Belief of St. John Neumann parishioner and author is strengthened by 19 cancer diagnoses
By Bill Brewer
Steve Dekanich probably should not be here.
But by God’s grace and healing, a fierce determination, and some good doctors, the parishioner of St. John Neumann in Farragut is not only here, he is also a living testament to steadfast faith and relentless perseverance in the face of life-threatening—and life-altering—challenges.
And just what makes his challenges so different from anyone else’s?
He has battled cancer 19 separate times over his 70-year life, including a current bout with multiple myeloma, and he has endured 18 cancer surgeries and rounds of radiation treatments. And then there is the heart ailment in adulthood and a bleeding stomach ulcer, scarlet fever, broken bones, and a benign tumor as a child.
With a life story not unlike Job’s, Mr. Dekanich’s ironclad belief in God and uncanny ability to see the positive in any situation keep him upbeat and give him the strength to grow via those challenges.
That personal growth led him to write a semi-autobiographical novel titled Frame of Mind that is based on his lifelong experiences in not only overcoming cancer but also achieving his dream of becoming a successful engineer working at the Oak Ridge scientific complex.
Life in the Keystone State
Mr. Dekanich’s route to East Tennessee is a circuitous one that began in Sharon, Pa., where he grew up on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. He and his family attended St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church, where the priests and nuns were of Croatian descent, too.
His father died in 1966 when Mr. Dekanich was 15 years old, leaving his mother, Margaret, to raise him and his sister, Carolyn, who is his only sibling and is 10 years older.
“My dad was a severe alcoholic and a compulsive gambler, so he wasn’t home much. When he was home, it usually was when he was sick. I was just starting to know him in my early teens when he passed away,” said Mr. Dekanich, who, as a 15-year-old, administered CPR to his father for 45 minutes just before he died. “There were life lessons there. He pretty much taught me what not to do. When I look at people who say, ‘I’m a product of my environment,’ I think you choose what you want, and through the grace of God you get it. You can use things either as an excuse or a reason.”
He decided at an early age that he wanted a different outcome and credits his mother, sister, brother-in-law, and relatives for keeping him on course to realize his dreams despite recurring setbacks.
Showing academic promise as a young student, he set his sights on becoming a forest ranger. But a school faculty member had a different idea in mind. And during his senior year in high school, another educator cracked down on him to stay on the straight and narrow path he had set for himself.
“I remember the school guidance counselor saying, ‘You’re not going to be a forest ranger. You’re going to be some sort of an engineer.’ And she guided me through an academic curriculum. During that time I had some really good teachers,” he said. “I remember my senior year in high school, you’re coming close to graduation and you’re on a glide path to getting out of school. I quit studying, and Mrs. Snyder asked me a question one day in class. I had not cracked a book. She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Young man, I know you can do better than this. You know you can do better than this. And you will do better than this, or you will not graduate.’ That was a real good swift kick in the pants. It was an eye-opener.”
Recognizing a prospective employee, an official at the area’s leading employer, Sharon Steel, suggested a 15-year-old Steve Dekanich consider metallurgical engineering. Consider it he did until he announced in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, that he was enlisting in the Marines. He felt this call because so many of his family members had served in World War II and the Korean War.
His brother-in-law, who was a chemical engineer, and his cousin, who was a mechanical engineer, sat him down and informed him that he was going to college, not the military. He then enrolled in Youngstown State University across the state line in Ohio. On the first day of freshman orientation, he met an ROTC instructor and signed up for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“I was all set to be an officer in the Army. I wanted to be a Green Beret,” Mr. Dekanich said, recalling that his mother was not happy with his decision or him.
The first cancer diagnosis, and those that followed
It was early in the first quarter of his freshman year in college that family members noticed increased swelling in his neck that his family doctor had been treating as swollen glands.
He went to see a second doctor about the swelling, which immediately landed him in the hospital. Biopsy results would impact the rest of his life, showing a malignant tumor in his throat.
Radical surgery followed, which involved removing half of his neck and the entire muscle in his left shoulder. The cancer involved his throat, thyroid, and parathyroid.
He was 18 years old.
Following surgery, Mr. Dekanich’s left arm dangled by his side and would not move as his head “flopped” over his left shoulder. He spent years exercising his arm and neck and developing other muscles to compensate for the missing shoulder muscle. Also, he remained physically active, eventually taking part in martial arts and scuba diving, which helped in rebuilding muscle tone.
“Back then, I looked like some character out of a B-rated sci-fi movie. I did have friends and family support. That was something that helped keep my mind off of stuff,” he reflected, noting that he was forced to drop out of Youngstown State before his college experience really got started.
After surgery, and when reality began to set in, so did feelings of dejection that Dr. Robert E. Sass had warned him and his family about.
“There were times, I admit, where I did have a pity party,” he said, acknowledging that such a devastating medical diagnosis at that early age tested his faith.
