Philip Shanks knows the odds are against him being here to enjoy his 22nd birthday this summer.
Doctors say Shanks may only have weeks, months before the germ cell cancer growing in his tall, thin body takes its final toll.
Yet despite a life full of obstacles, the 2011 Miami Valley Career Technology Center graduate is grateful.
“I refuse to let it define me as person,” the smiling 21-year-old said. “I am bigger than being biracial, being gay, having cancer. I don’t want people to say cancer took me out. Life took me, and I’ve enjoyed the ride.”
‘Getting his life’
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Raised partly in Montgomery County foster care, Philip is the youngest of eight biological siblings. He considers his godmother’s kids — Christopher and Phallynn Jones — as his siblings as well.
Philip vowed to go hard and get his life when he found out the cancer he’s been fighting since age 19 was back and poised to deal a deadly blow.
“I feel like I’ve lived through tough situation after tough situation. When something goes bad, I automatically think of ways to get around it or get through it,” Philip said.
The news that non-seminomatous germ cell tumors first found in the mediastinum (a section between his lungs) spread to his lungs, spine and near his heart pushed him into overdrive.
Doctors gave Philip six months to live last August. That was nearly six months ago.
“I didn’t cry,” he recalled of getting the dire news. “I thought ‘Philip, what are you going to do? Drop out of school and travel’,” he said.
He decided against more chemo, knowing it could only extend his life a few months, and left Kent State University, where he was studying journalism.
Philip’s primary oncologist Dr. Satheesh K. Kathula of Dayton Physicians, LLC, said non-seminoma is most common in the testicles, where it is highly curable and treatable.
But Philip’s cancer is particularly aggressive, the doctor said.
“He’s lasted two and a half years, which is pretty good for this (form of cancer),” Kathula said. “It is quality verse quantity of life.”
Kathula is more accustomed to treating much older patients. He said it was particularly hard to break the devastating news to Philip and his family.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” Kathula said. Kathula’s own son is just a few years younger than Philip.
The fact that Philip has such a strong support system that includes his sister Caroline Nichols and godmother Tracy Decaille of Clayton helps, the doctor said.
“He’s pretty functional. He is trying to enjoy his life as much as he can,” Kathula said. “He is trying to get the best out of what time he has left.”
Best out of time
Philip has been on a journey that has included trips to Chicago, Miami, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. He is planning a trip Los Angeles. The fashion lover also aims to take a trip with his family to Paris.
“I love meeting different people and learning about their cultures,” he said.
Philip said he lived out a fantasy after scoring VIP tickets to Beyonce’s Louisville concert in December 2013 from a member of her team he met via Instagram.
Encouraged by Decaille to seize the moment, Philip sang and danced as if his life depended on it at the concert. Beyonce didn’t miss his enthusiasm.
He received a hug from the star dressed in a glittery blue jumpsuit. She gave him a towel smeared with her lipstick and foundation.
“Beyonce let me sing! I know I can’t sing y’all, but DAMN!!! I love her (heart),” he wrote on his Instagram account Phillytime_.
Philip didn’t have it easy before the first sign of cancer — a large tumor — surfaced at the end of his freshman year at Wright State University.
Told his mother had mental issues and couldn’t care for him, Philip was raised in foster care between the ages of 2 and 6 and ages 15 to 18.
Being biracial and gay — he said he never had to come out — often made his life difficult in foster care.
Philip attended six different high schools and depending on where he landed, was teased as the “white boy” or “black boy.”
He said his childhood struggles helped prepare him for his cancer journey.
“My life was so crazy,” he said. “I did not have control over where I lived.”
At times, he said it felt like like he had no one but his sister.
The Phil Phil Show
Philip served as maid of honor at his sister Caroline’s wedding in September.
He helped her pick out her dress and threw her a bachelorette party in Columbus complete with bar hopping and a scavenger hunt drinking game.
The siblings maintained a relationship even after Caroline was adopted and Philip bounced around foster homes. Philip makes friends everywhere he goes, his sister said.
There are other cancer patients — most older — and people Philip met via his YouTube.com channel, the Phil Phil Show” who offered strength and inspiration.
“They say “your video touched my life,’” Caroline said of comments left for her brother. “‘Because of you, I was able to come out to my friends’.”
Philip said the reality of his situation and meeting so many people battling the disease has made him a better person.
“I just started to appreciate life more and the people around me,” he said. “The argument and the pettiness, all that stuff I focused on — clothes and parties — doesn’t matter.”
Philip is friendly to be certain, but Caroline said her brother also can be feisty. His alter ego is called “Philshia.” She recalled the times they fought over Barney.
“Philip would claw you with his nails,” she said.
But most of their times together have been fun.
I am the big sister and he was the kind of the scrawny little brother. We kind of had to stick together and had each other’s back,” said Caroline, who now lives in Kentucky with her husband.
The 23-year-old said it is devastating and frustrating that there is nothing that can be done to save her brother. There is clearly a need for more research and awareness of cancers like Philip’s, she said.
“It’s been very stressful, and it is scary because Philip is my best friend. I haven’t lost anyone close,” she said. “I am angry at cancer.”
Despite it all, Philip says he has received quality care.
Among others, he was treated by Indiana’s Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, a world renowned oncologist who treated cyclist Lance Armstrong, who battled testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, lungs and abdomen.
There have been surgeries and bone marrow transplants.
“It is inoperable,” Philip said of his cancer. “The chemo has never worked, and I have the strongest chemo in America.”
Philip said he’s also experienced a mother’s love.
Tracy Decaille, Montgomery County Children Services employee, considers Philip her son — and he considers her his mom.
The pair met threw Phallynn, Philip’s best friend, and Tracy’s work when Philip was about 16.
“I have a big smile; he has a big smile. He likes fashion. We hit it off,” Tracy said. “Every time he would come in the agency, he would come in my cubicle and pick on me. He was like ‘I am going to clean your cubicle.’ We had really bonded by the time he was 17. It almost was like he has always been in my life.”
Tracy said Philip, who attended out-of-town conferences as a member of Montgomery County’s youth advisory board, was always very impressive.
He sought scholarships such as the one he won from the Ulman Cancer Fund for young and opportunities like the May mountain climbing trip to Utah from First Descents, an organization that offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience.
“Philip has been resilient. He is my hero,” she said. “People say Philip is blessed to have you. No I am blessed to have Philip.”
Tracy says he kept moving despite the many roadblocks thrown in his path.
“You can’t tell a person like Philip he can’t do something. You can’t do that with my son,” she said.
Tracy is holding out hope that the doctors are wrong. Losing Philip doesn’t seem plausible.
“I wonder how could someone so great to me be taken so soon, and I just always, every day, hope for a miracle. There’s a chance the doctors are wrong because he is part of the beauty in my life. My kids are the beauty in my life. My kids are my rocks. They keep me grounded. I love him so much.”
Philip says he is not sad for himself, but for those who love him.
“I am blessed to even be an American. To come from where I’ve come from and to all the things I have done is a blessing,” he said. “My life is so amazing. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s. I am 21, and I feel like I have the mind of a 50-year-old.”