Fairfax Station Cancer Survivor Inspires Many
Losing a lung and having a brain tumor removed didn't stop Buz Bonifant from smiling or getting back on the golf course.
Fairfax Station resident Alfred “Buz” D. Bonifant has come a long way in a short time when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“You have to stay as positive as you can be during those days,” Bonifant said. “You don’t feel good, you’re tired, and sometimes you feel you don’t want to continue on, but ultimately, things will always get better whether the cancer continues or not. You learn to live with a lot of things in life and cancer is one of them.”
Bonifant recently told his story of survival as a selected speaker at a Life with Cancer event focusing on lung cancer and sponsored by Inova Fairfax Hospital. Life with Cancer is a nonprofit cancer support and education center located in Fairfax.
Bonifant's journey began in Thanksgiving 2010, when he was diagnosed with walking pneumonia after having experienced symptoms of chest pain and severe coughing. The doctor had recommended that he get a CAT Scan once the pneumonia cleared up, which was about a month and a half. That test led to a diagnosis in January 2011 of a mass in his chest by his primary care physician, Dr. Jeffrey Nekoba, who then referred him to the doctors at Inova Hospital.
The diagnosis of a mass on the left lung was later confirmed by a pulmonary physician, Dr. James Lamberti, and it was deemed cancerous. Although first diagnosis brought thoughts of the worst for Bonifant and his family, he said once they researched the facts and survival rates, nerves began to calm.
Within a short time, Bonifant was referred to an oncologist, Dr. Alex Spira, who mapped out a course for treatment: two-and-a-half months of radiation five days a week with chemotherapy once a week.
When they advised about the long recovery time, Bonifant made it his goal to cut the time down and get back on the golf course and resume the quality of life he wanted. He achieved that goal and said having positive thinking and a goal is important.
“The support of my family and friends got me through this time,” said Bonifant. “Everyone was very positive. My son, Rusty, moved into the house and took care of the situation. My daughter, Nan, rushed up from Florida to be by my side and later brought my two grandkids. And, my wife, Margaret, she has been the pillar that I leaned on the entire time. She refused to let my emotions get me in a foul mood or feel sorry for myself.”
Bonifant explained, “You can’t get down by the situation you are in. Every once in a while you have a bad day, but my wife would tell me, "No, I’m not going to have it,' and then we would think positive again.”
After treatment, a surgery was performed on May 9, 2011, by Dr. Sandeep Khandhar to remove Bonifant’s entire left lung. After only four days of recovery in the hospital and a few more weeks at home, Bonifant went back to work. He had survived stage three small cell cancer in the lung and was deemed cancer-free.
Adapting to one lung was made easier with the laughter that came along with it. Bonifant said, “For my birthday, I called my little granddaughter in Florida to have her help me blow out the candles, like she loves to do, over the phone. I counted one-two-three and then asked her how she blows the candles out so good from far away. She said, 'Huppa [her nickname for him], it was easy you only have one lung, but I have two!' She is cognizant of it and wears it like a badge of honor asking if she’s the only one in her class with a grandpa with one lung.”
The risk Bonifant ran after recovery was that this cancer stays in the blood and can manifest again. In September 2011, he noticed problems remembering words and his motor skills were affected like speaking and writing. An MRI on September 14th revealed a tumor in his brain that was causing these symptoms due to the pressure it caused on the brain. He now had Stage Four Cancer.
Two days later he had a successful surgery by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Nilesh Vyas, to remove the tumor. This was followed by spot radiation which involved a mechanical device called a Halo being screwed into his skull to pinpoint the area to treat. Again a speedy recovery of only four days in the hospital led to his symptoms beginning to disappear and after about a month he returned to work.
He has realized his stamina and ability isn’t the same, but he can still maintain the activities from before like golf and exercise to some capacity, which makes him happy.
In the combined time of both surgeries, Bonifant went through a lot of physical and mental trials. His small 145 pound frame dwindled by another 22 pounds. Although chemotherapy never affected him physically, the radiation had burned a sore into his back over time which made it hard to get comfortable.
Bonifant attributes humor and family support to his speedy recovery. He said, “You have to be able to laugh at yourself in any situation like hair loss and when your bodily functions aren’t the same. I wanted everyone to treat me the same and they did.”
His family again was his rock and the process brought him closer to his parents and siblings. His friends showed up in full force. Some friends came every Friday to have lunch with him. Others let him ride in the golf cart with them and hold the flag when he was too weak to play. It was important to him that they always included him and didn’t feel sorry for him.
"It was amazing to me how many people I had positively affected in my life that they reached out to be there for me. Your perspective in life changes immensely,” Bonifant said. “You need to be gracious and understanding of simple problems. You realize there is always somebody who has it more difficult than you.”
When he was in the treatment center he got to know some of the regulars. One woman was always by herself without support and the type of cancer was one that once it was diagnosed would have to be treated forever. He said he couldn’t understand how someone could go through the process without support.
Even with support, there are no guarantees that Bonifant’s cancer won’t come back. When inquiring about his own chances of another manifestation of the cancer, the surgeon responded “I don’t deal in percentages I deal in time. If we go one month, one year, five years, it’s more than you had.” This eased Bonifant’s anxieties and now he said he takes each day as it comes and appreciates the journey.
It could be noted that Bonifant had been a smoker all his life, but it could be it wouldn’t have changed his odds had he not been. Heredity was a factor as both his uncle and grandfather had lung cancer.
According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, over 60 percent of new lung cancer cases are people who never had smoked in their life or had quit years prior.
For more information on lung cancer efforts, contact the Lung Cancer Alliance by visiting www.lungcanceralliance.org or by calling the Lung Cancer Information Line at 800-298-2436.