Francesca Street, CNN
Updated: Sat, 22 Jan 2022 09:55:44 GMT
Kris Sokolowski has always been active, spending his free time mountain climbing, running and practicing martial arts.
And at every opportunity, he could be found boarding a plane, en route to explore the world. On his first official date with his now wife, Sokolowski booked flights to South Africa for two weeks. The couple have a son, now 11, who also joins them on their adventures.
Sokolowski's outdoor pursuits have helped keep him healthy. At his last yearly physical checkup in December 2020, his doctor called him "Iron Man."
But around six months after that appointment, Sokolowski started experiencing what he describes as an "odd feeling" in his stomach.
"It was kind of like a gurgling, like you're hungry. And it just wasn't going away for a couple of days," he tells CNN Travel today.
Sokolowski went to get checked out and was told it was likely acid reflux. He was given some pills and sent home. A couple days later, the gurgling sensation was still there, so he sought further medical advice and a scan, after which he was told to see a gastro specialist right away.
Sokolowski's doctor told him there was a "big mass" on his colon and liver and he suspected late stage-four cancer. Stage four is the most advanced stage of cancer and usually means it has spread from its origin.
"My first reaction was, 'How can this happen? I've never missed an appointment,'" Sokolowski recalls.
But at 48, Sokolowski hadn't been old enough for recommended regular colonoscopies in the United States (the age has since lowered to 45). And until the gurgling sensation, he hadn't experienced any symptoms.
An MRI scan, colonoscopy and tissue sample confirmed the worst: Sokolowski had stage four colon cancer.
"The MRI showed it in six places on my body," says Sokolowski. "So it was my colon, my liver, my sternum, my spine, my lymph nodes, and the walls of my abdomen."
Oncologists told him there was no cure for his condition.
"They gave me a lifespan between two and a half and five years to live," he says.
Love of travel
Atlanta-based Sokolowski is the first-generation American son of two Polish immigrants. He says his love of travel stems from the many childhood summers he spent back in Poland. In his 20s, he started traveling whenever he could, regularly exploring Europe.
When Sokolowski met his wife Elizabeth in his thirties, the two realized they were united in a thirst to see the world. That first date in South Africa sealed the deal, and the couple were married six months later.
"When our son was born a year later in 2010, we made a commitment that every year, we would take him out of the country," says Sokolowski.
It's important to the couple to introduce their son to cultures and experiences outside of the US.
Since he was born, the family has been to 19 countries and counting.
"We both work for corporate America, but we save up all year, and usually take about three weeks to travel, whether it's Asia, the South Pacific, Europe, wherever we can go."
Solowski says he and his wife always look forward. They rarely return to the same place, and focus on how they can make the best of their current circumstances and plan something exciting for the future.
It's that attitude that Sokolowski brought to his terminal cancer diagnosis.
He says he's on the highest dosage of chemotherapy available. He was warned by doctors of side effects of fatigue, vomiting, hair loss and weight loss.
"I said, Look, I'm a young guy, I'm 48 years old, I have a 10-year-old at home. Throw everything you got at me now while I'm young and strong," recalls Sokolowski.
So far, side effects have been minimal and he's continued to exercise and run regularly.
"I've never been sick a day from it," Sokolowski says. "Fatigue kicked in a little bit, but I was able to overcome it. So everything they told me was going to happen, didn't happen with me."
Sokolowski and his family canceled a planned trip to Iceland in summer 2021, but as the months rolled on, he was advised that, against the odds, his tumors were shrinking, and he was well enough to afford to skip one of his chemo treatments -- which occur every two weeks -- to go on vacation abroad.
Even catching Covid-19 in November 2021 didn't put a stop to plans -- fortunately Sokolowski was vaccinated and only mildly ill with the virus.
When he got the go ahead to travel with his family over the Christmas period, Sokolowski was thrilled.
"Even above my health, travel was still a priority," Sokolowski says. "Because it was a commitment that we made when we got married, it was a commitment that we made to our son when he was born -- that we would take him out of the country every year. So to me, that was always priority number one."
Sokolowski and his wife Elizabeth and son Braden started planning a trip for Christmas and New Year. They settled on a three-week adventure in French Polynesia, heading to Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti.
Sokolowski traveled with his chemo pills, as well as a precautionary letter from his doctor to ensure he could get back into the United States -- "just in case there was some kind of lockdown because of Covid. And that letter basically stipulated that 'Kris has stage-four cancer that's terminal, that he's really dependent on his chemo.'"
