Stories of Resilience: Jeff Ber

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If you want to believe in miracles or luck or whatever you want to call it, just look at me. Even when the odds are stacked against you and people have given up on you, just remember there is always hope.”

I remember celebrating my 29th birthday with close friends. I had lived a relatively normal life. I didn’t have many worries in the world. I was young, had a good job, had many friends, and was just living life. A few days after my 29th birthday, with no worries in the world, I started to feel a bit of pain in my groin area. I thought it was my hernia acting up. A year prior, I had groin pain, and it was diagnosed that I had a minor hernia. The hernia wasn’t bothersome so I did not do anything about it and would monitor it to see if it would get worse and if so, I would have surgery to fix the hernia later on. So I went to my family doctor who sent me for an ultrasound and bloodwork. The next day I received a call that I had an appointment booked with a surgeon. I thought I was going to an appointment to see a hernia surgeon as that is what happened the previous year. The next day I drove to my appointment and I pulled up to the building. I instantly knew something was wrong. The building was called ‘Prostate Cancer Centre.’ I found it weird I had an appointment booked at the Cancer Centre. I thought I was healthy, I felt fine, and I was working out 4-5 times a week. The only thing I could think of was that I was a bit more tired than normal, but I thought that had to do with working a lot of hours.

I remember going to the clinic and being the only one in the waiting room. When I met with the doctor, the first thing he told me was, “I normally don’t see patients after hours, but your case is extremely time-sensitive.”

I wasn’t sure what was going on and then he said “you have cancer.” 

I had the most uneasy feeling in my stomach and I tried to hold it together. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I had so many questions for the doctor as my first thought was that I was going to die. He said we need to take things one step at a time and that I would need a CT scan to see if cancer had spread and I would have surgery immediately. I had so many questions. I asked if I would need chemotherapy and if I will be cured and he repeated to say that we need to take things one step at a time. The plan was to have surgery immediately if the cancer had not spread. hen I would just need time to recover and I would be good to go. If the cancer did spread, then I would need to see an oncologist who would put together a treatment plan. The doctor said it is very likely that the cancer had spread but they will know for sure after the CT scan. The doctor was pretty confident cancer had spread since my tumour markers were elevated. There are two main tumour markers that diagnose someone with testicular cancer, one is your Alpha Feta Protein (AFP) and the other is Beta HCG. Both of my markers were extremely elevated. Just for reference, a normal adult male should have an AFP level between 10-20ng/ml, mine was over 8000ng/ml and increasing. My Beta HCG was also over the normal limit.

The appointment was relatively short. I left his office and walked to my car. I completely broke down and cried uncontrollably. It was such a weird feeling. I kept thinking how could this happen to me? I was young, active, and had never been sick a day in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who I could tell. 

After trying to get myself together, I drove home. It was the hardest drive I ever had to do. I cried the entire drive home and had to pull over a number of times because I couldn’t control myself. I wanted to tell my parents and two sisters, but I didn’t know how to tell them. It was weird, we are such a close family and for some reason, I didn’t have it in me to tell them. I felt extremely selfish if I were to tell them. I didn’t want to burden my family with the bad news. I was hoping that the doctor was wrong and that the cancer had not spread. So my plan was to have the surgery, hopefully, get good news that the cancer had not spread, and then tell my family what happened and that there was nothing to worry about. I was supposed to go to my parent’s house for dinner that night. I couldn’t bear to call and upset them, so I texted my mom that I had other plans and couldn’t make dinner. That night at home alone was awful. I couldn’t sleep, I tried reading about testicular cancer on the internet but I couldn’t focus, and I was up all night, distraught and sad. The next morning I was planning to go in to work to clean up things and wait for the call from the hospital to find out when my surgery is.

My mom knew something was wrong. That morning she kept calling me and I would not answer. I finally answered and she asked if everything was ok, and I could not respond. I told her something had happened to me and I will come over to tell her and dad. She also called my sister Dahlia to come over. When I arrived at my parent’s house, they answered the door. I broke down crying and was shaking uncontrollably. They were extremely worried and had no idea what was going on. When I finally gathered myself, I told them that I had cancer. Telling my parents and sister this was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I felt so selfish and that it was unfair that I was putting this burden on them. My uncle passed away from a terminal disease when I was a young kid and so how could I put my family through this again? I have two sisters who have kids and I was an uncle. I thought history was repeating itself. My uncle died from a disease and now I was going to die and my nieces and nephews would grow up without an uncle, just as I did. 

