DANVILLE, Ill. | Ryan and Tammy Irby, of Georgetown, are cautiously optimistic about their future, even after their world was turned upside down by cancer nine months ago.
Last Aug. 10, Ryan, 37, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a rare bone marrow cancer that's similar to leukemia, but has no known cure. Before his diagnosis, Ryan spent a couple of months seeing various doctors to determine the cause of his extreme tiredness and 30-pound weight loss.
"By the time the cancer showed up in my blood I was already into stage three — which is the worst," Ryan said. "This type of cancer is so aggressive; it moves very fast."
"This was the worst news that we had ever received," Tammy said. "It was (a) real punch in the gut that changed our entire life. I'd never known Ryan to be sick before this happened. He was always the strong one who was supposed to take care of me. There is no cancer in Ryan's family. It's my family that's full of cancer."
Tammy has remained strong for her husband throughout the ordeal, taking family leave from her job so she could accompany him to his chemotherapy sessions and doctors' appointments, and otherwise caring for him.
"I would never let Ryan fight something like this alone," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I think it would be easier to be the one who's sick than to be the spouse. It's so hard to watch someone you love go through this."
Ryan continued to do his job in the Radiology Department at Presence United Samaritans Medical Center throughout his first chemotherapy sessions at the hospital's cancer center. He finally decided to take medical leave in January.
"We are very pleased with our Cancer Center here in Danville," Tammy said. "We'd drive 100 miles just to get to it, if it wasn't already located in town."
Ryan hopes to get confirmation in June that he's in remission and cancer-free for the present time.
Ryan explained that from the very beginning of his illness, the goal was for him to receive a stem cell transplant that used his own stem cells after they were treated to kill the myeloma.
"Because of my young age and the fact that I was fairly healthy, the doctors felt I was a good candidate for this procedure," he said.
Since high doses of chemotherapy destroy both the bad and the good blood cells in bone marrow, a person needs to replenish his own stem cells so they can create new, healthy bone marrow. In February, Ryan underwent the stem cell transplant procedure at Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis.
"It will take a while for the good cells to create new bone marrow," Ryan said, "so we just have to be patient."
Ryan is participating in a case study of multiple myeloma, and he can only hope that a cure will be found someday that will prolong his life. Right now, if all goes well, doctors tell him that his life expectancy could be another 20 years.
In the meantime, Ryan has very little immunity to germs, so he can't be exposed to crowds or people with colds. He has to get his childhood immunizations all over again, and he will be on antibiotics for the rest of his life.
Ryan has good days and bad days. Now that his wife has returned to work, he tries to do small jobs around the house. He also spends considerable time with his Masonic lodge activities.
Ryan and Tammy's primary support system right now consists of Tammy's mother, Cindy Sowers, and her two brothers. Her brother Todd Sowers, who lives with them and works as an accountant, helps the couple with the yard, groceries and general maintenance.
Other supporters include Tammy's co-workers, their church family at Westville Church of Christ and the Masonic chapters Ryan has belonged to for the past seven years. He is a member of the Valley of Danville Scottish Right Masons and the Further Light Lodge 1130 in Danville.
"When any one of us (is) in trouble, our brother Masons are always there to help," Ryan said.
"The girls at Walgreens Accounting (where Tammy has worked for 16 years) have been more than wonderful," she said. They have held fundraisers, brought the Irbys prepared meals, and organized a benefit for Ryan to help raise money for expenses not covered by insurance.
Tammy said, "It was so wonderful seeing all these people come together to help us in a time of need. We just want to say thank you to Ryan's doctors and caretakers, and everyone else who has helped us."
Ryan said, "When I first got sick, I was angry with God. But as time went on, I realized that we would have never made it this far without God's help." For the most part, he maintains a good attitude about his illness and even injects a little humor once in a while.
As a special gift to Tammy, Ryan is planning an authentic "second wedding" ceremony in June for the two of them.
"We never had a traditional wedding the first time around, and I want to do this for Tammy," he said. Their second wedding will have all the special touches — wedding dress and formal attire, music, a wedding cake, pictures and flowers.
Ryan is from Georgetown, and Tammy was born in Newport, Ind. The couple met when Tammy was Ryan's instructor at Danville's Concept College of Cosmetology.
"That was my first class to ever teach, but I must have done OK in Ryan's eyes," Tammy said, laughing. They dated only six months and were married in December 1995.
The couple always wanted to have children, but found out they couldn't have any. As an alternative, they tried four different times to adopt privately, but unfortunately none of those adoptions went through.
"The last time that we tried to adopt — in 2009 — was horrible," Tammy said. "We already had the baby home with us for a few weeks before we had to give her back. At the time, we thought that was the worst thing that could happen to us, but when Ryan got sick, we knew his disease was something even worse."
Tammy added that they are very grateful to have three nieces and one nephew to spoil since they will never have children of their own.
A bank account has been set up at the First Financial Bank in Westville under Ryan Irby Medical Fund to help defray medical expenses that are not covered by his insurance.