This local cancer warrior mentors other young soldiers and uses humor to heal
Nancy and Michael Poe of Winter Springs are teachers – at Lyman High School and Indian Trails Middle School, respectively. But for the past two years, they have been learning about life, purpose, and positivity from their 21-year-old son Robbie. Along the way, the Poes have also been forced to learn a lot about an extremely aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, or GBM. Robbie was diagnosed with stage-4 GBM at age 19.
A 2013 graduate of Winter Springs High School, Robbie’s symptoms began appearing in late 2014. He was in college and had a job stocking shelves at Winn-Dixie in Longwood.
“I woke up with a hazy-eye feeling that didn’t go away all day, then all week,” remembers Robbie. He describes it like trying to rub sleep out of one’s eyes.
Robbie didn’t tell his parents what was going on. He chalked it up to stress, his overnight work schedule, and allergies. But then came the double vision, which was unsettling while driving, and painful headaches. An appointment was made with an eye doctor, who told the Poes to take Robbie directly to the emergency room.
The mass found in Robbie’s brain was the shape of a potato, Michael says, and the length of a deck of cards. Nancy and Michael were told their son would likely not see his 20th birthday.
“Every time they get a case of it, it’s adapted,” says Michael of GBM. “It shows up and has adapted to whatever the last treatment was.”
A diagnosis of brain cancer would send most people into shock or an emotional tailspin. Not Robbie.
“Being the jokester I am, I wiped my brow and said, ‘Oh thank goodness, doctor, you’re telling me it’s all in my head.’”
The doctor, recalls Nancy, wasn’t necessarily amused. He asked if Robbie understood that they were fighting against the odds.
“Yes, I heard you,” Robbie replied. “I’m just having a tough time wrapping my head around the idea.”
So began Robbie’s acceptance of his situation and the show of resilience that would inspire those around him. Robbie has since endured two brain surgeries – one lasting nine hours –chemotherapy, and dosages of radiation so high that he could smell burning in his head. The treatments have left him nearly blind, and Robbie now visits the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for scans every three months. Nancy says he sometimes has trouble remembering simple things. He can no longer drive or work. Once a world-ranked video game player, Robbie now has difficulty seeing the computer screen.
With support from his family, including siblings Charles and Mikayla, and friend Soroush Antikchi, Robbie has been buoyed with encouragement. He’s found support online, whether it’s via his TeamRobbie Facebook page or through friends he’s made while playing the hit computer game League of Legends. While Robbie knows his GBM is virtually guaranteed to return, his latest scan came back clear, so Robbie has been busy lifting up other patients.
Along with hospital staffers, Robbie has started a brain cancer mentoring program at Orlando Regional Medical Center and Arnold Palmer Hospital, and he has been working with a mentee who is also deep into a battle with brain cancer. Robbie recently worked as an assistant Scout leader and was asked to stay on for this year’s summer camp. He completed a course about how to live with blindness, and he volunteers at cancer events such as Relay for Life.
Does he ever ask, “Why me?” Robbie’s response is more along the lines of, “Better me than them.”
“Mom couldn’t handle having cancer,” Robbie says. “My sister is too young. I can handle it. I can take the cancer I have and put it out in a good way and make everyone feel better about it. I have strength to do that. I’m strong enough to beat it, loud enough to say something about it, which is going to do the world a lot of good.”
While in the hospital, Robbie told a gaming friend he wasn’t afraid of dying or being in a wheelchair. He was more afraid of coming out of surgery having lost himself and his sense of humor.
In response, his friend said, “You play a character in a game who is all about healing himself, regenerating himself. You have been that character in my mind forever. That’s what you are doing every day.”
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