Cancer nearly killed him. But after five surgeries, radiation treatment and extensive chemotherapy over the past year and a half, Robb McClary has developed an infectious love of life that has him back at work at city hall in Cape Girardeau, smiling again and playing the saxophone in a local band.
The 56-year-old McClary, who grew up in Jackson, has headed Cape Girardeau's inspections department since August 2002.
McClary's grandfather died of colon cancer. His father survived the same disease. But McClary wasn't worried about heredity.
He stopped smoking when he was 40. He exercised regularly.
Finally, after years of being told by his doctors that he should be tested for colon cancer, he had a colonoscopy, a procedure in which a doctor inserts a long, flexible lighted tube into the rectum and guides it into the colon. The scope transmits an image of the inside of the colon.
McClary didn't know anything was wrong until he underwent the test in March 2003. It showed he had colon cancer.
A month later, a surgeon at Southeast Missouri Hospital removed 11 inches of McClary's colon and a small part of his rectum. A week later, a second surgery bypassed what remained of his colon. In July 2003, a third surgery was performed to remove the bypass.
McClary thought he was healthy again. "My father had gone through it and recovered 100 percent," he said.
But his own recovery wasn't so easy. He battled repeated infections. "As soon as I stopped taking antibiotics, I would start feeling sick again," he said.
The Sunday before Christmas 2003, he felt so bad he went to the emergency room at Southeast Missouri Hospital. Doctors discovered his colon was partially blocked. Another surgery was performed to bypass his colon.
While still recuperating in the hospital, a CAT scan discovered a cancerous tumor in his lower pelvis. Doctors said the location made it impossible to operate.
McClary sought other possibilities.
Along with his wife, Mary, he drove to Houston for treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a 500-bed Houston, Texas, hospital considered by many the best cancer center in the world. He barely made it.
Shortly after he arrived at the hospital, his kidneys stopped functioning, doctors found blood clots in both legs and an infection in his heart valve.
McClary telephoned a friend to say his final goodbyes.
Radiation treatments were used to combat the tumor. His weight dropped from 200 pounds to 140 pounds. The tumor was pressing on the nerves that ran down to his feet. The pain was so intense he couldn't walk.
"I didn't know if I would walk again," he said.
But with physical therapy, he did, a few steps at a time.
After eight weeks in the hospital being treated by teams of doctors, McClary returned to Cape Girardeau in late March. A few days afterward, he began a six-month program of chemotherapy treatments administered every other week.
McClary returned to work in June.
At first, he could only manage about three hours a day on the job. He was in a wheelchair and sometimes used a walker.
He couldn't drive because he couldn't feel the pedals.
Today McClary can drive again and works about 30 hours a week. He hopes to be back to working full time early next year.
McClary's cancer is now in remission. He's regained his weight and has returned to playing saxophone in the local band Mid-Life Crisis.
Cape Girardeau jeweler Chuck McGinty, who plays guitar in the band, said McClary has a great attitude.
"He has been somewhere that not many of us have been, and that is almost to the point of death. He has survived that and come back with a very strong, remarkable attitude," McGinty said.
McClary thinks that attitude helped him survive.
"I think healing really comes from a person's inner self," he said.
His battle has made him a tireless advocate for colon screening. He constantly advises friends and co-workers to be tested. He repeatedly brought up the issue at city department head meetings, eventually convincing all of the city's top staff to get tested.
"Anyone over 50 needs to get a colonoscopy," he said.
Had he heeded his own advice, McClary said his cancer would have been detected sooner and would have been easier to treat.
Still, he feels the worst of his ordeal is in the past. He's expecting a long life.
"At this point, I'm optimistic I'm going to be a crotchety old man," he said.
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