Swoffer, 70, has kept his cancer treatments low-key for two years, but now he's ready to go public with it.
Will Swoffer is a competitive person.
He started with the Independence Fire Department on Jan. 1, 1961. By 1968, Swoffer had been promoted as fire equipment operator, captain, and finally, fire chief.
An active lifestyle kept Swoffer busy participating in volleyball, softball and basketball. His volleyball team, the Kansas City Masters, even took the national title one year.
His two-hour water volleyball games, three times a week, are on hold, though. Swoffer, a 50-year resident of Independence and District 2 City Council member, is seeing a new form of competition.
It’s not a game, he says, but it is a challenge.
“I definitely will not give up on it,” Swoffer, 70, says. “It’s one of those things where I think you have to treat it with extreme seriousness, but I plan on beating it.”
He remembers the sickest he ever got prior to his cancer diagnosis. In his 30s, Swoffer was swimming when he experienced extreme abdominal pain. Soon after, he had his appendix removed.
That was it, he says of his experience with hospitals.
“I was just rather surprised that I ended up with cancer,” Swoffer says. “I’ve always been so healthy. I never took medicines. I very seldom even took an aspirin.”
Part of Swoffer’s healthy routine included an annual physical examination, even at a young age. He’s been “very religious” in taking care of his body, avoiding cigarettes and alcoholic beverages all together.
Two years ago, tests during a routine examination revealed a high prostate-specific antigen. PSA is a protein found in blood that is used to measure prostate cancer.
He had felt zero signs or symptoms of an illness.
Doctors immediately ordered biopsies. Twenty biopsies later, Swoffer’s prostate was determined as 100 percent “involved” with cancer, he says. The cancer had already entered his bloodstream and his bones.
“I was extremely depressed,” Swoffer says, laughing in recollection of the day he was diagnosed. “In fact, I asked the doctor, ‘Well, how long do I have, Doc?’”
He laughs some more. “He says, ‘Well, let’s just get into this thing and find out.’”
Medication treatments were ordered, but the cancer spread. Doctors began treating his prostate cancer, but it spread too rapidly, shifting the focus to beating bone cancer. Swoffer’s intravenous chemotherapy treatments started in August. Every three weeks, he takes a chemo treatment at the University of Kansas Medical Center, hoping it will kill the cancer that flows through his bloodstream.
Chemotherapy side effects differ based on specific treatments, according to the American Cancer Society, but they include taste changes, vomiting and nausea, among others. In days following his initial chemo treatments, Swoffer was sometimes hyper and was sometimes lethargic. “But now,” he says, “I just feel normal.”
He has zero pain. A bottle of pain pills that doctors administered to Swoffer remains full.
“I think I’m going to beat it,” Swoffer says. “I’m very upbeat. I enjoy what I’m doing. I stay away from things that are depressing and things that emotionally get me involved.”
Initially, Swoffer was silent on publicly discussing his illness. People have asked questions privately, he says, and he’s answered them.
“It’s a fact that I don’t feel real comfortable talking about it,” he says, “but I’m not in denial that I have cancer.”
Prior to his 2008 campaign for re-election, Swoffer says he consulted city staff and fellow council members on whether he should disclose his prostate cancer diagnosis.
“I decided I wouldn’t disclose it because I did want to get re-elected,” says Swoffer, who has yet to miss a single council meeting related to his cancer. “I don’t believe it has hindered my work at all on the council. I’ve been very private about it; I’m a private person.”
It’s not as though Swoffer’s the first sitting Independence City Council member in recent history to combat cancer. In 2003, former District 4 Council Member Charlie Rich battled lung cancer. Two years earlier, former At-Large Council Member Bill McDonald underwent radiation treatment for a cancerous cyst between his vocal chords.
In 1996, District 3 City Council Member Susan Block died of cancer. An honor in Block’s name is awarded annually to city employees who’ve shown their commitment to public service.
But Swoffer recently changed his mind about discussing it publicly, saying that residents have a right to know about their elected officials’ illnesses.
Swoffer is doing well enough in his battle that KU doctors are allowing him to receive two chemotherapy treatments while in Florida. Swoffer and his wife of 50 years, Charlotte, left Thursday afternoon to spend the holidays with family in Canton, Ohio, and in Clearwater Beach, Fla. He’ll return to Independence in mid-January.
Swoffer says he doesn’t understand why he was diagnosed with cancer because of his healthy lifestyle, but he knows part of it is hereditary – his father, an uncle and a cousin all had cancer.
“It is absolutely amazing how many people have cancer,” Swoffer says. “All I can say is it is here, and I think everybody needs to take as many precautions as they can because it’s a disease you need to be mindful exists and just take care of yourself.”