A Rare Form of Hodgkin Lymphoma Didn't Stop Brian Kozera

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From the onset of my diagnosis, I came up with a mantra, two simple words which were repeated over and over again: persevere, prevail.

— Brian Kozera

As my arms sliced through the surface of the cool turquoise waters of Austria’s Lake Wörthersee in 2016, I couldn’t believe that this moment had arrived.

Just two years earlier, my world was turned upside down when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had been training for a half ironman triathlon when I sustained a hernia. During the surgery to repair it, my surgeon found an irregular lymph node in my groin and took a biopsy.

Several doctors could not identify the type of cancer I had. Unsure of what to do or where to go, I turned to my father, Dr. Richard Kozera, a noted physician who at the time was the Executive Associate Dean at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Dad advised me to go to Fox Chase Cancer Center.

My doctors at Fox Chase were ultimately able to get my cancer in remission. Six years later, I've completed five more Ironman 140.6 races, and on October 9, 2021. I'll fulfill my dream of competing in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. I was one of two athletes chosen in 2021 and will be joining four others from 2020 on Team in Training of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I have a goal of raising $100,000 to fund needed research, patient support, and advocacy for patients and families suffering from blood cancers.

Finding a Care Team With the Right Expertise

At Fox Chase, I learned I had one of the rarest forms of lymphatic cancers, lymphocyte deficient Hodgkin lymphoma. A scan revealed that the cancer had spread to my abdomen, hip, chest, and spine. The diagnosis came as a shock. I was just 36 at the time, in great shape, and had a healthy lifestyle. My wife, Kristin, and I had recently welcomed our third daughter, and we had just learned she was born with a genetic abnormality and would have lifelong special needs. It felt like we were getting pummeled.

After my diagnosis, I struggled to understand how this could have happened to me when I was so healthy and active. I’m a police officer and an avid athlete. I had just completed an Ironman the year before, and I trained hard for lots of events. Having cancer didn’t seem even remotely possible.

At the beginning my focus was on how this could have happened. My doctor, Richard I. Fisher, helped me focus on what was important. He simply said, “Sometimes a cell divides poorly. Now do you want to worry about how you got it or how to beat it?” We never looked back.

Learning to Focus on the Treatment Plan

In Dr. Fisher I had one of the world’s top experts in my diagnosis leading my care, and I took great comfort in that. I was completely confident in his guidance, and I never second-guessed the decisions we made.

Under Dr. Fisher’s care, I underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy from May to December 2014. It was 90% effective, but ultimately we needed to switch to a more intensive treatment. During that time, we were devastated when my father passed away suddenly in his sleep. Shortly after that, we lost our beloved German shorthair pointer to an illness.

Good news finally came after several more months of intense chemotherapy: I was cancer-free and in remission. During this time, I had been referred to my doctor and the Bone Marrow Transplant Program. Under the care of a transplant specialist at Fox Chase, I received an autologous bone marrow transplant on May 4, 2015.

My transplant team was confident that the procedure would be a success and their confidence gave great comfort to my family and me. They said it would work and they never doubted that it would.

While lying in bed in the bone marrow transplant unit recovering from my transplant, my friend Jon visited and made me a deal: when I beat cancer, we would complete another Ironman together. With my chemotherapy and transplant treatment behind me, I kept my focus on the goal of completing the 2.4-mile swim, biking 112 miles, and then having enough in the tank to run a marathon all in less than 17 hours. 

Brian's Ironman Training Began in the Hospital Bed

I was hospitalized in the bone marrow transplant unit for 24 days, but I didn’t let that keep me from training. I know I drove the nurses crazy by constantly walking around the ward or exercising in my room. Nurses would frequently walk into my hospital room and find me on the floor resting after a long yoga session.

Once I was released from the hospital, I hit the ground running – literally. Six months after my transplant, I completed my first step in achieving my goal by completing the Philadelphia Marathon in my goal time of 4 hours and 30 minutes. The next step came in April 2016, when Jon and I traveled to New Orleans and finished a grueling Ironman 70.3 on a day when the wind was steadily blowing more than 30 miles per hour.

As I worked toward my ultimate goal of racing Ironman Austria, it was very difficult to learn I was not as fast or strong as I once was. My post-cancer body had a new normal in training and everyday life. It was a struggle getting winded, sweating profusely, and running out of gas on what were once simple efforts. Once I accepted that, it allowed me to realize that although I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I was very lucky to be in the shape I was in.

Through this process, I trusted my Fox Chase doctors to help me make the right medical decisions. With my medical team, my friends, my triathlon teammates, and my family united behind me, I pushed forward and worked to meet my goal. From the onset of my diagnosis, I came up with a mantra, two simple words which were repeated over and over again: persevere, prevail. I know I beat cancer because of staying positive and having something to work for.

Finally, on June 26, 2016, just 418 days after my bone marrow transplant, my family, along with Jon and his family, traveled across the globe to Klagenfurt, Austria for the 140.6 mile race. After two years of fighting for my life, 20 rounds of chemo and a transplant, followed by months of training, the cannon sounded. I battled for 13 hours and 2 minutes, poured everything into the lake, the mountains, and the cobblestones, giving the course everything I had. I was overjoyed coming down the finishers’ chute with Jon at my side. As I ran under the archway, crossing the finish line, I heard the words that had echoed in my dreams, “Brian Kozera, you are an Ironman!”

Afterwards, I returned to the hospital to donate my Ironman Austria and Philadelphia Marathon medals to the bone marrow transplant unit. They now hang next to my room, along with pictures of my family and the team of nurses that saved me. I hope they can bring inspiration to other people who are there enduring treatment and transplants. I want each of them to know if they persevere they will prevail.

In addition to conquering the massive undertaking that was Ironman Austria, I was able to return full time to my job as a police officer. Most importantly, I’ve been able to get back to being a full time father to my three daughters, Paige, Josie, and Avery and enjoying time with the most amazing person in my life, my wife Kristin.

I can do anything with my wife and kids that I want to. I can watch them grow up too fast, teach them how to read, brush their teeth, swim, or ski, and be there for every moment. My three amazing little girls need me, I need them, and am blessed to have the chance. Fox Chase, my doctors, and the nurses on the bone marrow transplant unit are responsible for giving me the chance to enjoy all of the wonderful gifts of life.

Learn more about Hodgkin Lymphoma treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

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