While attending public school, he was catechized in the Catholic Church at a young age, so his belief in God and trust in Jesus Christ was rooted.
“I had so many people praying for me, not only here, but I had relatives in Yugoslavia. They were all praying. I definitely am a firm believer in the power of prayer and miracles. The cancer came back about every six months from ’69 through the early ’80s. It came back 18 different times. You start building yourself back up and your face gets slammed in the mud again,” Mr. Dekanich said.
His last bout with throat cancer around 1982 left him without his voice for more than 10 months. He believes another miracle occurred when his voice returned following a business meeting at the Pentagon. A doctor told him that something most unusual occurred in his throat to help his voice return. One vocal cord hyperextended itself to help another vocal cord work.
Lessons from a surgeon, and finding romance
In his book, Mr. Dekanich details the relationship he developed with Dr. Sass, who the author credits for saving his life early on with surgical and grief-counseling skills. Those lessons the surgeon taught about overcoming strife through determination, positive thinking, and persistence would serve Mr. Dekanich well for the rest of his life.
Mr. Dekanich only missed a few months of his freshman year, bravely re-enrolling for the winter quarter. This time around, college proved to be a struggle for a boy grappling with recovery from debilitating cancer surgery.
As luck—and God—would have it, he reunited with a high-school friend, George Hvozda, who he happened to share a class with. Through their friendship, they helped each other make it through Youngstown State’s academically demanding engineering program. Both graduated, with Mr. Dekanich earning dual undergraduate degrees in metallurgical engineering and nuclear engineering.
In his book, Mr. Dekanich shares his deep appreciation and admiration for his brother-in-law, his cousin, and his friend, George, for seeing him through the rigors of collegiate study.
The book also details the romance and love he shared with his first wife, Linda, who he met when he was in college. They married soon after graduation and started their life together, ultimately bringing daughter Annette Marie into the world.
He considers meeting and falling in love with Linda as itself a miracle because of his self-consciousness about the way he looked following surgery, which affected attending school, seeking employment, meeting girls, etc.
Getting a part-time job at Sharon Steel while he was in college proved difficult because of his post-surgery limitations. But he persisted, showing up at the mill a couple of times a week for weeks on end checking on job openings. The mill finally did hire him as a millwright’s helper on a blast furnace.
And going on a date. Forget about it. Or so he thought.
“It went from a point where talking to a girl was no big deal to a point where I literally would have to make notes before I called somebody and read from those notes,” Mr. Dekanich remembered. “With my first wife, Linda, from the very beginning, she always saw me as I could be and not as I was. I was a freshman in college, and she was a freshman in high school when we started dating. We got married in August 1974.”
While working for Sharon Steel as an engineering co-op student, he developed an intense attraction to Oak Ridge and its complex of defense department facilities (Y-12, K-25) and the Oak Ridge National Lab. And he wasn’t shy about sharing his desire to work there as an engineer.
As he worked to get degrees in a double major and then his master’s degree, Linda was lovingly pushing him to be the best he could be.
After college, he went to work for Union Carbide, the main defense contractor in Oak Ridge at that time, at Union Carbide’s Ashtabula, Ohio, plant. That eventually led to a transfer to Oak Ridge’s K-25 plant in July 1977 as a metallurgical engineer, doing failure analysis and materials characterization.
“That far exceeded my expectations. Every day was different. Anything that blew up, broke down, or fell apart it was my job to find out why and keep it from happening again. I’m still doing a lot of that today as well as new technology development and deployment,” he said.
He’s at Y-12 now, and part of his job is working with high-school students, teaching them about materials science and failure analysis in a joint venture between ORNL, Pellissippi State Community College, and the University of Tennessee. Mr. Dekanich is excited to be working with students and possibly steering them into careers in science, technology, and engineering.
‘Linda was always there’
The book illustrates how the main character’s personal successes were often met with new cancer diagnoses, whether attending college, getting married, landing a big job, or succeeding in his career.
The main character in Frame of Mind, Joey Slunisky, is based on Steve Dekanich, who describes balancing his career demands and his repeating cancer with the help of “a very, very supportive wife.” Mr. Dekanich chose the name Joey as an atonement for the way he felt about his father, Joe.
“With all the recurrences (cancer), Linda was always there. I often wondered if I would be able to take care of her as well as she took care of me. She ended up with a case of acute lymphocytic leukemia. She was 53 when diagnosed and I was 57,” he said.
She battled leukemia for just over a year. She was diagnosed two days after he was released from the hospital after having surgery in 2007 to remove part of his colon due to a diverticular bleed.
Mr. Dekanich took time off from work to care for Linda. He had saved four weeks of vacation time and combined that with sick time and borrowing vacation from the next year. His boss at Oak Ridge’s then-defense contractor, B&W, asked that a request for donated vacation time from co-workers be sent out by human resources, and in less than an hour he received the maximum four-weeks of vacation time donated.
