After returning from working in Antarctica for eight months, Lucas Graychase of Bangor felt the healthiest he had ever been. But six months later, in May 2021, he saw a doctor for persistent back pain and left with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Graychase, 46, received an MRI, which revealed a ruptured disc. But the technician also noticed something suspicious — a dark spot on his liver.
“I didn’t have any symptoms. None of the bloodwork showed anything. It was an accidental find,” Graychase said. “Whoever read those images was paying attention. Then the race began.”
He received another MRI, a colonoscopy and a liver biopsy. His doctors determined he had terminal colorectal cancer that had spread to his liver. He had stage 4 cancer, and was given 3 1/2 years to live.
Nearly a year later, Graychase is still working as facilities director for the Brewer School Department, overseeing major work at the city’s two schools, including upgrades to their ventilation systems, the installation of a generator at the high school and updates to insulation to make the schools more efficient.
“As long as I’m physically able, I will get the district to where they need to be and hopefully prepare that, in the event I’m not able to do it, they can continue on and won’t be left out to dry,” he said.
Graychase finds the surprise diagnosis baffling.
He underwent extensive medical tests before he worked as the only controls technician at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the primary U.S. research station on the continent, from February to October of 2020. Those tests included blood work, chest x-rays and ultrasounds of his gallbladder, stomach, liver, all of which came back clean. He was considered too young, however, to receive a colonoscopy.
In Antarctica, Graychase’s job was to troubleshoot when lights, radar systems, dormitory temperature controls and other systems at the research facilities failed. This proved critical since the average temperature outside when he was there was roughly 35 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, he said.
Graychase admitted he dislikes the cold, and initially looked into the position in Antarctica in jest. As he learned more, however, he felt compelled to apply.
“It wasn’t on a list of things I wanted to do, but how do you say no to an opportunity like that?” he said.
Back in Maine, within a week of his diagnosis, Graychase had a port inserted in his chest and received his first chemotherapy treatment. He now undergoes chemotherapy every two weeks.
Graychase said his first round of aggressive chemotherapy helped keep things at bay; his cancer didn’t spread or grow. The doctors then switched to a maintenance treatment, which Graychase said “failed miserably.”
“We asked for another scan and we saw the tumors started to grow, so I was put on a different aggressive treatment, and my cancer numbers decreased about 25 percent,” Graychase said.
The constant aggressive treatments, however, leave him about 10 days each month during which he feels “what I consider to be my new baseline. I don’t ever feel good, but I’m functional.”
Aside from fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea, Graychase said the treatments caused severe problems with his nerves.
“For almost six months I couldn’t reach into the refrigerator without gloves — can’t wash your hands with cold water, can’t drink anything cold,” he said. “It affects the nerve endings so it feels like you’re swallowing shards of glass.”
He has received 23 chemotherapy treatments all while continuing to work as Brewer’s school facilities director, a job he accepted while working in Antarctica.
Graychase’s sister began a GoFundMe online fundraising campaign to help pay for his chemotherapy treatments. More than 260 people had donated nearly $37,400 as of Wednesday afternoon.
“They’ve managed to take care of the financial end for this first year, which allows me to focus on eating, getting the right amount of sleep, and staying physically healthy,” Graychase said. “That being the only thing I have to focus on, I think, has made all the difference.”
Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer called Graychase “one of the bravest, most dedicated school employees one could ever hope to find.
“He has trained and taught our maintenance department and upped our facilities game in every possible way. All this while he was, early on in his time with us, diagnosed with and battling cancer.”
Aside from receiving chemotherapy and working in Brewer schools, Graychase continues to research new treatments and clinical trials that may be options for him.
“I’m not ready to go,” he said. “I’m not looking for 50 or 60 more years, but I feel like life owes me at least 20.”