By Jenny Song
An Advocate Finds His Community
Surviving kidney cancer fueled Eric Perakslis' passion to help cancer survivors
By Jenny Song
You might say Eric Perakslis was a cancer survivor even before his diagnosis with the disease.
When he was 19, Perakslis lost his father to head and neck cancer. In 1999, his cousin Grant died of oral cancer. He was also a caregiver for Grant’s daughter, Lauren, before she died in 2001, at 17, from rhabdomyosarcoma—a cancer that grows in muscle tissue. (Perakslis drove Lauren from Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., for treatments.) His family’s extensive history of melanoma led the National Cancer Institute to include some members, including Perakslis, in a melanoma research study.
In short, cancer has affected Perakslis’ family for most of his life.
So when the 41-year-old learned three years ago that the abdominal pain he’d been having was kidney cancer—stage III papillary renal cell carcinoma—the diagnosis wasn’t a complete shock. His diagnosis “just sharpened the sword a little bit,” he says, and made him angrier at the disease.
As much as cancer has taken from his life, however, Perakslis says his diagnosis offered him an opportunity. “Cancer was a catalyst,” he says, because it gave him a community in which to be an advocate. “I was an advocate without a community before that.”
Don’t expect Perakslis to say that cancer is a gift, though. “I can’t quite get there,” he says, sitting in his office in Radnor, Pa., this past September. “But I think there are enabling and entitling things that happen with it. And I think there’s a responsibility that goes with it as well.”
“You carry the losses with you forever,” he says, the pace of his voice slowing. “But how do you feed off of it? How do you use it? How do you apply it?”
Admittedly an introvert by nature, Perakslis is driven by these kinds of questions. His internal dialogue motivates him to reach deep inside and find the passion and zeal to push beyond the pain, doubt and fear.
When Perakslis researched his diagnosis and discovered that he had a 30 percent chance of living five years, his daughter, Sam, was 3. “I have a one-in-three chance to see her reach third grade,” he recalls thinking, before shifting his focus. “You have that thought for a day or two, and then you realize you’ll be a lunatic if you allow that thought to be there for more than a day or two. And you move on.”