Chester Jarosz has always been an active man with a positive outlook. At 81 years old, the Rural Retreat resident still makes time to walk, workout and practice Tai Chi. Now he’s incorporating his active lifestyle and positive attitude into his regimen to lay the smack down on cancer.
Until he was 79, Jarosz was the picture of health. He picked up internal martial arts in the early 2000s to help maintain his healthy life as he entered his senior years. He was a regular at the Wytheville Fitness Center and frequently walked the track at Wytheville Community College.
Then, in June 2017, he began having trouble keeping food down.
“That’s when they scoped me and found out I had cancer,” Jarosz said.
Local doctors diagnosed Jarosz with esophageal cancer and referred him to the Blue Ridge Cancer Treatment Center in Pulaski, where he was told he could not undergo radiation because of his age and the proximity of the cancer to vital organs.
“They told me I couldn’t get regular radiation because it would burn up my heart and probably my lungs,” Jarosz explained.
The alternative to radiation in most esophageal cancer cases is surgery to remove the damaged part of the esophagus. Jarosz followed up with oncologists at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, where the cancer center there offers a program focused on second opinions.
“Then they told me no operation either, because of my age.”
By that time, Jarosz’s cancer had become advanced.
His options looked bleak, but Jarosz is not the kind of person to easily accept defeat. He maintained his optimism and began poking around the internet, looking for other options.
“I just remained positive through the whole thing,” Jarosz said. “The whole thing is about staying positive and exercising.”
While searching online, he learned of an alternative to conventional radiation called proton therapy. That type of treatment uses proton beams rather than X-rays to allow more precise targeting of cancerous cells, leaving other tissues and organs largely undamaged.
Although proton therapy isn’t widely available in the United States yet, Jarosz was able to locate a proton treatment center in Georgetown, a 40-minute drive from where his son lives in Leesburg. The MedStar Georgetown University Hospital had just introduced its hyper scan system, which allows even further precision, about a month prior. The advancement in delivery systems is also allowing more centers to open in the U.S.
Jarosz underwent 28 treatments between August and September 2018. Because of the accuracy with which the therapy delivers the treatment, he experienced no side effects and was able to maintain his normal life, including his exercise and Tai Chi, throughout his treatment.
“They were amazed,” Jarosz said of his doctors. He said one doctor told him, “I’ve got 30-year-olds and they come in here and they’re just dragging and you’re in here going all the time.”
“He was very active throughout it and we were pleased at how he’s responded,” said radiation oncologist Keith Unger.
While optimistic attitudes have no direct link to fighting cancer, Unger said attitudes like Jarosz’s certainly improve the quality of life for those undergoing treatment.
“Chester had a great attitude throughout his treatment. He very much wanted to keep with his normal activities as much as possible to try to keep his normal lifestyle and maintaining quality of life throughout treatment is a key component to cancer treatment.”
Tests performed in December showed the cancer in Jarosz’s esophagus was gone, but also revealed that some small spots on his right lung and three lymph nodes had developed. He’s now on undergoing chemotherapy at the Blue Ridge center and is keeping with his exercise routine and optimism.
“I’ve been fighting this, it’ll be two years in June, and I never once felt like I had cancer,” Jarosz said.
Along with the other weapons in his cancer-fighting arsenal, Jarosz credits support from his community for his progress.
An active member of the Rural Retreat Lions Club and Grace Lutheran Church, Jarosz has been involved in his community for several decades.
The outpouring of love and support he gets from his community is enough to make him weep.
“I love my community,” he said, his voice full of emotion.
The Jersey City native first came to the area in the late 1960s after he met his wife, Jane, while he worked at the Pentagon. Jane, the daughter of a Rural Retreat farmer, had been in Washington D.C. working as a secretary.
The couple married and settled down in Jane’s hometown.
A former Air Force man, Jarosz was trained in technology and worked in personnel at the Pentagon. He’d have to adapt to life in the more rural part of the state.
“Everywhere in Southwest Virginia, there was no jobs with computers, so everybody said, ‘you have to go back to school,’” Jarosz said.
And so he did. He enrolled at Virginia Tech to study to become a teacher, but ended up majoring in business.
Prior to joining the Air Force, Jarosz worked in stock trading at Chase Manhattan in New York. While en-route to Tech for class one day, he stopped by the old George Wythe branch of the Bank of Speedwell, which now houses the Bolling-Wilson Hotel, on the chance they might have an opening.
“I asked if they had a job and they did, so they hired me,” he said.
Jarosz would work at the bank for the next 33 years, working his way up from lending officer to branch manager to vice president. During his time there he saw several mergers with other banks and served on the Virginia Bankers Association board of directors before he retired in 2001.
Shortly after he came to Wythe County, Jarosz became involved with the Rural Retreat Lions Club, where he remains active today.
“It’s important to be involved in your community,” he said.
Jarosz is passionate about helping his community through the humanitarian club. Through partnership with other local branches of the organization, he and other members work closely together to ensure that everyone has access to eye exams, eyeglasses, hearing tests and hearing aids.
As part of the efforts, Jarosz also helped administer eye exams at the annual Remote Area Medical Clinic in Groseclose until his diagnosis in 2017.
“Because of the cancer, I haven’t been able to do it last year and this year,” he said.
But he’s hopeful he’ll be able to fully return to his work in the community in the near future.
Until then, he’ll remain focused on his fight against cancer, using his treatments, exercise and optimism to defeat the disease.
He takes his fight one day, one round, at a time.
“There’s a light out there some place; just keep shooting for it,” he said. “You might have a bad day today, but tomorrow, you might have a good day.”
Jasmine Dent Franks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.