Standing eight count: For my kids
Being diagnosed with a rare cancer is “as scary as it sounds” says this former NYPD cop
A "standing eight count" is an eight-second "time out" that a referee can afford a boxer who may find themselves in serious trouble. It's a chance for the ref to assess if there's any real damage and gives the fighter some time to catch their breath and continue to fight on. In that spirit, this column will feature law enforcement officers or their family members who have overcome serious challenges in their lives, detailing their own standing eight counts, and how they lived to fight on.
“Squamous cell cancer within preexisting inverting papilloma.”
It’s an old precinct haunt on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A flock of elderly men whisper over pints at a corner table while classic rock blares from the sound system, and muted flatscreens broadcast European soccer, a fight in Vegas, baseball from the Bronx.
Built like a retired fullback, Keith Zavilowitz is a boyish looking 52, with broad shoulders and intense blue eyes. “It’s as scary as it sounds,” he continues, brushing a hand through impossibly thick, still-brown hair.
After attaining the rank of sergeant with the NYPD, Keith left in late 2002 to become a federal air traffic controller.
“With 10 years on the job and having young kids, it was a tough decision. But I’ve always been obsessed with aviation, and I was only 31; I had to give it a shot,” he says with a shrug.
“August 2003. We’d just returned from a family trip to California; me, my wife, the kids; 5, 3 and a newborn. Always fun flying with a newborn,” he laughs.
“I assumed it was another sinus infection; I’d been hounded by them all my life. I’d even had a few surgeries to remove polyps. The last one was that March, and I was scheduled to have an MRI in September to check the status. But this time the pressure was more intense, especially under my right eye,” he says.
“My ENT gives me a script for antibiotics, sends me home. It just got worse.”
A young couple enters the bar laughing.
“The doctor wants to rule out more polyps, so he moves up the scheduled MRI. When we get the results, he says there’s a mass, tells me I need to see a specialist. The specialist tells me he suspects something called Inverting Papilloma, which are basically polyps that grow in instead of out – and that in rare instances can be cancerous. He then tells me I need to go see a special specialist! Turns out this second specialist – my surgeon, Dr. Steven Schaefer (now retired) – had written the textbooks the first specialist had studied from.”
He takes a long pause.
“I was very impressed by Dr. Schaefer; very calm, confident; but not cocky. He explained how the first surgery would be mostly exploratory; to visually – and through biopsy – confirm or negate cancer, and to remove as much of the mass as they could. The second surgery, if needed, would be to remove any remaining tumor. I’d recently rewatched ‘Kindergarten Cop,’ and Arnold’s voice kept ringing in my head; “It’s not a tumor!”
I laugh, always amazed at cops’ ability to find the humor in any situation.
“Post-op, Dr. Shaeffer told my wife he didn’t need to see the labs, that it was without any doubt cancer. When I’d recovered enough to listen, he gathered my family; my wife, brother and my parents into my room to explain what would happen during the next surgery, which was scheduled for the following week. Besides taking out any remnants of the tumor, they’d rebuild part of the bone supporting my eye socket which had been compromised by the cancer. This involved some kind of spinal tap that would allow them to gently suction my brain to the rear of my skull, to give them room to work up front. He said ‘That might add to your post op head pain.’ Then, after he leaves the room, he steps back in and says ‘Oh, and there’s a very small chance you could lose the vision in your right eye.’”
I stare at him, trying to absorb what he’s just explained.
“Wild, right? And this blew me away; they didn’t have to shave my head for either surgery! Some woman came in and braided my hair,” he says, leaning forward and spreading out his locks to show me his scars. “They made the incisions along the cornrows.”
Having no words, I nod like a simpleton.
“They ran a couple of PET scans to be sure, but Dr. Schaefer had explained that this type of cancer rarely spreads. Luckily, he was right. There was a lot of pain post-op from the staples in my scalp, especially when I coughed, which I did a lot because I’d been under anesthesia for something like 8 hours. After the second surgery, as a precaution, we did a course of radiation.”
The door swings open. Bright sunlight pours into the bar, accompanied by the rude Doppler scream of a passing motorcycle.
“Things went smoothly for a while after that. Regular checkups, PET scans; whatever the doctor ordered. I tried to apply for a payment from the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF), but I was told my cancer occurred too soon after 9/11, that it couldn’t have happened that fast. I understand they have protocols to follow, but I find it very frustrating. Time and time again I’ve heard scientists and doctors say that the cocktail of chemicals and heavy metals we were exposed to has no precedent in human history. Not to mention how rare it is for a 31-year-old to develop this type of cancer in the first place.”
Having heard of numerous cases like his, I can only shake my head in response.
“Late in 2021, my right eye began to swell. After a flurry of visits, it was determined that an infection had taken hold in the bone around my eye socket. I needed a third surgery for them to rebuild it, remove the infected bone, and replace it with a special mesh. They also put in a PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) line for me to inject myself with antibiotics for a few weeks, to better the odds against reinfection.”
After settling the tab, we head out into the racket of traffic and street construction, the glare of the late-summer sun. Walking south on Amsterdam, we make small talk, catch up on news of friends, acquaintances and former colleagues; illness, injury, infidelity; kids, grandkids, death; marriage, divorce and remarriage.
As we arrive at my car, I’m trying to wrap my head around his decade’s long ordeal, and reconcile it with the healthy looking, hopeful guy standing before me. Almost an afterthought, I ask if faith played any part in how he coped with his illness.
“To be honest, I believe in a higher power, but it never occurred to me to pray. I went to Hebrew school, had my bar-mitzvah; but I’ve never been religious.”
We watch the slow-moving traffic lumber up the avenue for almost a minute, wave at a passing school bus.
“It was pretty simple,” he says finally. “From the moment I was diagnosed, I had one goal; that I had to make it for my kids. For my wife.”