It appeared as just a small lump at first, over his right breast.

But then, it got a little bigger.

“The lump on my chest was growing slowly, so I ignored it,” Gary Zacharias, 72, said. “I ignored it for a long time. But it finally got so big that I went to see my doctor.”

By then, in early 2021, it had grown to the size of a softball.

Zacharias, of Gobles, Michigan, received a referral to Spectrum Health, where he met with G. Paul Wright, MD, surgical oncologist at Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

“Gary was referred to me for a tumor growing in his chest wall,” Dr. Wright said. “It was protruding so far from his chest that you could see it from across the room.”

Dr. Wright knew they’d have to move quickly to treatment.

“It was a rare kind of sarcoma that may have … shown only subtle growth at first,” he said. “But at this point, we had to expedite surgery.”

Cancer cells had already entered the muscles around Zacharias’ rib cage.

Dr. Wright would have to remove some muscle tissue and lymph nodes, along with the sarcoma. Because the tumor had grown so large, it would require a skin graft to cover the wound.

“Dr. Wright put in a call to set up surgery across the street, at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital,” Zacharias said.

‘That made it special’

They met on a Friday in March 2021. The surgery would take place that following Monday.

“In the meantime, I had all the tests done—blood work, EKG, everything,” Zacharias said. “Boom, boom, boom, all done that fast.”

As Zacharias and his wife, Geralynn, discussed logistics for the day of surgery, Dr. Wright asked if they would have far to travel on the morning of surgery.

Spectrum Health offers hospitality houses for overnight guests who have to travel long distances.

“We handed him a business card with our address on it,” Zacharias said. “I do some sales on the side, even though I’m retired, so I had a card. He took it and stood there looking at it a long time, quiet.”

Dr. Wright couldn’t help but notice something peculiar about Zacharias’ card.

“I looked at that address and said, ‘How interesting. I used to live in Gobles as a child,'” Dr. Wright said. “Gobles is a town of about a thousand people, so you don’t see too many people from there.”

Dr. Wright tried to remember the name of the street where he had lived as a boy.

“I was just a kid, after all, maybe age 5. But the street name sounded so familiar,” Dr. Wright said. “I went into the other room and called my mom.”

To their astonishment, they learned Zacharias lives not just on the same street where the doctor’s childhood home had been.

It’s the same home.

“The hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” Dr. Wright said. “We already had a good connection, but that made it special.”

“That was cool,” Zacharias said, smiling.

The right connections

Monday morning came and Zacharias found himself on a hospital bed, awaiting surgery.

He soon met with Dr. Wright and an anesthesiologist.

“And his name was Wright, too,” Zacharias said. “I figured, two Wrights can’t make a wrong!”

After the successful removal of the sarcoma, as well as undergoing a skin graft, Zacharias spent about a week recovering in the hospital.

He underwent further rehabilitation closer to home, too, since he had to have special vacuum-assisted dressings applied two to three times daily to speed healing of the skin graft.

When he returned to his home in Gobles, he received at-home care.

“I had a visiting nurse come to the house twice a week,” Zacharias said. He also underwent additional radiation treatments.

So far, he’s progressing well.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about Gary’s prognosis,” Dr. Wright said. “These types of tumors can reoccur and, in a third of these cases, the cancer can pop up elsewhere.

“If his tumor had grown any more, I may have had to remove some of his ribs,” Dr. Wright said. “That’s why he went in for radiation.”

A year later, there’s been no recurrence of cancer.

“At the year mark, we had a little celebration when he came into the office,” Dr. Wright said.

And next time, maybe they’ll celebrate in a place familiar to both of them.

“I’ve invited Dr. Wright to come by his boyhood home, too,” Zacharias said. “It hasn’t changed much.”