“I still get teary-eyed thinking about that,” he said, adding that he took at least three months off work to care for his dying wife. “I’ve been blessed with really good managers.”
Asked whether he considered his wife’s illness on top of his cancer as a test of faith, he replied, “I never lost my faith.”
“She was suffering. It was the worst part of my life. The worst feeling in my life was feeling the warmth leave her body. I did not want to be here,” he said, pointing out that he and Linda had been married 34 years when she died in 2008.
He sees how his and his wife’s cancer had a profound impact on their daughter, who became an oncology nurse and then director of Blount Memorial Hospital’s cancer center. She now works for the pharmaceutical company Gilead and has promoted a treatment for cancer that the company developed. He considers his daughter a best friend who hunts and fishes with him and who also followed in his martial arts footsteps, earning a black belt in taekwondo.
Meeting Ali, ‘a rock for me’
As a middle-aged engineer, medical misfortune wasn’t through with Mr. Dekanich. Around 2004, he was in Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge for an echocardiogram of his heart. A registered cardiac sonographer named Ali was administering the test.
Casual conversation led them to discover they shared the same religion and nationality. Something else they had in common was that he attended St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church while growing up in western Pennsylvania, and she attended St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church while growing up in Los Angeles.
“I met him and I saw his last name, Dekanich, and it was a dead giveaway for Croatian with the ‘ich’ at the end. We started talking. It usually takes 45 minutes to an hour to do an echo. We talked about our nationality, we’re both Croatian, our families. And we talked about all of us getting together sometime, meeting each other,” Ali recalled.
In 2006, he was again admitted to Methodist Medical Center for losing consciousness, and he again came across Ali. When he was given another echocardiogram, Linda met Ali. Linda, Ali, and Steve talked about getting together for dinner or an outing as couples.
Earlier in 2008, a doctor said Mr. Dekanich needed surgery and prescribed another echocardiogram. Ali again was the sonographer and was shocked to learn that Linda had died the year before.
And just as Linda had befriended Ali, Mr. Dekanich befriended Ali’s husband, Russ, who had been seriously injured in a Los Angeles workplace accident when he was 39 that permanently injured his legs and feet. He never worked again. Russ, who died in February 2009 of complications from that injury, was married to Ali for 29 years. During the last five years of his life, Russ endured 11 surgeries, and watching him decline was very hard on Ali and her two daughters.
Before Russ died, Mr. Dekanich was able to take him on trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that were accessible by wheelchair, and they also shot pistols together.
“He was pretty sick, and he said, ‘There’s something I want you to do for me. When I’m gone, I want you take care of [Ali],’ he asked me. That very personal conversation with Russ happened about a month before he died,” Mr. Dekanich said.
Was it coincidence or God’s blessing that brought Steve and Ali together?
“I feel like it was a gift from God,” Ali said. “The way that things unfolded, it’s just hard to believe. But I know it was an act of God. To find somebody Catholic and Croatian in East Tennessee . . . it’s crazy. I truly believed that I would be alone for the rest of my life.”
Steve echoed her sentiment.
“When Ali came into my life…she has been a rock for me,” he said, recalling being in an Amarillo, Texas, restaurant and observing a man celebrating his birthday alone. He said that image still haunts him. “Linda and I started dating when we were kids. I had never been alone in my life. The thought of being alone haunts me.”
Ali and Steve were married on May 22, 2010, at St. John Neumann Church, with Father John Dowling celebrating the wedding Mass.
Ali is unfazed by Steve’s recurring cancer.
“One thing I’m amazed about Steve, with all of his illnesses, he’s just so calm about it. He really trusts in God. Russ was like that, too. It was amazing how he handled all the suffering that he went through. I’m twice blessed,” Ali said. “I feel like God put him here to help me get to heaven.”
Ali, who is 64, introduced Steve to the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and he now prays it regularly. Her faith is steadfast. She sees that his is, too.
In discussing his life and his book with Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, who at the time directed the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Christian Formation, Steve and Ali remember how Sister Maria Juan perfectly described Steve when she told him he possessed “the virtue of persistence.”
Steve credits Ali for coming up with the book title and cover image as well as inspiring him to finish the book, then proofing it once it was completed.
“The book took 40 years to write,” Steve said, thinking back on all that went into developing Frame of Mind, including his initial cover image of a picture frame with a dagger slicing through it “because the pictures of our lives can change so quickly.”
“But the publisher said, ‘You don’t want to do that,’” Steve said.
“That made it look like a murder mystery,” Ali added.
Ali’s attention to detail also jibed with the book publisher’s request that Frame of Mind in an early edit be trimmed by 15,000 words. The book is published by Little Creek Press.