I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time, but that is what family is for. To celebrate the good times with you, and to support and love you unconditionally when things go bad. It was a huge relief to tell my family. To this day, I think telling them was the hardest part of my journey. Their support and undevoted love were what I needed. They told me we were going to fight this together and that I was going to beat cancer. I never made it to the office that day to clean up my things. The hospital called to tell me I would be having surgery the next morning.

The next morning I went to the hospital to have surgery to remove my right testicle. I waited around all day to have the surgery. The surgery had some minor complications as the surgeon cut a major blood vessel in my groin area that ended up pooling an immense amount of blood which ended up delaying my recovery time. After the surgery, I was recovering in my hospital room, the surgeon came in and told me and my parents that he received the results from the CT scan and that I had late-stage testicular cancer as cancer had spread from my testicle to my lymph nodes and I had four large tumours in my abdomen. He said an oncologist will reach out to get me started on treatment. 

Even though deep down I was expecting that the CT scan would reveal cancer had spread, it was still a shock to hear it from the doctor. I was upset that my cancer journey was not over. In fact, it was just the beginning. 

I had my family by my side and they assured me I was going to get through this. Their support from day one kept me going. I use to take the support I received from people for granted, but during these tough times, it really put things in perspective that showed me how important that support really is.

A week after the surgery I met with my Oncologist. He wanted to get me started on a 3-month chemotherapy plan. Since I had non-seminoma cancer, the plan would be to see how much cancer the chemotherapy would kill. If the chemotherapy kills all cancer, then I am done. If the chemotherapy is not 100% effective, then I would need surgery to remove the remaining tumours. The surgery to remove my testicle lowered my AFP and Beta HCG numbers, but they were still elevated and my oncologist wanted me to start treatment immediately. Unfortunately, I was unable to start treatment right away as I still had a huge pool of blood in my abdomen which was from the complication of the surgery and it could have gotten infected, so I had to delay the start of chemotherapy by one week. This was not ideal and put me in a worse spot as I had active cancer in me.

I knew the road ahead would not be easy, but I kept thinking about my grandparents. They have always been my biggest inspiration in life. All of my grandparents were in the Holocaust. My mother’s parents, Socher and Sonia Kravitz, and my father’s parents, Michael and Sala Ber. Hearing their stories about what they went through and the fact they lost their entire families, I can’t even begin to imagine how hard life was for them. Seeing how strong they were to keep fighting and never give up on life, especially when all hope seemed to be lost, they kept fighting. It is my grandparent’s ‘never give up’ mentality that I kept thinking about that kept me going.

The following week I started my chemotherapy. I didn’t know what to expect but I went in with a positive attitude that this is my fight and that the chemotherapy will kill my cancer. The days were long as I would go to the Tom Baker Cancer Center for 8-10 hours a day and I would be given three different drugs. I would even leave the Cancer Center with a ‘baby bottle’, which was another set of drugs that were put into my arm by IV that I had to take home and sleep with. I moved in with my parents and they took care of me. I was unable to sleep in a bed with the baby bottle and IV, so I had to sleep in a lazy boy chair during that period. The first few days of chemo didn’t seem to be too bad, it was about a week after that I started to get very sick. I don’t need to go into detail, but I started to feel the side effects of nausea, hair loss and feeling extremely run down. 

My sister and her daughter Sophie would come over to visit with me and I will always remember two-year-old Sophie massaging my feet because she could see how sick I was and she said her massages would help me get better. It’s moments like those that leave me speechless. I had such great support from my friends and family. One morning I noticed clumps of my hair falling out. I was upset, but it wasn’t a shock as I was expecting this moment to happen. My brother-in-law Kevin was such great support during my entire cancer journey. The day my hair started to fall out, he came over to lift me up and he brought hair clippers and shaved my head. It’s the little things like this that really moved me and made a big impact on my well-being and attitude. This first stint of chemo and all the side effects that came with it were part of my plan, my oncologist had a plan, and I was sticking to it. I knew this would be over in three months (or at least that is what I was hoping for). The days were long at the Tom Baker, but I had my family by my side and I even had some friends who came to visit me to help pass the time. My mother stayed by my side the entire time.

