LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — It’s quite possible that cancer was what saved Tom McKay’s life.
For sure, a strange way of rationalizing a bad situation. Then again, that’s the kind of man McKay is.
To say the 66-year-old general manager of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium is a positive soul is akin to saying the sun is bright. In both cases, blindingly so.
McKay’s diagnosis 13 years ago of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer, means he’s constantly seeing his doctor for checkups. At age 53, he bested that setback quickly.
His next health hurdle was not as timid.
It was during one of those routine checkups when McKay took a trip through a CT scanner that doctors discovered two spots on his liver. That was March of 2010.
‘‘That was a very tough day,’’ McKay recalled in a recent interview. ‘‘I was about as down as I could possibly be.’’
McKay is upbeat even as he talks about one of the worst days of his life. As he spoke to a reporter inside an empty auditorium hall, McKay flashed that Irish smile that has won over city managers, business partners and regular strangers for decades. He paused to collect his thoughts and gazed out to the auditorium’s center floor, where the boxing ring was set up for the Golden Gloves tournament.
‘‘I am almost shaking now, telling you about this,’’ McKay said as he began telling the story about his fight to live and his love of someone he'll never meet.
McKay said his liver cancer was caused by an inherited disease called hemochromatosis, a condition in which the bloodstream is overloaded with iron. It’s one of the most common genetic diseases in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition can result in cirrhosis of the liver.
‘‘I've been known around town to have a few cocktails and one of the first things my doctor said was, ‘You've got to stop drinking,'’’ McKay said. ‘‘They first thought that was what caused my liver cancer.’’
He quit drinking anyway. McKay said it was easier than he thought it would be.
‘‘I'm in show business,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a social thing. It’s what you do.’’
The strangest part for McKay was that he never felt any symptoms. Had it not been for the CT scan, he would have never found out about his diseased liver until it was too late. Once it was detected, doctors immediately placed him on a transplant list. For McKay, the word ‘‘transplant’’ still sounds strange.
‘‘It sounds to me like something out of science-fiction movies,’’ he said.
The experience also brought him up close and personal with another term he thought he'd never know: organ donor.
Doctors laid out the transplant process for McKay. He said the information wasn’t ‘‘rosy.’’
There were a number of factors standing in the way. McKay said the two spots on his liver meant the cancer had not yet spread. A third spot, however, would doom his chances of receiving another liver. Like in baseball, it would be three strikes and you’re out.
‘‘That’s what the doctors call out of bounds,’’ he said. ‘‘You can’t get a transplant because they don’t want to waste a liver on cancer that would spread.’’
His wife of 43 years, Lori, said McKay was still the same man she fell in love with decades ago despite the diagnosis.
‘‘He was on a mission from the time he found out about the chance he'd go out of bounds,’’ she said recently over the phone.
Theirs is the type of relationship where Lori can tell if something is on Tom’s mind, and vice versa. She recalled those times when he'd feel ‘‘down.’’
She'd do her best to be the ‘‘up’’ person.
‘‘Being married all these years, you keep each other up at times when you know the other is going down,’’ she added.
McKay would discover that the New England region has one of the longest wait times in the country for liver donations. He was advised to head to the Mayo Clinic’s Florida and Minnesota locations. Countless airplane trips ensued. Even though doctors had McKay’s records from Boston, both hospitals insisted on running the same tests over and over again.
McKay said he had no idea how long it would take for his name to come up on a donor list.
With each passing day, there was the chance that the cancer would spread.
Then came the phone call he had been waiting for. It was the first week of February 2012. He remembers it was a Saturday night. McKay was at his home in Salisbury with Lori. He got a call at 6 p.m. from Mass General.
A new liver was waiting, doctors said. He was told to pack his bags and wait an hour for a follow-up phone call.
‘‘All I thought about was how I should have had that liver,’’ McKay recalled about his reaction to the follow-up call, informing him that the liver was no longer available. ‘‘I gotta tell you, I couldn’t sleep. I was an emotional roller coaster for days.’’Continued...