“Around 2018, when things were finally starting to look like I was in the clear, I realized life is definitely short,” Keith said to me during a phone call. “You don’t know when it’s your time. Or when you’re going to be in an accident and not be able to use your legs anymore. You don’t know when you'll leave this life. For all I know, the cancer could come back.”
“I have always been a penny pincher, and the reason why I save is so I can have money for what I want,” he said passionately. “But what if I live my whole life not buying what I want and then get cancer again, just to die and never get to buy what I saved for?”
“Since I realized life is short, I knew it was time to buy a Corvette Z06.”
Keith is a car guy. He graduated from an automotive program in college and works at Toyota HQ in the quality department. He fell in love with cars at an early age while visiting his grandfather, who had a glass case full of 1:24 scale model cars. Following in his grandfather’s steps, Keith at one point had more than 100 model cars, including AUTOart models. ("They have carpet on the inside!")
Keith and his dad love the Pontiac Trans Am. During high school when Keith was driving age, his parents bought him a white 1997 Trans Am WS6 with the flared nostrils, fog lights, and the V8. To surprise Keith with the purchase, his parents orchestrated an elaborate ruse by faking to lose the car in a silent auction, only to then take delivery of the car in a random parking lot a week later while a dumbfounded Keith stood by watching.
“I said, ‘Mom, Dad, there’s a white Trans Am in that parking lot just like the other one!’” said Keith. “That’s pretty weird, I thought. So, then we’re pulling into the parking lot, and I hadn’t put two and two together.”
Keith still has that Trans Am, and in 15 years, he’s only put 10k miles on it. Everything is still stock and probably always will be.
During high school, Keith also became infatuated with the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, reaching peak adoration after an adult friend and mentor let Keith drive a Ron Fellows C6 Z06 home from church one day. “There I go again, falling in love with another car.”
“My parents filmed me driving home and getting out of the car, because they knew I was very excited,” said Keith. “To say 'thank you' I drew, by hand, a copy of the car and gave it to him. I made a copy for myself, and I still have that drawing in my garage these days.”
So, Keith, a kind and positive young man who’s conversational intonation matches his level of passion for the subject at hand, had his model car collection, a mint Trans Am, a job at Toyota HQ in California and then Texas, and he was recently married. Life was good, until he almost lost it all.
The “C” Word
Keith first noticed something was wrong while at work. Climbing stairs made him short of breath, and if he stood for a little while, he felt like he needed to sit down. He could see his pulse in his vision. A visit to the doctor revealed a low hemoglobin count; Keith was anemic. But it didn’t stop there.
Some time later, back at work, Keith suddenly lost vision while staring at his screen. Sitting, he scooted his chair over to some co-workers and asked them to take him to the Emergency Room. More tests: an x-ray revealed a “shadow” in his lung and a subsequent full-body scan revealed a mass in his intestine. An invasive biopsy (“The most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever experienced.”) concluded it was cancer - stage 4 melanoma.
“It took awhile to get started on treatments,” said Keith. “I had to use a cane. I couldn’t drive myself to the doctors. My wife had to help me brush my teeth, because I couldn’t stand up for very long without feeling winded. I was freaked out because someone from my church died from melanoma spreading to the brain. I’ve only been married for a year or less at this point.”
Keith received an early-stage immunotherapy drug called Yervoy. Yervoy increased Keith’s immune system response to melanoma cells and tumors via targeted T-cell activation and proliferation. The drug was teaching his body how to target and destroy cancer cells.
“What started out as a 7-centimeter tumor in my intestine - that’s like the size of a baseball - eventually shrunk down to just 1 centimeter of scar tissue,” said Keith. “‘You’re cancer free,’ my doctor told me.”
Keith lost some melanin in his skin and hair, permanently turning both whiter than before the treatment. He also needed surgery to repair the damage the shrinking tumor did to his intestine. But Keith was alive and mostly back to normal. He had survived.
“Around 2018, when things were finally starting to look like I was in the clear, I realized life is definitely short,” said Keith. “You don’t know when it’s your time. Or when you’re going to be in an accident and not be able to use your legs anymore. You don’t know when you'll leave this life. For all I know, the cancer could come back.”
“I have always been a penny pincher, and the reason why I save is so I can have money for what I want,” said Keith. “But what if I live my whole life not buying what I want and then get cancer again, just to die and never get to buy what I saved for?”
“Since I realized life is short, I knew it was time to buy a Corvette Z06.”
So, he found one - a red, 2008 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 with chrome wheels and less than 50k miles on the odometer. Keith told his wife he wanted to buy that car. Her response - After all you’ve been through, you deserve to live your dreams. Of his wife’s support Keith said, “It was hard on my wife, so it was very special for her to support me like that.”
Keith treats his Corvette much differently than he does his Trans Am. He still takes care of the Z06, but he takes it to the track and modified it for performance and durability. “The Corvette is a celebration of life, so let’s have some fun,” he said. “Let’s add some modification.”
First, Keith fixed a common Z06 head valve issue with new valve guides, valve springs, and some millwork. To improve how the vehicle sounds, he modified the muffler, added long tube headers, removed the cats, and installed a switch that, when activated, keeps the exhaust baffles open. (“It roars. It screams!”)
To improve track performance, Keith added an oil cooler, better brake ducts, pads, and fluid. The car now sports a carbon fiber intake and spoiler. He also swapped out the factory seats for carbon fiber racing buckets with bolsters and leather padding.
“I’ve been having fun with the car. Living the dream.”
Remembering & Second Chances
Keith tells me most days he doesn’t think about his cancer or how he could have died. He feels that good.
“Sometimes when I remember it, I can’t believe it,” he said. “No way I lived through that crazy time!”
But he quickly tells me he wants to remember the cancer, the struggle, feeling useless and like a ‘nobody,’ because as he struggled, an empathy for other people - people with disabilities, the elderly, anybody with a medical issue that keeps them from living their dreams - grew within him.
“We need to be kind to others,” he says. “And the Corvette reminds me of that. It’s a trigger to remember what I went through and to remember others. It reminds me that I can be excited to live. With the Corvette, I can’t forget the bad and the good.”
Keith said his wife tells others that God gave her husband a second chance. Along with that second chance came their son, Kyle, who was born after Keith recovered, on July 22.
“To take the car to the track you need to have a number on the car,” he said. “So I made a vinyl number that I always keep on the car - 22.”