At the end of the three months, the big day arrived. I was to go for my CT scan. The results from the CT scan showed that I still had a few tumours in my abdomen. The chemo partially worked. It didn’t allow my cancer to spread, however, it was unsuccessful in killing all my cancer. About a week after my last chemo treatment I went in for surgery. The surgery I was having now was called Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection (RPLND). Essentially the surgeon cuts open my abdomen from the top of my chest to my pelvis with the goal of removing the tumours. I was pretty scared and anxious to have this surgery, but I had no choice. I couldn’t just give up now. It sucks that I went through three months of chemo and I still needed surgery, but I was thankful I was able to have surgery and still had hope I could beat this disease. The surgery was a success, the surgeon did a great job and completely removed all the tumours in me. I was in remission. I was in the hospital for three weeks recovering and then they discharged me. I was still very weak when I got home to recover.

After recovering at home for a week, I started feeling pain in my stomach. I also noticed a large lump in my stomach, it looked like I was pregnant. I was paranoid and thought cancer came back. I rushed over to the emergency room and met with the surgeon who did my surgery a few weeks earlier. The surgeon said it couldn’t be a tumour since he just removed everything. He thought it could be an infection and his plan was to drain the infection. I remember meeting with the radiologist who was going to drain the infection and he thought that it might actually be a tumour since the images of the infection look the same as my cancer images. So instead of draining the supposed infection, they did a biopsy. The biopsy came back and everyone, including all the doctors, were shocked. The biopsy was positive for cancer. I had a CT scan that showed I had a 22cm tumour in my abdomen. No one could believe this since I just had surgery 4 weeks earlier and it is unheard of for a tumour to grow so big so quickly. The oncologist and surgeons were in agreement that I needed to have emergency surgery to remove this tumour. They scheduled me for surgery the next day.

This is where everything seemed to change for me. Up until this point, I was following standard protocol and the doctors had a plan for me. Now I was entering unchartered water as there was no more protocol for my survival. The plan was to have surgery to remove the 22cm tumour. That’s all I was focused on. I couldn’t let myself futurize and think of the possibility of the surgery not being a success.

I remember waiting outside the operating room and the anesthesiologist came to talk to me. He said the surgery is very high risk and asked if I said my goodbyes to my family. I was shocked. I thought I was going in for major surgery but never thought there was a chance I might not survive. I told the anesthesiologist that I needed to speak to the surgeon as I was starting to second guess if I wanted to have the surgery. The surgeon came and spoke to me and assured me that I was in good hands. He said he has never lost anyone in the operating room and he doesn’t plan to start with me. After calming me down, I went in for surgery. This was the surgery that changed my life. Just when I thought things were bad, they got much worse. The surgery lasted 10 hours. I had a 22cm tumour growing like wildfire in my abdomen. 

The tumour was growing around my bowels, attached to my right kidney, and wrapped around my vena cava. In short, the surgeon was able to remove 20 of the 22cm tumour. I had 3 bowel resections and lost a kidney. I lost so much blood in the surgery that I almost died. I needed over 20 units of blood transfused during the surgery. Thank god the surgeon was prepared for that. The last 2cm of the tumour that the surgeon could not remove was wrapped around my vena cava, which is a large vein that carries blood to your heart. If the surgeon would have removed that, I would have bled to death. The surgery ended with a 2cm tumour still inside me. I was in bad shape after this surgery. I was in ICU and living on a breathing machine. After the surgery, the doctors wanted to meet with my parents and sister. My family did not tell me about this meeting until I recovered as they did not want me to give up hope. My parents and sister went into a room with about 15 doctors and they said that they have done everything they could to save Jeffs’s life. They said there was nothing else they could do. They gave me a few months to live and told my parents to make the remaining days of my life as comfortable as possible. One doctor even suggested taking me to Tahiti to live out my last days.

