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COLUMN ONE

Sending cancer a signal

John Kanzius, sorely weakened by leukemia treatments, drew on his life's work as a radio engineer to come up with his own battle plan.

November 02, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

ERIE, PA. — When doctors told John Kanzius he had nine months to live, he quietly thanked God for his blessings and prepared to die.

Then 58, he had lived a good life, with a loving wife, two successful adult daughters and a gratifying career.

Now he had leukemia and was ready to accept his fate, but the visits to the cancer ward shook him. Faces haunted him, the bald and bandaged heads, bodies slumped in wheelchairs, and children who could not play.

Like him, they had endured chemotherapy treatments that caused their weight to plummet, hands to shake, bodies to weaken, and immune systems to break down to the point that the slightest germ could be deadly. Kanzius knew their agony. He believed if cancer didn't kill him first, the treatments surely would.

He thought there had to be a more humane way to treat cancer.

Kanzius did not have a medical background, not even a bachelor's degree, but he knew radios. He had built and fixed them since he was a child, collecting transmitters, transceivers, antennas and amplifiers, earning an amateur radio operator license. Kanzius knew how to send radio wave signals around the world. If he could transmit them into cancer cells, he wondered, could he then direct the radio waves to destroy tumors, while leaving healthy cells intact?

Awake in bed one night in 2003, as the clock ticked past 2, Kanzius pulled himself from beneath the covers, leaving his sleeping wife, Marianne. He staggered down a flight of stairs, grabbed some copper wires, boxes, antennas and Marianne's pie pans, and began building a machine.

For months, Kanzius tinkered, using the pie pans to create an electronic circuit, often waking Marianne with his clanging. By day, he sent her out with supply lists: mineral mixtures, metals, wires.

His early-morning experiments would lead him to one of the nation's top cancer researcher centers, and earn the support of a Nobel Prize winner.

When it came to electronics, Marianne had always known her husband was gifted. But still she worried: Was he going mad? "My God, honey," she thought, "none of the doctors can fix this. How can you?"

--

Kanzius' mother wanted him to be a priest or a doctor, but he followed his father, a technician and ham radio operator who taught his son to love electronics and told him they would soon take over the world.

When Kanzius was 22, after two years of trade school, he got a job at RCA as a technical assistant. On his first day, he fixed the company's color television transmitters, which had been the subject of lawsuits because they did not comply with Federal Communications Commission guidelines. He was promoted to the engineering department.

He worked at RCA for two years. In 1966, he took a job at a television station as director of engineering. Kanzius became president and co-owner of a television and radio station company in 1984. He retired in 2001.

In the winter of 2002 Kanzius felt soreness in his abdomen. On Good Friday, he went in for a CT scan. Doctors told him he had five to seven years to live.

The drive home felt like the longest of his life. On the way, he called Marianne. She noted that moment in her journal:

"I hadn't heard from him. Then the phone rang. 'Honey, it's bad. I have a tumor in my stomach. They're not certain, but they think it's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.' The phone went silent."

He underwent chemotherapy, a few times a week for six months -- but he stayed upbeat, and doctors told him the cancer had gone into remission.

A year after his diagnosis, on Good Friday again, doctors gave him bad news: He had an aggressive type of cancer that had not actually gone into remission. They gave him nine months. Doctors said he needed a bone marrow transplant, and Kanzius traveled to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a second opinion. During his visit, he noticed the children in the cancer ward. Kanzius went home thinking about them, and soon mapped out his idea.

He knew that metal would heat when exposed to radio waves. He wanted to focus the waves by inserting metal particles into tumors. The infused cells would be placed in a radiofrequency field. The waves would pass through the human body, and the particles injected into the cancer would heat and kill the cells without harming anything else.

He built a machine to send the waves, while undergoing his second round of chemotherapy. This time the treatments nearly killed him. He spent three or four days a week at the hospital, sometimes for as long as eight hours. He came home to rest, only to toil over his project.

By Christmas 2003, Kanzius could barely walk. Around that time, his 83-year-old mother died from lung cancer. Kanzius was too weak to board a plane for her funeral.

He drew pictures for Marianne, leaving them around the house. One showed him as a stick figure curled over a toilet as she took care of him. "A sign of real love," he wrote. "You are my reason for living."

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