Battling for life, freedom and independence after cancer

Like many who wage battle, Zach Graas fights for freedom and independence.

But his battlefield is empty hospital hallways and the hollow, piercing sound of an MRI machine. His enemy: the dozens of pills he swallows daily.

Zach has one word to describe the cancer that has invaded his 19-year-old brain: “frustrating.”

His fight started last September during his freshman year at the University. In the shower, his right hand went numb. The numbness persisted; Zach stumbled to his bed.

Zach Graas, a sophomore from Olathe, and his girlfriend, Rachel Forrest, a junior from Edmond, Okla. display some of the artwork that has been donated for the Zach Graas Benefit, a Final Fridays Silent Auction at Pachamama’s Alton Ballroom on Friday, November 30th from 5-9 PM.

“I just thought, ‘Shit, this is not okay’,” Zach said.

After an overnight trip to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, a CT scan and an MRI, Zach knew he had a partial simple seizure, but he would not learn he had fibrillary astrocytoma, a series of brain tumors, until a month later.

“My mom told me,” Zach said. “She was crying, so I knew it was cancer. I felt disappointed. It was literally the worst possible outcome.”

From there, doctors wheeled him in for surgery; then a year full of chemotherapy and pills began. He took five chemo pills every 23 days for 12 months, in addition to nearly 12 seizure-prevention pills every day.

Zach said chemo wasn’t so bad. Despite feeling tired and nauseous, it was the surgeries and MRI scans that got him at first.

“I remember being little and thinking the brain was just the scariest thing,” Zach said. “We saw pictures of the MRI machines in school, and I was so freaked out.”

Listening to Tupac during MRIs helped, but Zach said the best remedy is a change in mindset.

“I was really reckless before, and carelessly free,” Zach said, recalling a time he sped his Mustang into a tree. “Now it’s about wanting everyday, and wanting to make it better than the one before.”

Eventually his right hand became worse, he writes and types with three fingers.

A recent MRI showed he needs a tumor resection surgery, in which surgeons will try and remove the cancerous cells while restoring the movement back to his right hand, which he can’t lie flat. To perform the surgery, doctors need Zach to be awake so he can move his right arm. That way, Zach says, they won’t get any of the good cells.

When he found out the chemo did not completely destroy the tumors, his family accompanied him to the MRI, and so did Rachel Forrest, a friend and junior from Edmond, OK.

When the results showed the cancer was not gone, Rachel wanted to use her skills to help. A painting and art history major, Rachel began organizing an auction to raise money.

“I don’t like to think about the numbers,” Zach said. “I know my prescriptions alone are in the thousands.”

In addition to the co-pays, and the flight Zach and his family will have to make to the University of California, San Francisco for his December surgery.

Zach helped Rachel move over the summer, despite the heat and not having complete use of his right hand.

“I couldn’t have done that on my own,” Rachel said. “He’s helped for nothing, so I wanted to help.”

The silent auction will be part of Final Fridays in the Alton Ballroom at Pachamama’s, 800 New Hampshire St., from 5 to 9 p.m.

More than 30 pieces of art have been donated from University students, graduates, faculty and other artists in the community.

Rachel expects to be anxious the day of Zach’s surgery as she awaits word from his mother.

“I know I’ll be nervous,” Rachel said. “It helps that Zach is so chill about it.”

If the surgery goes well, Zach hopes his battle will be over, and he will eventually throw away the pill bottles that surround him, though the MRI machine will be a familiar former-foe in the months following.

“I want to be independent again,” Zach said. “It’s annoying to be so dependent on the medicine, the doctors and to need my brother around just in case.”

  • Updated Nov. 27, 2012 at 11:03 am
  • Edited by Whitney Bolden
  • Carrie

    Zach is one of the strongest and most creative people I know! He will beat this!

  • Joyce Brand Wilson