I was in the hospital for over a month recovering from the surgery. Things started to go from bad to worse. The 2cm tumour that could not be removed started growing as I was in the hospital trying to recover. It went from 2cm to 5cm to 15cm. This was one of my lowest points. I was so sick and trying to recover, yet this tumour inside me was continuing to grow. Things started to really look bleak.

I would not be here if it weren’t for my family, especially my sister Dahlia. She is my angel. Upon hearing this awful news, my sister didn’t listen to the doctors and give up, instead, she contacted Dr. Nichols, who is one of the world’s top oncologists based out of the University of Seattle. I didn’t know this, but she was in contact with him since day one of my diagnosis. She wanted to get a second opinion which confirmed that everything my doctors were doing is what he would have done. Dr. Nichols was aware of everything that was going on since my sister kept him updated. So when my sister called him at home in the evening after that last surgery, he knew what was going on. Dr. Nichols didn’t have an answer right away, but he said he would work on a plan for me. My family now had hope and shared with me that this new doctor, Dr. Nichols, is putting together a plan.

A week later, Dr. Nichols along with a few other doctors put together a plan forward for me. At this point, I was still recovering in the hospital but the plan was to start when I would regain some of my strength and be able to endure this new treatment plan. I spoke with Dr. Nichols on the phone and he shared with me his plan. He said my case is extremely rare and there are no guidelines that he or any doctor can follow as they are in unchartered territory. He said his plan is the best that they can do and it gives me a chance to still beat this disease. The plan was to have the most extreme chemotherapy followed by two stem cell transplants back to back. The goal is to have the chemo and stem cell transplants kill the tumour. If unsuccessful, then I would need surgery after the stem cell transplants to remove the tumour. This plan had under a 10% chance of working, but I had a plan. As long as I had something that I could do to try and beat this disease I would give it my all. What other options did I really have?

This surgery took a huge toll on me both mentally and physically. I was in the hospital for over a month recovering from the surgery and I know I still had a long road ahead. I can say that if it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I would have made it. They were always by my side, literally! The hospital has visiting hours and does not allow visitors to sleepover. However, since the doctors thought I only had a short time to live, they allowed my mom to sleep in my room on a mattress beside my bed. At the time I thought she was crazy for wanting to stay with me all the time, but I now realize how important that was for her to do that. That unconditional love and support continued to help me throughout my journey to help me keep a positive attitude to never give up and stay strong to fight another day. I always had amazing support from those close to me. My sister Dahlia who was pregnant at the time always visited me and tried to cheer me up. My parents were by my side the entire time. My sister, Aliza, who doesn’t live in Calgary would fly in to visit. My brother-in-law, Kevin, would come by the hospital all the time to check up on me and try to get my mind off of what I was going through. My cousin Mark flew in from Israel to see me, and my close friends would check up on me and visit with me whenever they had the chance. I didn’t realize at the time how important having family was. Their support and my will to live really helped me.

Once I partially recovered from the surgery, I started this very aggressive chemotherapy regimen. This chemo was so toxic that it made the previous chemotherapy I had seem like a walk in a park. About a week after I finished the chemo, I started with the first of two stem cell transplants. Prior to starting the first stem cell transplant, I needed to harvest my stem cells. I’m not going to go in to much detail, but this was another long process. Once the doctors collected enough stem cells, I was then ready to start the first stem cell transplant. I was still sick and lost a lot of weight from these last sessions of the very aggressive chemo. The doctors wanted me to try and gain some weight back before I started the stem cell transplant since I was going to lose a lot of weight during the transplant. I didn’t have much of an appetite and my family was trying to get me to eat whatever I could. 

The support I had from everyone close to me really helped me out. I remember being in the hospital the day before the start of my first stem cell transplant and my dad asking me what he could get me to eat. I couldn’t think of anything. He started making tons of suggestions and I could see he really wanted to do whatever he could to help me out. I told him I didn’t know what I was in a mood for or what I could stomach. At this point, I did not have much of a sense of taste and nothing seemed to appeal to me. My dad started mentioning some foods that he knew I use to enjoy. He suggested burgers, sushi, chicken wings, and more. I told him I didn’t know what I wanted but I might be able to eat a little bit of something. So he went out to grab me some food. When he came back to the hospital, he must have gone to six different restaurants and brought me a different dish from each place. It was things like this that continued to help push me to fight. Of everything that I experienced so far, the stem cell transplant was by far the worst. It was worse than any chemotherapy or surgery that I’ve had. I was in the hospital for four weeks during each stem cell transplant. The stem cell transplant was so aggressive. I was nauseous and throwing up around the clock even when I had nothing to throw up. 

