Young cancer survivor grateful for new perspective on life
If it weren’t for a bout with cancer, Chris Dunkel might never have pursued his dream of becoming a teacher.
Dunkel, now 32 and a junior at Maryville College, is majoring in history for teacher licensure and looking forward to a career in the classrooms of high schools.
Diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 28, Dunkel said he now has a new – and better – perspective of life to apply to his next 30 or 40 years. That he has such a healthy prognosis can be attributed to many factors: early detection, the advances of modern medicine and the nature of testicular cancer.
He is expected to touch on those factors when recognized as a cancer survivor during halftime of the Jan. 25 men’s basketball game at Maryville College. The game marks the annual participation of the College in the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer campaign.
“Cancer helped me focus, helped me realize how short life is,” he said. “It’s like that old adage, ‘If you’re not living, you’re dying.’”
Diagnosis and decisions
Dunkel wasn’t exactly dying before his cancer diagnosis. A 1988 graduate of Gibbs High School in Knoxville, he had created a comfortable lifestyle for himself and his wife Kristi in Knoxville. He worked in computer sales and enjoyed the opportunities to meet people and earn a good salary.
But he felt called to work with young people and help them through the troubles of adolescence. A baseball standout while a student at Gibbs, Dunkel coached league teams in Knoxville in the summers before his diagnosis.
“I’m the kind of coach who likes practice more than the games,” he explained. “I enjoy seeing kids learn how to do things on the field, and then see the sense of confidence that understanding [the game] gives them. Their eyes light up, and they practically beam with confidence.”
Dunkel had supported his wife when she returned to college for a master’s degree in education. Seeing how much she was enjoying her new vocation, he contemplated a different career path.
“ After a few years in sales, I knew that that really wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
At first, Dunkel thought his dissatisfaction stemmed from burnout at his place of employment. He took another job in sales with a different company to see if it was sales that didn’t excite him anymore or the company for which he was working.
He quit one job at the end of 1998 and was scheduled to begin another job at the beginning of the new year. A urinary tract infection on New Year’s Eve 1998 forced him to go to the doctor; it also forced him to talk about a growth he had felt in the days prior to the infection. The diagnosis came after the removal of one testicle.
“ Honestly, hearing that I had cancer didn’t faze me,” he said. “I thought something was wrong … But I’m a pretty optimistic person, so for me it was like ‘OK, what’s next?’”
What came next was a week-long training session in Kansas City that his new job required. Returning home, he faced three months of radiation treatments, exhaustion and nausea – all intermixed with sales calls.
“I would work from 8 a.m. until noon, then go for my radiation treatments,” he explained. “After that, I’d go home and collapse in bed, get up in the morning and do it all over again.”
Dunkel continued working for one and one-half years to pay off his medical bills. But with teaching still a goal, he quit his job to enroll full-time at Pellissippi State Technical Community College during the summer of 2001. A year later, he transferred to Maryville College to begin a new chapter in his professional life.
Talking – and teaching – about cancer
As physically and emotionally exhausting as the cancer treatment was, Dunkel is reluctant to call himself a “cancer survivor.” He said he has the utmost respect for people who have fought other, more life-threatening forms of cancer and endured more complicated treatments like chemotherapy.
During radiation treatment, he said he developed an appreciation for the research provided by funding from the American Cancer Society and the people who suffered before him in trails and treatments so that advances could be made in medicine.
Today Chris Dunkel is cancer-free. According to his doctor, recurrence of testicular cancer typically happens within two years of treatment. He still goes in for annual tests, but he said he only thinks about his cancer “when someone else brings it up.”
Few of his fellow classmates at Maryville College know about his bout with cancer, and few people at Halls High School, where he is currently an assistant coach on the baseball team, know. It’s not something he frequently broadcasts, he said, but if talking helps open the eyes of young people to the indiscriminate nature of cancer and the importance of early detection, he’ll speak up.
After all, teaching – not cancer – is in his blood.