Optometry student overcomes cancer, national boards as a new father

Optometry student Adam Wira overcame testicular cancer to triumph on his national boards.

Before starting school at the College of Optometry, Adam Wira lived in Poland and then Chicago, where he met his wife, Afsheen. (Photo by August Jennewein).

Adam Wira had the youngest face in the chemotherapy ward and was the only patient with a textbook.

The semester before preparing for part I of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry certification exam, the University of Missouri–St. Louis student underwent treatment for stage II testicular cancer. He scored high even though studying through chemotherapy was “nine weeks of hell.”

“I think you need the full story of my life to get an idea of why I am here right now,” he says.

When Wira was 11, his parents, Polish immigrants, repatriated with Wira from Chicago. The same year they moved, Wira’s mother passed away. He returned to the U.S. after high school rather than enlist for compulsory military service or defer with college.

He felt displaced until meeting his future wife. The two married quickly to help Afsheen, a Pakistani immigrant, attain permanent resident status. With temporary work visas, she found retaining jobs difficult, and Wira rapidly maxed out his salary potential working at Costco.

“That was my rock bottom,” he says. “I’m starting a family. I don’t want this kind of life for my kid. That’s when I realized that I need to go to school. I need to become something. I had this voice in my head, ‘You should look into optometry.’”

The UMSL College of Optometry was Wira’s first interview, and he earned a spot the same day. School turned out to be “pure studying 24/7.”

“I was in my second year and going on and on about being stressed about tests,” Wira says. “Afsheen just looked at me, ‘I’m pregnant.’ ‘Bull—.’ I didn’t believe it. It took me a while. I had to sit down. I immediately started choking up and just started crying. She showed me the ultrasound and grabbed this blueberry or maybe a green pea, one of those two little berries, and she put it in the palm of my hand: ‘That’s our kid.’”

Two months after his daughter’s birth and at age 31, Wira found a lump. Urgent care and then a urologist diagnosed Wira with a probable cyst but, for circumspection, the doctor ordered an ultrasound and found cancer.

“The world came down on me,” he says. “I can’t describe it. It’s like everything goes blank. Your body goes into this fight-or-flight mode, like a bear’s going to attack you. You don’t know what to do. I just remember that sensation and the doctor talking about how it’s very treatable, and the first step is to remove it.”

After surgery, cancer markers in Wira’s blood doubled. A PET scan revealed three cancerous lymph nodes, which meant chemotherapy. Afsheen’s family moved in to help, and UMSL Associate Clinical Professor Kathleen Boland set up a daily food drop-off calendar.

“By the third round of chemotherapy, I didn’t think I would be able to do a fourth round,” Wira says. “I thought it would literally kill me. That said, having a daughter, I would do anything just to be there for her.”

Wira passed his classes and was surprised how, once his hair regrew, daily existence returned to normal. Around his periodic screenings, Wira feels dread, then euphoric relief.

He is on track to graduate in 2019 and contemplating his future specialty, having just completed a rewarding clinical disease rotation.

“Using medicine to intervene to stop a disease is a great feeling,” Wira says. “That’s why I do it. Why I study on end, why I don’t see my family, why I go through chemotherapy with a book in my hands even though I just want to puke somewhere. That’s why I am still here.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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