ERIN – On a damp drizzly day in November, Kevin Cox is operating an excavating machine on a property in Orton.
While others look for shelter, he is in his glory, scraping, levelling and compressing the earth.
Cox, 34, has jumped right back into normal life after apparently – hopefully – battling cancer for the second and final time.
As he looks over the rolling property, he sees the job in front of him, the family waiting for him, and feels relief and gratitude that he can finally return to the life he loves so much.
Facing the possibility of death twice is sobering, he said.
“It’s scary, for sure,” Cox said. “I’m the type of person that really likes to be in control … So, when I lose that control, it’s very tough to relinquish control to doctors. I’m putting my faith in my surgeon. That was the hardest part.”
Cox’s medical saga began in January 2022 when he had a cold sore that wouldn’t go away. It turned out to be a rare form of melanoma and in August of 2022 he had surgery to remove the cancer cells from his neck and lower lip.
Doctors took tendons and arteries from his forearm to rebuild his face and took skin from his leg to repair the arm.
A scan in October that year showed he was all clear, so in November Cox and his wife Laurie held a fundraiser party and raised $10,000 for Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital.
But when the calendar flipped to 2023, Cox noticed swelling in his face again and tests revealed the cancer had returned.
“I went down a long, dark road for a while,” he said after a pause.
“I was contemplating the fact that I might not see my daughter, who’s two, I might not even see her go to school, let alone graduate or walk her down the aisle.
“I might not be there to make a man out of my son who’s five. You know, teach him all the things that my father taught me, and my grandfather taught me, that kind of stuff, right?”
And the option presented by his doctors wasn’t very encouraging – more surgery.
“The solution was to do it all over again, do the same surgery again hoping for a different result,” he said. “More invasive surgery, shave my jaw, remove my lower teeth, do the same thing to my other arm.
“To me that wasn’t an option. There’s got to be a better way. So we ended up looking for alternative treatment and that’s how we ended up in Mexico.”
While his Canadian doctors put him on immunotherapy, Laurie Cox did some research and discovered an American company, Immunocine, that offers dendritic cell treatment at its facility in Cancun, Mexico.
Dendritic cells help the immune system recognise and attack abnormal cells, such as cancer cells.
Scientists grow dendritic cells alongside cancer cells in the lab and create a vaccine that then stimulates the immune system to attack the cancer.
This kind of treatment is still considered experimental, although the research has been around for 20 years and there have been numerous clinical trials.
Customized to patient
The vaccine is custom to the patient and causes the immune system to recognize their cancer cells and fight them.
It does not introduce any foreign compounds into the body, has fewer side effects than treatments like chemotherapy, and the “immunological memory” that develops after having the vaccine is life-long, making it much harder for the cancer to return.
Not every cancer or every patient is a candidate, however. Patients must pass some milestones to be eligible, including having a tumour that can be biopsied, having a stable immune system, being able to travel and have six weeks of treatments, and of course, the cost.
Cox said he and his family came up with the money – $95,000 for the treatments alone plus travel and accommodation – and Kevin, Laurie and their two children headed to Mexico in April.
To Mexico for dendritic cell treatment
Cox owns DK Excavating and is well-known in Erin and the surrounding area. When folks heard about this, they rallied and raised $230,000 for Cox through a GoFundMe account and a local fundraiser.
“So basically, my entire treatment was paid for by the community which is unreal,” Cox said.
He noted the care he received in Mexico “was second to none.” He was there a total of eight weeks but back and forth a few times. His final treatment was on June 1.
Doctors scan the patient before treatment and after to compare, and they expect the tumour to grow initially because it’s now being infiltrated by white blood cells and dendritic cells.
“Mine actually shrank considerably from the time I started treatment to the time I left, so it was sort of mind blowing how fast it was working for me,” Cox said.
Doctors think that’s because Cox was on immunotherapy before he began treatment in Mexico – and he almost wasn’t accepted to the program because of that.
“But now they’re attributing the success of my treatment to actually being on immunotherapy first. And they’re looking into using immunotherapy on different patients with brain tumors and stuff because there is no swelling,” Cox said.
“They don’t like to treat people with brain tumours with this treatment, because it causes swelling and swelling in the brain is not good. But now maybe they can use Keytruda, which is a therapy that I’m on.”
Grateful for support
Cox said he’s so grateful to members of the community who directed their support to him and his family.
Always the guy people would call for help, Cox said it’s ironic he had trouble asking for help when he needed it.
“It was kind of surreal because I’m the guy that would step up and do that stuff for people … So it was a bit of a tough pill for me to swallow when I needed to ask for help,” he said.
“And so many did, which is really, really cool. And kind of humbling, I guess.”
Laurie Cox said the experience was stressful and frustrating because all the treatments her husband received came after she did extensive research and pushing for quick action.
All of his treatments were in private clinics – even his initial diagnosis, the first surgery and the immunotherapy he received in Canada.
“There was going to be a six to 12-month wait for a diagnosis, so I started calling private clinics and got him in,” she said. “That sped up the process. But it took me pushing and pushing.”
She managed to convince their family doctor to refer Cox to the private clinics so they could be reimbursed through OHIP.
But when the cancer came back, Laurie started looking for alternative treatments and found Immunocine.
“I wasn’t worried – not really – because there’s science behind it,” she said.
But this treatment would never be covered by OHIP. So when the community helped out, and in such and big and generous way, it was overwhelming, she said.
And now, “every opportunity we have, we keep an ear out for ways to give back,” she said, listing donating to worthy causes and sponsoring sports teams among their actions.
“The community helped save my husband. I don’t even know how to try and repay people for that,” she said.
The family plans to return to Mexico in January – this time for a real vacation – and they are contemplating a community event on their property sometime next summer to express their thanks to the community that rallied around them.
“This whole thing has kind of given me a new look on life and humans in general,” Cox said.
“There’s some really nice ones out there.”