Long way back
By JENI FAULKNER
TO those who know him, Greg Rowkacz is only a shadow of his former self.
In just six months the strapping 23-year-old has turned from strong, muscular and bronzed to drawn and pale. His hair and skin no longer present the healthy glow of youth.
Greg was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in November.
Without warning, or even time to say goodbye to friends, Greg was rushed to Sydney for treatment and finally this week he returned home.
After five treatments of chemo-therapy, and a six-month stay at the Royal North Shore Hospital, Greg has changed dramatically and to rehabilitate himself back into the community he decided to tell his story.
"Something like this really changes your perspective on life," Greg said.
"You start to appreciate the simple things."
Greg was at the pinnacle of youth. He was active in the Sawtell Lifesaving Club for many years and had been responsible for saving many lives, never imagining his own was threatened.
It was November 17, just after his 23rd birthday, when Greg complained of a sore throat.
At the time he was studying his third year of university externally and he was also working two jobs while volunteering with the Sawtell Surf Club.
Always being fit and athletic, Greg was rarely unwell and he figured his sore throat could be stress related after one visit to a doctor but, luckily, a second GP picked up the aggressive disease.
"I remember they were testing me for all kinds of things like Ross River Fever and even then I thought that it couldn't be anything that serious," he said.
Even the day before going to Sydney Greg had been out for a two-hour surf without realising this would be his last time at the beach for some time.
"I was told by the doctor that I would have only had a few weeks to live if the leukemia hadn't been discovered, and that was just so overwhelming."
For most of his life Greg has surfed Sawtell Beach every day and at one point he was even working for the Coffs Harbour City Council as a lifeguard.
Volunteering with surf patrols was never a problem and he has been the captain of the Sawtell Surf Club, competed in national swimming and surf club titles, and is also noted for his achievements in kayaking and ski paddling.
Greg's mother, Berenice, said it is scary how quickly something can happen.
In the past six months the family's life has changed dramatically.
"It is a tunnel and you can't see the light," Berenice said.
"The doctors and nurses take you through it and we now just have our fingers crossed that this won't happen again."
Greg is now in remission and every three months he will have check ups to make sure the leukemia does not resurface.
Because the family could not find a bone marrow donor for Greg his own stem cells were transplanted.
Berenice said this meant the family had a longer wait for him to recover.
Greg's goal in the coming weeks is to catch up with friends and walk along the path to Sawtell Beach.
"Surfing is my life and I can't wait to feel the sand on my feet and go surfing again," Greg said.
An immediate goal is to get back into the water and with physiotherapy this should be possible.
In the long term the family is hoping to hold fundraisers for Greg and to also encourage people to become stem cell transplantation donors.
Berenice said the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry has about 160,000 potential donors, but there needs to be more people from the full range of ethnic backgrounds to accommodate the diverse composition of the population.