimist, even when he was diagnosed with astrocytoma—a tumor in the inner core of his brain—the same week he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, even when a biopsy confirmed the tumor was cancerous, and even when his medications forced the former musician to stop playing his guitar.
Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

"Life is a card game, and you can either play this hand to the fullest of your ability or say this game stinks and throw your cards down and walk away," says Griffis, a groundskeeper for Grounds and Waste Management Services. "I always choose to play the positive role and take the positive side."

This philosophy paid off for Griffis in 1997. He wasn't ready to give up, even after doctors told him operating on his brain could cause more damage than the tumor itself. With the encouragement of a friend, Griffis went online and typed "brain tumor cure" into the search engine. That's how he found the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.

"I called them and they said, 'Can you come tomorrow?'" he says.

Doctors at Karmanos told Griffis he would be a perfect candidate for Gamma Knife radiosurgery and immediately scheduled the biopsy that determined the tumor was indeed cancerous. On March 21, 1997, Griffis became the 76th person in Michigan to undergo the Gamma Knife surgery.

The Gamma Knife, which Griffis calls a life-saving machine, is a dome covered with thousands of holes, he says. Doctors cover certain holes to direct the gamma rays to the appropriate areas of the brain. While the rest of the brain is exposed to low levels of gamma radiation, the rays converge on the tumor, creating an isolated area of high radiation that kills it.

"It's a one-shot deal with high doses of gamma radiation at the site of the tumor," he says. "The process itself only took 10 minutes, and it lowers the risk of developing something else down the road."

Shortly after his surgery, Griffis's tumor began to shrink. Although 10 years must pass before he officially can be declared cured, the doctors at Karmanos gave him the thumbs up to have kids and live his life again.

Griffis has been off medications for four years now, although he still has an annual MRI and check-up. While he suffers at times from survivor's guilt, he also feels a connection with those who have had similar experiences.

"When you go through something like that, you can't go to a Relay for Life or a function like that without thinking about what you've been through," Griffis says. "You feel very much bonded with other cancer survivors."

With his new lease on life, Griffis has turned his focus to his wife and two kids. He bought a 30-foot trailer for family camping trips to Benzonia in northern Michigan and has picked up the guitar again.

"We built our house with a really large front porch, and I'll sit out there like Andy Griffith in Mayberry and play my guitar while the kids ride their bikes in the front," he says.

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