I lost so much weight. I am a 220lbs 6’4’’ guy, but my weight dropped to 140lbs (I guess it was a good thing my dad brought me all that food, otherwise who knows how low my weight would have been). I completely lost my sense of taste and I started to develop folliculitis all over my body since I did not have any immunity to fight off any bacterial or fungal infections. I was miserable and in pain for the 4 weeks. This treatment was the worst. I remember having my 30th birthday in my hospital bed while undergoing my first stem cell transplant. It wasn’t much of a birthday since I was not allowed many visitors since I had no immunity. After the first transplant was finished, I was allowed to go home for a week to recover. The doctors wanted to start the second transplant right away since the cancer was very aggressive. I hit my lowest point after my first stem cell transplant. 

When I was at home recovering, the thought of having to go back to the hospital to do it all over again really upset me. Up until this point in my cancer journey, I never knew what to expect. I would have different surgeries and different types of chemotherapy, so I didn’t know what to expect. This was the first time that I knew what I was in for and what a second stem cell transplant would entail. My family was an amazing support system. They kept trying to motivate me to stay positive, but I got to a point where I just about gave up. The pain of going back to the hospital for another transplant, especially when there were no guarantees that it would work, really made me question giving up. Why would I put myself through so much pain and agony again when the doctors didn’t know if it would kill the cancer? Even with all the support I had, I refused to go back to the hospital. However, one night everything changed for me. I don’t know how it happened, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandparents. As shitty as things were for me, and as badly as I wanted to give up, I would think about how lucky I am that I have a chance to live. 

I think there is something inherent in every human being that makes them want to fight to live. I didn’t think I had it in me, but it just happened. My mindset went from being a victim, to being grateful and motivated to continue the fight. I knew deep down that I was going to beat this disease, even with the odds stacked against me. Maybe it takes hitting your rock bottom to ignite that fire in you to continue fighting and not give up.

I completed the second stem cell transplant and then I went for a CT scan. The scan showed that I had a 2cm tumour and it was in a very awkward spot. The doctors were unsure if the cancer was active or not, so they wanted me to have surgery to remove it right away. Due to the complexity of the surgery, all of my doctors recommended I go down to Los Angeles to the University of Southern California and have Dr. Daneshmand do the surgery. He was supposed to be one of the best surgeons for what I needed and this was my last chance. My family who was with me since day one were still by my side and they would do whatever they could to give me the best chance of beating this. Trying to focus on the task at hand and not futurize about what will happen after the surgery, I went down to LA with my mother to have the surgery. The surgery was a complete success. Dr. Daneshmand was able to remove the tumour. They did a biopsy on the tumour immediately and the results came back that it was dead tissue. This was the best news possible. Of all the surgeries that I previously had, the tumours that were removed were always live cancer. This was the first time the results came back negative. I beat cancer!

For the first five years after the last surgery, I would consistently go for cancer checkups. Every time I would go I would always get nervous and start to relive the emotions of what I went through. Even today, I still get anxious and nervous when I go for checkups. This is something that I will probably have to live with for the rest of my life. I am eight years in remission and I am a survivor and I now have a long life ahead of me.

If you want to believe in miracles or luck or whatever you want to call it, just look at me. Even when the odds are stacked against you and people have given up on you, just remember there is always hope. For me, it was very important to surround myself with positive people who actually cared for me. I can’t thank my parents, Abe and Riva, my grandparents, Michael and Sala Ber, and Socher and Sonia Kravits, my sisters, Dahlia and Aliza, my brother in law Kevin, my nieces and nephews (Sophie, Ben, Sonia, Mila, and Max), and my close friends Dan, Mike, Rod, Elliot, and Kurt, enough for their unconditional support and love that saved my life.

Are you ready to share your story of RESILIENCE? You can do that HERE.

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