Lucky Thirteen: A Story of Surviving And Thriving

At twenty-one years old, Kenneth “Kenny” Duncan Jr. leads a rather ordinary life. A self-described cowboy, his wardrobe largely consists of boots and jeans. His playlist includes classics from George Strait and Kenny Chesney, which he blasts while driving on the streets of Laredo. When he’s not on campus working or studying, he can be found fishing at the lake or sharing poems at Gallery 201.

This life, filled with simple pleasures and few worries, is something Duncan cherishes now more than ever.  Because just over a year ago, his life was forever changed by three words: “You have cancer.”

His journey began in March 2015, while returning to Laredo from Mission, Texas. Earlier that day, he visited the final resting place of his maternal grandmother, Maria “Lita” Ayala. Having felt ill for several days, Duncan began to feel nauseous and vomited several times.  Eventually, he was only throwing up bile. The sudden severity of his symptoms led him to seek medical help once he arrived home. He was given different diagnoses, such as acid reflux disease, gallstones, and jaundice. When his symptoms didn’t subside, he was briefly hospitalized and underwent more testing and treatments; ironically enough, cancer was ruled out by the doctors. He was sent home with a clean bill of health.



A few days later, minutes after finishing the film God’s Not Dead with his brother, he was suddenly unable to breathe or speak. His mother took him to the emergency room, where he was treated for an allergic reaction. Exhausted by then, Duncan wasn’t alarmed when his general practitioner spoke to him that night.



“He kept saying, ‘It’s not good, it’s not good’, but I was just happy to be breathing again…I wasn’t really paying attention to him,” admitted Duncan. “But he told my dad that the scrape [shave biopsy] came back positive for cancer.” Duncan’s immediate family was informed of the diagnosis, but Duncan himself did not yet know.



“They just told me, ‘It’s bad, and we need to take you to San Antonio.’ Being in the state of annoyance I was, I was like ‘It’s fine.’”



Duncan was then transported to San Antonio via ambulance in the morning. He joked that riding in the ambulance felt more like an adventure than an emergency.  However, upon his arrival to Methodist Hospital, a new adventure began as he learned his true diagnosis: extra hepatic bile duct cancer.



An extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer, bile duct cancer is considered a “silent disease” due to its symptoms (such as the ones Duncan experienced) which are often mistaken as symptoms for less serious disorders. As a result, it is often diagnosed in its final stages, when medical intervention is of little help. Chemotherapy and radiation can prolong, but not cure this disease; similarly, surgery can also have a limited effect once the cancer has metastasized.



“I didn’t know what to think. It all happened so quickly.” he said. For Duncan’s mother, this event was eerily reminiscent of her own mother’s cancer diagnosis.



“It was the same hospital, same waiting room, and same doctor that diagnosed my grandmother,” revealed Duncan, whose grandmother passed away in 2012, after a battle with  pancreatic cancer.



At the time of his diagnosis, Duncan’s cancer had not yet metastasized. The best and fastest course of treatment was surgery. So on March 27, 2015, Duncan underwent an eight hour surgery to remove the tumor.  The surgery was successful, but the hardest part was about to begin. Despite being able to walk within days of the surgery, he experienced excruciating amounts of pain that required stints in his neck, as the veins in his arm had collapsed by then. Duncan recalled an incident where he fainted in front of his doctor after being asked to stand up. He was surprised upon waking up unharmed in his bed, but worried about his mother.




Diagnosed with bile duct cancer on March 24, 2015, Duncan underwent an eight hour surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on March 27th, 2015. He recently celebrated a year in remission. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Duncan, Sr.
Diagnosed with bile duct cancer on March 24, 2015, Duncan underwent an eight hour surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on March 27th, 2015. He recently celebrated a year in remission. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Duncan, Sr.

“I was like, “Wait, where’s my mother? She’s going to be scared. Where is she?’ I later found out the person who caught me was my mother. She caught me and she put me on the bed so I wouldn’t hit the floor.”



In the days that followed, he recovered slowly but steadily. Still afraid to walk or eat again, his doctor urged him to push forward, and revealed the immense amount of support and people Duncan had on his side.



“You don’t understand how many people you have rooting for you at this hospital,” the doctor told him. Struggling to compose himself at this memory, Duncan added that the support went far beyond the hospital. Back in Laredo, Duncan’s name made its way into every prayer circle across the Diocese. Nitin Patel, the owner of the Motel 6 where his father was staying, and his family offered to pray for his Duncan; Patel’s relatives in India also joined him in prayer.



“We had people in California, New York, Canada, Alaska, all throughout the United States praying for me. You don’t really believe it until you’re there, but you know how sometimes people say they can feel people’s prayers, like when they’re going into surgery? I had always half-heartedly believed it, until it happened to me.”



Duncan was released from the hospital shortly after Easter. Though his ordeal was over, he still found himself feeling restless and depressed. He decided to throw himself into community theater projects, working, and returning to school full-time. In the Fall 2015 semester, he enrolled in a Video Production class.



“I can’t tell you what events led to me being in it, because I don’t remember! I just remember walking in on Monday and falling in love with the class.”



For his final project, Duncan filmed a short documentary on his battle with cancer. Shortly thereafter, he realized he enjoyed filmmaking and wanted to make a career out of it. This fall, Duncan will be transferring to the University of North Texas to pursue a degree in Radio, Television, & Film.



“There are stories that are left untold, and I want to tell them,” said Duncan. “A lot of people want to get rich, a lot of people want to get famous. I want to leave a legacy. When it’s my time, I want people to know I was only in this world to give a voice to the voiceless.”



One year into remission, Duncan’s story is an extraordinary tale of thriving in the face of adversity, and is nothing short of miraculous. His second chance at life has undeniably given him a new sense of purpose.



“I got damn lucky. I was the thirteenth person to get this type of cancer, and the only person to survive. That means there’s twelve other people looking down on me from heaven that want to see what I do with the gift that I got… With all that’s going bad in the world, I want to do something good for it.”



Update: Duncan later transferred to Texas A&M University – Kingsville, where he will still pursue a degree in Radio and Television. He cited credit transfer issues as his reason for the change in enrollment. 



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