Fighting back

LIHUE — When Daniel Gray beat cancer for the first time, he felt triumphant.

But when the vision in his right eye began to fade, he knew his battle with the disease wasn’t over.

“At first I went through all the typical phases,” the former Kauai resident said. “It kind of changed my perspective on life. All the things that you see in the distant future become tomorrow.”

Gray, a 1999 Waimea High School grad, lives on Oahu. He moved there in 2013 when he and business partners bought a nightclub, Nextdoor.

Not long after becoming the club’s co-owner, Gray began experiencing headaches and mildly uncomfortable pain that escalated, eventually preventing him from leaving his bed.

“It felt like someone was crushing my head,” he said.

Gray went to the emergency room at Straub Hospital, where doctors discovered a malignant, baseball-sized tumor at the front of his brain which was pushing it into his skull.

Doctors told Gray he had the rare cancer sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, or SNUC, which had reached stage four.

“I was shocked,” he said. “At 32 years old it doesn’t even cross your mind. I thought I was invincible.”

Gray’s mother, Gladys Jacinto, who lives in Kamakani, was shocked as well.

“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” she said. “Being that he had a positive attitude makes a big difference. He said ‘I’m going to fight this, Mom. I’m going to do my best to fight this.’”

Gray endured six months of chemotherapy and radiation.

“I can’t even explain in words how terrible that pain is,” he said. “The best way I can describe it is if you’ve ever had a really, really bad case of the flu. It’s like that, times 10, seven days a week for six months.”

Following the treatment, Gray returned to work at Nextdoor, and although Gray said there were times when it was difficult to work, his career has been therapeutic for him.

“After awhile, I realized what I do for a living is a passion of mine and it keeps me positive,” he said.

But it appears his fight with cancer isn’t finished.

When he was paddling out to go surfing two months ago, Gray noticed something wrong with his vision. Doctors at Queen’s Medical Center told him the cancer had returned and was pressing down on his right eye’s optic nerve.

Radiation and chemotherapy shrank the tumor by 80 percent, but he remains unable to see out of his eye.

While Gray has insurance, he still faces substantial medical bills. So his friend, Mark Becker, created two fundraisers.

“I was amazed,” Gray said. “He stepped up and just handled everything and I don’t know how I felt — I felt really, really good.”

Becker went across Oahu asking different businesses if they would donate to help Gray. He also designated roles to Gray’s other friends to organize a fundraiser at Nextdoor called, “Rage 4 Daniel.”

Friends and family held a third fundraiser. All told, about $50,000 has come in to help Gray pay for medical expenses.

Gray, meanwhile, is feeling better.

“It’s kind of weird, because I’ve been eating so healthy and been taking all of these supplements I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.

He treasures growing up in Kamakani, hiking the Na Pali Coast and diving at Pilaa.

“I love Kauai because Kauai is Kauai. It will always be Kauai,” he said. “I absolutely love it.”

Gray is looking at clinical trials to remove the rest of the tumor from his brain, including a treatment at Harvard University called proton radiation therapy, which can concentrate radiation on a specific spot and destroy the cancer cells with less damage to the surrounding tissue.

He hopes to find out soon if he’s gotten into the program, but even if he isn’t accepted, he hopes a cure for cancer will be found.

“I’ve sort of come to terms that there’s a good chance I might die soon,” Gray said.

But he said he will not live in fear.

“I was definitely afraid the first time but I’ve reached the point where I’ve accepted that,” he said. “I think for the first year I let it dictate my life and I’m not doing that anymore.”

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