Polytech wrestling coach Eric Buckson is bounding back from cancer surgery

Social media can be your friend, as Eric Buckson has discovered.

The 51-year-old Polytech High School physical education instructor, wrestling coach and Levy Court commissioner has taken to Facebook to refute internet buzz that he either was deathly ill or dead.

Although he underwent major surgery six weeks ago to remove a large cancerous tumor from his stomach, he’s feeling pretty spry, Buckson said.

“Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” he wrote March 30, adding two smiley-face emoticons as emphasis. “Getting better every day.”

Buckson’s Facebook page quickly drew more than 60 comments, all full of positive energy directed at him.

“You just keep doing what you are doing, Eric,” one commenter wrote in part. “Rumors are just sad and stupid.”

Although it’s affected him physically the cancer has not dampened Buckson’s spirit one iota.

“I don’t mind sharing this with folks because I would hope they would not wait for this type of diagnosis to start understanding how precious life is,” he said. “Each moment, not just the big moments, should be enjoyed and embraced.”

‘You’re going’

Buckson knows his case shows anyone can be struck by cancer, regardless of their lifestyle.

Gastric cancer is relatively uncommon in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic, and physicians don’t agree on its causes. A little more than 27,000 people are diagnosed with some form of it each year in the United States, although if found early enough, at least 65 percent of those can expect to survive at least five years.

As someone whose life centers on physical fitness, Buckson figured he was an unlikely candidate to come down with the disease.

“Fitness has been a part of my life ever since my mother started a women’s-only fitness salon in the Treadway Towers,” he said. “I followed her lead and it has been a constant all my life. I always made it a point to work out and to stay in shape.”

That philosophy had led to a successful 26-year stint as a physical education teacher and coach. Buckson’s domain at Polytech is a tiny office by the boys locker room. The space is cluttered with photos of past Polytech wrestling teams -- some so old the color has faded -- Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies stickers, plaques and a paper-bedecked bulletin board.

A temporary centerpiece on an equally cluttered desk is an open box of Cracklin’ Oats cereal Buckson snacks on to keep up his energy.

Buckson’s journey began in early December during wrestling practice.

“I wasn’t able to keep up,” he said. “I was doing the drills with the kids, doing what they were doing, and I was having trouble keeping up, which is something I never had doing before.”

Thinking he could run out the fatigue, Buckson tried a few laps round the school. It didn’t work.

“Three minutes into it, physically, I couldn’t continue,” he recalled. “Mentally I could but physically I just couldn’t do it.”

Buckson had an exhausting weekend leading Polytech in the Beast of the East wrestling tournament and on Monday agreed to his wife’s urging to go to the hospital.

“I remember saying on the way, ‘I’m feeling better, I don’t think I need to go,’” he said.

His wife Jennifer’s no-nonsense response: “You’re going.”

Tests at Bayhealth-Milford Memorial Hospital showed his hemoglobin count -- a measure of blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body -- was less than half what it should be. Buckson had two transfusions and after tests showed the problem likely was in his upper gastrointestinal tract, had a CAT scan.

Buckson’s doctor said results would take several days.

“If you think you’ll ever jump off a cliff or out of an airplane, try waiting for a call like that,” Buckson said. “It’s this same weird adrenaline rush when you answer your phone and you know there’s a doctor on the other end who’s going to give you news, good or bad.”

The news was a mixture of bad and good: there was a baseball-sized mass at the lower end of his stomach. And while the tumor might be chronic myeloid leukemia, a rare, aggressive form of the disease, there also was a chance it was less serious or even benign.

Either way, Buckson would need surgery.

Although friends knew something was amiss -- Jennifer had mentioned he was ill on Facebook -- the Bucksons only told immediate family members the full story.

Two weeks later, his father, former Gov. David Buckson, died at the age of 96. He never learned of his son’s condition.

“That was not something he needed to deal with,” Buckson said.

Keep on grinding

Buckson eventually shared the news with the Panthers wrestlers.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” freshman Michael Rodriguez said on learning the news.

Buckson felt his medical and family issues affected his own performance, which in turn affected the team.

“I think it had a dramatic impact on our success,” he said, noting the team did not earn a berth in the state tournament. “I put a lot of that on myself because I wasn’t able to focus.”

“We felt that loss of energy,” Rodriguez added. “He’s got such an energetic vibe that you feel it as soon as he walks in the room.”

Buckson’s surgery was Feb. 15.

“I remember texting the doctor, saying ‘It’s game day. Be sure to bring your A game.’ He texted back, ‘I got this.’”

The surgery at Temple University lasted nine hours.

“It took longer than expected but I was no worse for wear because I was under anesthesia,” he said. “It was tough on Jennifer, but it took that long because the surgeon had to get it all out.”

The next day, Jennifer told Facebook her husband was doing well.

“Your life can change in one moment and I want everyone to take a second and appreciate what they do have and to be thankful,” she wrote.

Buckson spent six days in recovery before heading home.

The biopsy revealed the mass was cancerous, but it appeared by removing a portion of the stomach, the surgeon had removed all of the cancer.

Buckson now undergoes chemotherapy by taking a medication called Gleevec and does not need radiation therapy.

Because he no longer has a complete stomach, Buckson has lost about 15 pounds and keeps a desk drawer full of snacks in his office to help keep up his energy.

He will continue with the Gleevec, meet with an oncologist and do a follow-up scan in six months. He knows the cancer could return but has no plans to alter how he lives.

“This hasn’t changed who I am,” he said. “I’m looking forward to each and every moment life gives me. I will continue to be an impact person in my family and in my community. Nothing is going to change that for me.”

And he’s continued to count on Jennifer and those who know him throughout Kent County.

“Jennifer was with me every step of the way,” he said. “There wasn’t a doctor’s visit or a time in the hospital where she wasn’t there.”

Although he knows people prayed that he would not have cancer, Buckson himself simply prayed that he’d have the toughness to get through the ordeal and return to a normal life.

“What I want is to encourage people that when you get knocked down, you get up and you keep on grinding, you keep on going.”