He worked in Antarctica for 8 months and was then diagnosed with terminal cancer

After returning from eight months of work in Antarctica, Lucas Graychase from Bangor felt healthier than ever. But six months later, in May 2021, he saw a doctor for persistent back pain and left with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Graychase, 46, received an MRI that showed a herniated disc. But the technician also noticed something suspicious – a dark spot on his liver.

“I had no symptoms. None of the blood work showed anything. It was an accidental find,” Graychase said. “Whoever read these pictures was paying attention. Then the race began.”

Lucas Graychase, 46, was diagnosed with end-stage colon cancer in May 2021 after seeing a doctor for back pain. The diagnosis came months after he returned from eight months of work in Antarctica. Photo Credit: Kathleen O’Brien/BDN

He received another MRI, a colonoscopy and a liver biopsy. His doctors determined he had end-stage colon cancer that had spread to his liver. He had stage 4 cancer and had 3 1/2 years to live.

Nearly a year later, Graychase is still working as the facilities director for the Brewer School Department, overseeing important work at the city’s two schools, including upgrades to their ventilation systems, the installation of a generator at the high school, and updates to insulation to make the schools more efficient.

“As long as I’m physically able to do it, I’m going to get the district where it needs to be and hopefully prepare that if I’m not able to, it’ll be able to continue and not be left out dry,” he said.

Graychase finds the surprising diagnosis confusing.

He underwent extensive medical testing before working as the sole control engineer at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the main US research station on the continent, from February to October 2020. Those tests included blood work, chest X-rays and ultrasounds of his gallbladder, stomach, liver, all of which came back clean. However, he was considered too young to undergo a colonoscopy.

In Antarctica, Graychase’s job was to troubleshoot when lights, radar systems, temperature controls in dormitories, and other systems in the research facilities failed. This proved critical because the average temperature outside when he was there was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, he said.

Graychase admitted he doesn’t like the cold and initially viewed the position in Antarctica as a joke. However, as he learned more, he felt compelled to apply.

“It wasn’t on a list of things I wanted to do, but how do you say no to an opportunity like this?” he said.

Back in Maine, within a week of his diagnosis, Graychase had a port placed in his chest and received his first chemotherapy regimen. He now undergoes chemotherapy every two weeks.

Graychase said his first round of aggressive chemotherapy helped keep things in check; his cancer did not spread or grow. Doctors then switched to maintenance treatment, which Graychase said “failed miserably.”

“We asked for another scan and saw that the tumors were starting to grow, so I was put on another aggressive treatment and my cancer counts went down about 25 percent,” Graychase said.

However, the constant aggressive treatments leave him about 10 days each month where he feels “what I consider to be my new baseline.” I never feel good, but I’m functional.”

Aside from fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea, Graychase said the treatments caused severe problems with his nerves.

“For almost six months I couldn’t reach into the fridge without gloves – can’t wash my hands with cold water, can’t drink anything cold,” he said. “It affects the nerve endings so it feels like you’re swallowing broken glass.”

He has received 23 treatments of chemotherapy while continuing to serve as the director for Brewer School facilities, a position he accepted while working in Antarctica.

Graychase’s sister started a GoFundMe online fundraiser to pay for his chemotherapy treatments. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 260 people had donated nearly $37,400.

“They managed to take care of the financial end of that first year, which allows me to focus on eating, getting the right amount of sleep, and staying physically healthy,” Graychase said. “Just having to focus on that is what I think made the difference.”

Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer called Graychase “one of the bravest and most dedicated school staffers anyone could ask for.

“He has trained and educated our maintenance department and improved our facilities in every possible way. All this time he was diagnosed with cancer early in his tenure with us and he was struggling with it.”

In addition to chemotherapy and working at Brewer Schools, Graychase continues to research new treatments and clinical trials that could be options for him.

“I’m not ready to go yet,” he said. “I’m not looking for another 50 or 60 years, but I feel like life owes me at least 20.”