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Posted almost 5 years ago
DALLAS — As if cancer-stricken Dallas police Sgt. Gregory Epley didn't have enough to worry about with weeks of grueling radiation and chemotherapy in front of him, he now confronts another worry: the potential loss of his paycheck and thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Epley, 34, quickly blew through about two months of vacation and sick time while fighting a rare form of tongue cancer earlier this year. Now it's back.
Because he's the sole provider for his wife and three young children, Epley has been going to work when he can while undergoing treatments. Initially, he thought he might be able to work for much of it, but his earlier assessment has proved too optimistic.
His wife, Anna Epley, said she doesn't think he'll be able to report for duty much longer because the treatments have left him extremely ill, tired and barely able to eat, and he may soon have to get a feeding tube.
"He's realizing it's pretty rough," Anna Epley said Wednesday. "Yesterday he was like, 'This is kicking my butt.' He was too sick after treatment to work. He threw up all the way home."
No more 'leave bank'
Dallas no longer has a "catastrophic leave bank," where employees can donate unused leave hours. But the city allows employees to request up to 80 hours of advance sick leave.
Since he's used his remaining paid time, Epley has requested the use of 40 hours of advance time. He's trying to save the remaining 40 until closer to the end of his treatment.
"He does not want to ask for help," said Sgt. Stormy Magiera, a friend and colleague. "He said he just puts the bills in a stack and ignores them because he would get too depressed to see what he owes."
Epley, a native of Louisville, Ky., originally considered a career as a U.S. marshal or a Secret Service agent. But the waiting list for a marshal's job was too long when he graduated from Eastern Kentucky University and "the application for Secret Service was so thick that I chunked it in the garbage can."
The Dallas Police Department hired him in 2000. He made sergeant about a year ago.
"I just like the job," said Epley, who works as an evening shift supervisor at the city's Central patrol substation. "I like chasing bad guys."
Along the way, he met Anna while working an off-duty police job at a Wells Fargo Bank branch. The couple has three children, the youngest of whom just turned 1.
For Epley, the symptoms began in May with what he and his doctors initially thought to be a routine canker sore on the left side of his tongue. But the painful sore wouldn't go away. He could barely eat. He started losing weight. Then came inexplicable headaches and excruciating jaw pain.
He went from doctor to doctor trying to figure it out. One doctor blamed stress. In late August, a biopsy revealed cancer on the left side of his tongue, a stunning finding given that he doesn't use tobacco products.
On Sept. 3, surgeons removed the left side of his tongue and used skin from his arm to reconstruct it. Doctors also removed lymph nodes from his left ear to his neck to check for cancer. He was off for about a month after the surgery.
"Everything came back clear," Anna Epley said. "We thought it was over."
About two months later, the right side of his tongue started hurting. He went to his surgeon, who told him he'd probably bitten it and not to worry.
"He said, 'I don't think it's cancer. The odds of you having cancer are slim to none,' " Gregory Epley recalled.
A week or so later, he noticed a small lump on his tongue.
He underwent his second biopsy two days before Thanksgiving. It revealed a tumor on the right side.
The pain was so bad after that biopsy that he missed another week of work. Some days, he can't make it through an entire shift, either because he gets severe migraines or he's throwing up, his wife said.
Earlier this month, doctors removed his back molars and wisdom teeth, leaving his face swollen. He could barely talk.
He began radiation treatments on Dec. 15. He'll undergo radiation five days a week and chemo once a week.
The prognosis is good because the cancer hasn't spread beyond his tongue.
So far, the Epleys have shelled out more than $8,000 for medical bills. The bills just keep rolling in.
"I don't want people to think my problems are any more important than other people's problems," Epley said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't want anybody to think I'm complaining."
Even after Epley completes the seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, he's facing another six to eight weeks of recovery, during which he probably won't be able to work much, his wife said.
Two of the Epleys' children are too young to understand what's going on. Their 4-year-old daughter realizes he has cancer, but she doesn't really understand what that means.
Recently, her mother found her pretending that she had a tumor and that her brother was the doctor.
"She said she wants to make a card that says, 'Daddy, please don't get sick anymore.' She wants it big enough to put in the front yard. That made me cry," Anna Epley said.
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