While Sokolowski had avoided many side effects of his treatment, when departure day rolled around he was suffering from a condition called hand-foot syndrome, which can cause the bottom of your feet to become really tender and prone to blistering and swelling.
"When I was running before our trip, it caused me to have blisters on both of my feet, I think I had four on each foot and it was extremely difficult to walk -- it was almost like walking on razor blades," he says.
"So the day we were leaving for French Polynesia, we went through three different airports. We went through Atlanta airport, LAX and then in Tahiti, and in all three airports, I had to be in a wheelchair because I couldn't walk, and that was kind of difficult."
But Sokolowski says arriving in Bora Bora and diving into the turquoise waters was almost instantly healing.
That was likely the salt water at work, he says. But Sokolowski also thinks the happiness and delight he felt at being on vacation in a beautiful place with his loved ones lifted his spirits, providing invaluable palliative care.
Under warm blue skies, the family enjoyed swimming with black tip sharks, jet skiing, exploring volcanic landscapes and relaxing.
"We spent an enormous time out on the water. I mean, how can you not? It's crystal clear. It's a turquoise color that you've never seen before. You know, you could see right down to the bottom where the fish are swimming. And it's just very peaceful and relaxful."
Living for the moment
For Sokolowski and his wife, it was important to be candid with Braden about his father's cancer, while also easing him into this new reality and supporting him through it.
Sokolowski says the family's focus is on making memories, and continuing to encourage their child to embrace new opportunities and adventures.
One of Sokolowski's favorite moments from the 2021 French Polynesia trip was watching Braden diving with sharks for the first time.
"He was a little apprehensive about getting into water with sharks. But then he saw us doing it. So he jumped in," says Sokolowski. "And the first time a shark came up to his face and then turned around and just left -- I was underwater with him and the look on his face, it was just -- it was pure excitement, adrenaline and joy. And I saw how much he enjoyed it and he couldn't get out of the water, I mean, it was fantastic."
Sokolowski has yet to take his son to Poland, but he says that's on the agenda for future travels. He'd wanted to wait until Braden was old enough to understand and fully appreciate the trip.
While the family are currently based in Atlanta, the Sokolowskis are also seriously considering moving to French Polynesia, if they can make it doable with remote working and healthcare.
"For 15 days, I had a smile on my face, ear to ear," Sokolowski says of the family's time there. "I honestly believe if there's anything that's going to cure my cancer, it's going to be living a life of positivity and happiness."
Wherever they're based, travel will remain a priority. In 2022, the family hope to travel to Pamplona, Spain to watch the annual running of the bulls festival -- a longtime dream of Sokolowski's.
Prioritizing health and travel
Sokolowski hopes to defy expectations and statistics to recover from his illness. However much time he has left, he's vowed to spend as much of it as he can exploring the world with his loved ones.
"I don't know how long I have left on this earth, but I want to leave behind fond memories of travel and a legacy where my son can make our planet just a bit better," he says.
Sokolowski has a blog where he recaps his own experiences with cancer. He's become passionate about encouraging people with illness to travel if they can, and he's similarly committed to encouraging people in their 40s to get a colonoscopy.
When he got his diagnosis, Sokolowski asked his gastroenterologist what the outlook would have been if he'd had a colonoscopy three years earlier.
"Before I even finished my sentence, he goes, 'I would have pulled out a couple of polyps, and you wouldn't even be sitting here, we wouldn't be having this conversation.' And that really struck me hard."
Sokolowski says dwelling on this "what if" isn't helpful for him.
"I do not look in the rearview mirror," he says. "That doesn't help me at all. It is what it is. And I only look forward, the only time that I look back is to tell people my story and say, 'This is what happened to me. Don't let it happen to you.'"
Instead, Sokolowski's focus is on staying as healthy as possible, and looking forward to future adventures with his family.
His wife Elizabeth tells CNN Travel she has the same outlook.
"You need to live your life, you only get one life," she says. "The memories is really what is going to make you happy in the end."
Sokolowski adds: "The one thing I've always told people is get out of your bubble, get out of your city and go see the world."
"It amazes me how many people are not interested in traveling -- or interested and they tell me 'Well, we can't do this' and they make excuses. Stop with the excuses and do it."