At 43, Eric South was in the best shape he’d been in 20 years. He was working out and eating right to prepare for a golf trip. An active dad of two young boys, he always enjoyed good health and only saw his physician during his annual checkup.
Then in February, he experienced a headache he couldn’t ignore. The pain started in the front of his skull, spread all the way to the back and down the left side of his neck.
“To say it got my attention is an understatement because I don't go to the doctor and I went to the doctor for this one,” South, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, told TODAY.
The initial diagnosis: a tension headache. But more troubling symptoms quickly appeared. South noticed weakness and tingling in his left hand to the point where he couldn’t hold a glass. A facial spasm twice briefly affected the left side of his face, which “started to freak me out a little bit,” he recalled. That side later also became droopy.
Within a week of the mysterious headache, South had an MRI of the brain and was sitting across from a neurosurgeon who broke the news: He had a tumor on his right frontal lobe — which controls muscles on the left side of the body — and it was pushing his entire brain over to the left side.
Surgery followed days later at Ascension Saint Thomas West Hospital in Nashville. Doctors made an opening in South’s skull and removed as much of the tumor as they could — 99.9% of everything they could see. Afterwards, his left hand functioned normally again and the facial droop disappeared. “My neurosurgeon was a superhero,” South said.
The official diagnosis: stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that can affect anyone, at any age, and comes with a grim prognosis. July 21 is Glioblastoma Awareness Day, with more than 13,000 cases diagnosed last year in the U.S., according to the National Brain Tumor Society. The same disease took the life of Sen. John McCain and Beau Biden, son of President Joe Biden.
Most glioblastomas seem to occur randomly and are hard to treat because they grow tentacles into the brain, which are impossible to remove. They're also resistant to conventional therapy. Patients can die within months without treatment.
“I understood what it meant. I didn't go through a lot of the ‘Why me?’ or ‘How did this happen?’ because I asked my neurosurgeon, ‘How do you get this?’ And he just flat out said, ‘We don't know,’” South recalled.
“I just told everybody (in my family), don't go Googling this… I need to be positive and I need inspiration.”
After he recovered from surgery, he and his wife went into action mode to decide what’s next. There’s no cure for glioblastoma and the standard treatment protocol still comes with a poor survival rate. South wanted to take part in a clinical trial that would offer other options and found one at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Starting in April, he received chemotherapy in pill form, plus radiation to his head, every day, five days a week, for six weeks — a brutal regimen that left him feeling “like an old man,” he said, especially after the radiation.
South’s brain MRI at the end of that treatment was clear and he’ll continue to fly back to Texas every 60 days for scans. He has to pay for that travel out of his own pocket, just as he did for the six-week stay in Houston for the clinical trial.
He and his wife were taken aback by how little funding there is for glioblastoma research and how little information there is for patients to navigate the system, so he launched the Gladiator Project, an organization to help others “fight like gladiators.”
The project was partially named after a brain food shake made by a local eatery and dubbed “the Gladiator,” which South’s doctor recommended he make at home. The smoothie contains dark leafy greens, berries, protein powder and MCT oil. South drinks it every day. He’s also eliminated added sugar from his diet and exercises every day.
Life is not back to normal, he said, but he’s able to shoot hoops and throw a baseball with his sons, who are 6 and 8 years old, and go on long walks with his wife.
He's on short-term leave from his job as a manager as he continues his recovery from the surgery and treatment.
The focus is on the battle ahead.
“Building up my strength, getting back to where I was before is what I’ve got to do as quickly as possible to be prepared for what’s next,” South said.
CORRECTION (July 22, 2021, 10:20 a.m.): An earlier version of this story misstated that the Gladiator Project is a nonprofit organization. The organization has not yet been granted 501(c)(3) status.