Gene Evans will celebrate more than two years of being cancer-free on Saturday with fellow paddleboard enthusiasts, raising money to fight the disease.
Evans — atop his black and yellow paddleboard — will lead 150 or so paddlers around Treasure Island on two routes to raise money for cancer research. The third annual Paddle Against Cancer also will be a celebration of Evans' successful battle against kidney cancer.
It's hard to believe that the 52-year-old, physically fit Sunset Beach resident has survived four surgeries and two rounds of radiation treatment. In college, he played basketball at East Carolina University as a walk-on and then spent a number of years playing semipro beach volleyball in Florida.
"I'm lucky," Evans now says. But he didn't think so when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2009.
"I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die," ' he said. He was 48 at the time and thought, "I'm not going to make it to 50."
Evans learned he had a tumor on his right kidney that had spread to his vertebrae. During his first surgery at Moffitt Cancer Center, doctors had to remove a rib and collapse a lung to stabilize his spine by installing a titanium cage. They removed his kidney six weeks later and a tumor on his spine.
It all came as a shock to the self-professed fitness nut who had always been healthy. A long-time surfer, Evans got hooked on the sport of paddleboarding after a vacation trip six years ago to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
In fact, he says paddling helped detect his cancer.
"I started feeling a dull pain in my back. I thought it might be kidney stones," Evans said.
There is cancer in his family history. His grandmother, mother and sister all had breast cancer. He also wonders if his father's deployment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he lived as a child, might have had an influence. Contaminated drinking water at the base has been linked to cancer in residents there.
Evans was sure about one thing after his cancer treatment: He didn't want to focus on the negative.
"I promised not to ask 'Why me?' " he said. "I try to focus on what I can do every day to get better, stay strong."
Four months after his last surgery in 2011, he hastily organized and held his first Paddle Against Cancer event. With 43 paddleboarders, he raised $17,000, far exceeding his original estimate of $2,000 to $3,000.
The fundraiser has now become a Memorial Day weekend event. Last year, 165 people raised $22,000 for Moffitt. The race begins and ends at the Club at Treasure Island, just off the Treasure Island Causeway. Paddlers who make at least a $35 donation can choose from a 3- or 7-mile course. It begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and the race ends with a poolside celebration open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. with music, giveaways and free paddleboard demonstrations.
Evans, a senior vice president at USAmeriBank in Clearwater, has also become an inspirational speaker. He has spoken to Moffitt's board of directors at its annual retreat in 2012 and at the Relay for Life survivor dinner at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg on Friday.
Brad McMurtrey, president of USAmeriBank who has worked with Evans for years, applauded him for how he reacted to his diagnosis.
"He handled it with a lot of courage," McMurtrey said. "He was able to communicate with us about it and worked as much as he could while he was going through it."
Friend and co-worker John Connelly with Connelly, Carlisle, Fields & Nichols, the insurance division of USAmeriBank, said the way Evans has handled his cancer has been amazing.
"His mental attitude is one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed," Connelly said. "He was always upbeat and confident things were going to work out. He's had a lot of success in business and sports and I think that's given him a lot of confidence."
Evans' insistence on giving back after staving off cancer has impressed Connelly even more.
"A lot of people get better, thank their doctor and move on," he said. "Not Gene, and that says a lot about his character. He wants to give back for the miracle he thinks he received."
Although it appears he has beaten the odds, Evans' diagnosis has profoundly changed his life.
"Once you are diagnosed, you are married to it," he said. "It is always there, but it inspires me to keep working hard."