Change in health, change of heart

Dwayne Eagan admits he was one bad guy. Then he got terminal cancer.

By Melanie Ave, Times Staff Writer
Published October 13, 2007

To help

A fund has been set up in Dwayne Eagan's name at Regions Bank, Northeast Branch, 3505 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33704.

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"I wasn't always the nicest person," Dwayne Eagan says.

Ask the strangers he picked fights with and the girlfriends he beat up. Or read his court file. The State vs. Dwayne Eagan makes for a thick folder, documenting 12 arrests and convictions for car theft and assault.

He summed up his approach to life in the tattoo on his right biceps, which shows a jester dealing cards. The message: Life's a joke, and you can do anything you want and get away with it if you play your cards right.

"That was in my wild stages," says Dwayne, 37.

"Every part of your life was wild," his wife, Kristina, reminds him.

He doesn't argue. He's done with arguing, fighting, drinking. He says he's a new man.

He just wishes he had become one a little sooner.

Maybe you remember Dwayne Eagan's story. It was all over the news.

It's early June and he's working the overnight shift in his red Chevrolet Malibu cab. A couple of shirtless guys flag him down in St. Petersburg and direct him to a vague address on a dead-end street. Then one of them pulls a knife and holds it to his throat.

Dwayne fights back. He has nothing to lose, he tells them. He has cancer and it's bad. "I got a death sentence on my shoulder."

Eventually he decides he doesn't want to go out this way, so he hands over $45 and the guys run. Dwayne needs 121 stitches in his face.

What a story: The guy is so determined to earn a few bucks for his family before he dies that he literally risks his neck to fight off two armed robbers.

People saw this and wrote him letters congratulating him for his guts and cheering him on. But they didn't know the old Dwayne Eagan. And they didn't know it was cancer, of all things, that changed him.

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At first, he thinks it's a toothache.

It's May 2006. Dwayne goes to the doctor. It's no toothache. The diagnosis is nasal pharyngeal cancer, a rare disease with a low survival rate if it spreads. Doctors start radiation and chemotherapy right away.

At first Dwayne cries and asks, why me? Eventually he blames himself for years of hard living.

Then he promises to become a better man. He finally marries Kristina, his longtime, on-again, off-again girlfriend, to end his days of running around and to make things right. The couple and their 4-year-old daughter, Nevaeh heaven backward, move into his mother's converted garage. They live alongside the washing machine and the dryer and walk on hard concrete floors. He starts saving money for a mobile home so his wife and daughter can have a nice place to live, with or without him.

He gets a part-time job with the Independent Taxi Service to earn extra money. He also starts going to Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park on more than just holidays. He starts talking about "my father in heaven."

Then March 2007 comes. Despite months of radiation and chemotherapy, the cancer has raced from his throat down into his liver and lungs. The doctors say he might have only six months to live.

He walks outside the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and screams. Then he decides the doctors can say what they want; God and only God will decide his time to die.

A couple of months later he has a knife to his throat and he's wondering if this is the time.

When he survives the robbery and people see his story on the news, they send him letters that make him cry. They also send checks, about $5,000 worth. It's a good start toward the $12,000 he'll need for the mobile home.

Dwayne says cancer deepened his relationship with God, allowing him to release his anger and worries. He felt free.

"My life since I was diagnosed with cancer is the best it's ever been. I'm definitely a lucky person."

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One day when Dwayne is at Moffitt for chemotherapy, he drags his IV stand outside so he can have one of his "cancer sticks" - really a menthol 305 - behind the building. He wants to avoid the judgmental stares of strangers.

"Smoking is the least of my worries right now," he says when his mother and brother object.

He is 5 feet 7 and used to weigh 260. Now, loose skin hangs around his neck from a 100-pound weight loss. His head, once covered by dark brown hair, is bald. The right side of his face is partially paralyzed. His right eye wanders, runs and closes. There are scars on his cheek and neck. He struggles to hear, to swallow.

He opens a letter he just received. It's from a 17-year-old girl named Alicia - his daughter. He and the girl's mother, his high school sweetheart, split up after a year of marriage. Dwayne has had little to do with Alicia ever since. Hangin' with the boys meant more to him then.

Alicia writes how sorry she is to hear about the cancer. How she knows God and hopes he does, too. She thanks him for letting her mother and stepfather raise her and allowing her to have a wonderful life.

Dwayne gazes at the pictures of her in a peach silk prom dress, her long blond hair draping her shoulders.

"I missed so much," he says.

Alicia says in the letter that she wants to go to college and become an oncologist. Dwayne doesn't know what that means until he walks through the doors to see his doctor. He runs his hand over the etched letters on the glass door - ONCOLOGY - and realizes the daughter he has not seen for 13 years wants to be a cancer doctor.

"Oh man," he says.

Dwayne also has a letter from Alicia's mother, Jamie Bailey. He was convicted of beating her up years ago. Her mother once told a judge Dwayne had a "lethal mind" and was capable of murder.

It's all water under the bridge to Jamie. She has nothing but forgiveness for him.

"The cancer, as tragic as it is, is exactly what he needed to change his life," she says by telephone from South Carolina. "Honestly I think it's the one thing that could hit him over the head hard enough to get him to change."

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One day during his illness Dwayne calls the morning crew at WHPT-FM 102.5, the Bone, his favorite radio station.

His speech is slurred because of the tumor where his nasal passages meet his throat. Cowhead, the DJ, unaware that Dwayne is sick, makes fun of him when he hears him speak. Dwayne is humiliated, and Kristina is so angry that she calls the station.

Dwayne has cancer. TERMINAL cancer. How dare you.

Cowhead apologizes and gives Dwayne free concert tickets. He also gives him a name: Cancer Face.

Soon thousands of listeners are rooting for Dwayne, a regular caller. Long live Cancer Face!

At the end of August, Dwayne gets to use the tickets. The show features three acts from his youth: Styx, Foreigner and Def Leppard at the Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa.

"They really rocked in their day," he says, lacing up his new whiteK-Swiss shoes in his mother's garage.

Years ago, Dwayne went to concerts to get drunk, act stupid and pick up women. The last time he was at the Ford Amphitheatre he got so wasted he had to sit for two hours just to sober up so he could go home.

Tonight, he and Kristina arrive just in time to hear Foreigner. As the lead singer tears into his second song, and the lights flash, Kristina jumps up and waves her hands in the air. She and Dwayne sway and sing the words with thousands of others in the sultry summer air.

It feels like the first time.
It feels like the very first time.

A man stands behind Dwayne's seat, making it nearly impossible for Dwayne to sit down without knocking into the man with his head. He is so annoyed. Why do people do things like that?

The old Dwayne would have punched the guy. But life is about choices, and tonight, Cancer Face chooses to stand for most of the concert.

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A woman in Arizona who heard about Dwayne's story offers the family a free week's vacation at a time-share. They settle on the Silver Lake Resort in Orlando, minutes away from Walt Disney World.

It feels good to be out of their garage home. Here they have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen and even a pool just steps away from their villa.

Dwayne's tumor makes it hard for him to hear from his right ear, so Kristina awakens him when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. on the last day of their vacation. He drives to Tampa for chemotherapy - the fourth kind after three failures - but when he arrives about 8:30 a.m. they tell him they can't start the treatment until 12:30 p.m.

The treatment itself is three hours long. He does the math. The whole day would be shot. Back at the resort, Kristina and Nevaeh are waiting for him in their bikinis, ready to swim.

Family time used to be the last thing on his mind. Now . . .

No way, he tells them. It's my last day of vacation. I'm out of here.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.