Those who know the Byriel family know that the last few months have been extremely difficult for them. They also know, however, that there is a strength and quiet perseverance under all the trial and sadness, born out of the love, kindness and strength of spirit that the family shares.
Kim Byriel received the grim diagnosis of Glioblastoma Multiform, the most common and deadliest form of brain tumor, in July of 2011. Understandably, such a diagnosis was a severe blow to him and his family. From the very beginning Kim was determined to make a difference, in his own life for his own survival, as well as in the life of someone else, through a clinical trial of a relatively experimental treatment.
Novocure Treatment Fields, which was approved by the FDA for recurring tumors in 2011, requires Glioblastoma patients to, at all times, wear electrodes on their scalp and carry a connected pack that pulses electricity to the head, creating a magnetic field that stops cancer cells from dividing. In order to work, the electrodes must be worn at least 20 hours a day. Kim almost never took them off –and it was this kind of “buy in” that doctors felt made all the difference in the world.
The diagnosis of Glioblastoma was grim. Patients have only a 50% rate of survival for the first year after diagnosis and only a 5% survival rate at the five year mark. While many people who are diagnosed with cancer naturally (and with good reason) become angry and resentful that this fate had befallen them, Kim was different. He retained a positive outlook and willingness to do whatever it took to fight the disease.
“Kim never questioned ‘why him’,” relates his wife, Julia. “He took it as it was because he knew he couldn’t change it anyway; he decided to fight and beat the odds. He was determined to be cured, or at least survive long term with the disease.”
The couple, originally from Europe, met in the workplace in Germany. Julia jokes that she was not the only woman in the office gawking at Kim when he first walked in, describing him as “the perfect man”. They married, and eventually Kim’s job brought the family to North Carolina, where they lived for several years before moving to Mountaintop with their sons Niklas, now 14, and Philip, now 12. The family, and their deep love for each other, has touched the lives of many, not only here on the mountain, but in the medical community and around the world as well, inspiring people who have been dealt the same battle.
“Everybody who got to know him instantly felt comfortable,” she says. “He was unassuming, kind hearted and very nice to all.”
In addition to undergoing the Novocure treatment, Kim researched his disease and its treatment options daily; he read books about nutrition; he exercised regularly, practiced yoga, and always had a positive outlook on life. Julia said it was that positive outlook that cancer could not change in Kim.
Dr. Michel Lacroix, Director of the Brain and Tumor Institute at Geisinger Wyoming Valley, and the specialist treating Kim says that the ownership of one’s treatment has an immense impact on the outcome. As a patient, Kim was very active in commenting on how the treatment was acting on him.
“It was very striking how contagious his enthusiasm was,” explains Lacroix. “Kim never stopped being active in the decision process and the management of his treatment. He was a great advocate for that technology and treated this experimental approach as a new weapon that should be broadcasted to others and advanced with his help. He was, in every way, an extraordinary patient”
It was just before a trip to Europe to visit family that Kim had a feeling something was wrong, even though a CT scan had recently shown his tumor to still be well under control. It was during that trip that doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. The Primary Neural Eneuroectodermal tumor, or PNET component of the Glioblastoma, has more of a tendency to spread and invade other areas of the body, and in Kim’s case, it was to the central nervous system in the form of Leptomeningeal Disease, which is very rare, very difficult to treat, and typically fatal within six weeks.
Oncologists were waiting for Kim when he returned home to begin further treatment. Since the Novacure treatment had applied an electrical field around a solid tumor with physical poles, it was, in essence, useless against an invasion that did not have the same physicality of a solid tumor. The new treatments were unsuccessful and, despite remaining optimistic and maintaining his sense of humor until the last moment, Kim Byriel passed away on July 22, 2013, nearly two years to the day of his original diagnosis. Julia says that for a long time she felt numb and, since Kim used to travel frequently, it felt like she was, in a way, waiting for him to come home. Some days, she says, are better than others, but her main focus remains on being strong for her two boys who Julia says are very comforting to her.
“The kids keep me on my toes,” says Julia. “They deal with things differently and they teach me every day how to keep going. I have to be strong for them.”
The boys, she says, seem to be doing fairly well, considering the circumstances. Julia says she and they talk about their dad a lot –what he would do or say at any particular moment, or how he is most certainly looking over them in a way they can’t comprehend.
“Sometimes things fall in place in a positive way and we attribute that to him. He is watching over us somehow,” says Julia.
Kim did not only make his mark on this world as a loving husband and father, but also on the Mountaintop and medical community as well. The Mountaintop Youth Basketball League honored Kim this season by printing his name and a grey ribbon on all jerseys to honor his life and his service as board Treasurer and longtime coach. Julia says that it has been unbelievable how much support her and her boys have received from the community. She had sent letters to friends and colleagues and asked them to write down memories of Kim. As those memories are sent to her, she finds comfort in their beauty and realizes more and more how well loved and respected Kim was, all over the world.
“He has made so many friends,” remarks Julia. “Honestly; I never realized how many hearts he had touched before he had passed. Since
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