“Her attention to detail is mind-boggling. As she went through it, she said, ‘You have five-pages in here describing a blast furnace. People don’t want to hear about blast furnaces.’ All five pages were gone. She went through three editing cycles and got the count down. It reads so much better than what I had. Ali was the driving factor behind that,” Steve said.
Frame of Mind has received positive responses, including from Dr. Daniel Ibach, who treated Mr. Dekanich later in life and said the book celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.
“The correct ‘frame of mind’ is key to thriving (not just surviving) in life. Joey is a wonderful example of what the human spirit can do when a person focuses not solely on their circumstances but on what they can achieve despite what life may throw at them. Resilience, perseverance, and true faith are the key to growth and thriving in life, and Joey teaches us that in every chapter and turn of his life. He ran and continues to run the race worthy of his calling,” Dr. Ibach said.
“The thriving human spirit doesn’t say ‘why me?’ It says, ‘why not me, what does God want me to learn from this, and how can I use my circumstances as a testimony to His goodness?’ Job well done, Joey,” the physician added.
The book also drew a response and elicited memories from Steve’s daughter, Annette Marie Dekanich.
“Mom and I shared the experience. For many years she encouraged Dad to share his story in hopes that it would inspire those who face similar battles. Finally, in fulfilling his promise to her, this story of persistence and true faith will hopefully resonate with others and aid their journey,” Ms. Dekanich said.
Fellow author Connie Jordan Green lauds the book for the “hope and courage” it offers readers.
“In his semi-autobiographical novel, Frame of Mind, Steven Dekanich has created a character, Joey Slunisky, who contends with many of the issues Dekanich has dealt with during his life: multiple life-threatening cancers beginning as a teenager, operation and rehabilitation again and again through the years, and dreams that seem impossible given the impediments life throws up. Like Dekanich, Joey learns valuable lessons about the part his attitude plays in surmounting obstacles and achieving his goals,” Ms. Green said. “Along the way, Joey is helped by the positive influence of his doctors, his college professors, his family, and friends, and finally, the woman with whom he falls in love. Joey’s story speaks hope and courage to readers facing their own challenges.”
And two communications specialists, Ellen Boatner and Diane Franklin, salute Steve Dekanich for the way he weaves Joey Slunisky’s life experiences into an uplifting story about the tenacity of the human spirit.
“Frame of Mind is not only a story of courage, but it demonstrates the power of the human mind to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and reach for one’s dreams. Dekanich relays his amazing life experiences, good and bad, into a captivating tale that will make you realize your own dreams are obtainable, and the roadblocks of life are passable with the right attitude and support,” Ms. Boatner said.
“Author Steven J. Dekanich has written a book filled with heart, warmth, humor, and memorable characters,” Ms. Franklin said in her review of the book. “This is a book about hope in the face of adversity, the life-affirming energy that comes from pursuing one’s dream, and a reminder that our ultimate success comes from the love of family and friends—but most importantly from our own positive frame of mind.”
Linda would be proud
Steve believes Linda would like the book and would be proud of him for sharing his life-affirming story. She also would be happy that he’s still living his dream.
“I was infatuated with Oak Ridge. I have no regrets. It was a dream of mine, and it came true,” he said, confessing that his one regret is that his physical limitations keep him from skydiving.
In 2019, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood. His 18 previous bouts of cancer were all related to his throat and thyroid malignancy from which he has been cancer-free for 40 years.
And just as so many times before, Steve Dekanich is approaching his most recent cancer with the resolve, positivity, and faith that has conquered the disease before. He’s confident that God is with him every step of the way. Still, self-doubt can creep in.
“Many times I’ve asked, ‘Why am I here?’ Watching my first wife, Linda, struggling with a walker and thinking and saying to myself, ‘Why you and not me?’ I have a cousin who was an incredibly intelligent nuclear engineer. He climbed Mount Everest, mentored young people not only about the job but also about life, and I watched him succumb to ALS. He was such a dynamic, caring, and giving individual and died way too young in life. Any time I watch a St. Jude Children’s Hospital ad I think, ‘They are so young. Why them and not me?’” he asked.
He believes his persistence, learned through faith, helped him persevere through cancer as a teen, through earning college and post-college degrees, through his career as a metallurgist, and winning a coveted job in Oak Ridge. And it will help him battle this next phase of cancer.
“God has always cared and provided. I’ve always been blessed with incredible doctors. I’ve had so many people, physicians, who would look at my neck and were in awe of what the surgeon was able to do at Sharon General Hospital,” Steve said. “Linda was always after me to get the book published, and I think she would be proud of me. Like Ali, Linda was an incredible lady and always saw me as I could be and not as I was. It was about a year after my initial surgeries and I still had problems with my left arm and neck when we started dating, but Linda never seemed to notice. She was such a giving person, always thinking about someone else and not herself. I think she would be happy that I’m still living my dream.”