In 2011, Paranormal State star Ryan Buell had a hit show on A&E, a successful book and an array of new projects in the works. He wasn’t feeling his best, but he blamed his production schedule for the constant fatigue. When his symptoms persisted months later, however, he sought medical attention. The diagnosis was devastating.
Buell had pancreatic cancer. He was 29 years old.
“I haven’t really talked about it because I was in shock,” says Buell. “I don’t have any desire to exploit my disease, but I want to let fans, as well as people in general who are aware of the stigma surrounding this disease, know that so far I am surviving and doing well.” Fans, he adds, “may not know it, but they have contributed to help saving me.”
And while his battle isn’t over, “I couldn’t have gotten this far without everyone,” he insists.
Buell – who is in talks for a new TV show, working on his second book and has an independent film, American Ghost Hunter, out on DVD this month – has undergone two successful surgeries and is “close” to being in remission.
He spoke exclusively to PEOPLE about his diagnosis and treatment, as well as coming to terms with death. Here, in his own words, is how Buell describes his journey.
The Shocking Diagnosis
I first noticed at the end of shooting Paranormal State that things just didn’t feel right. I was more tired, I had abdominal pains, but I thought I was just overworked. It wasn’t really until a year later that I really started to notice this on a regular basis. I was exhausted so much. I would break out into heavy fevers. I would get very sharp pains.
[Doctors] noticed that some of my enzymes were elevated, so they decided to do some tests, and then it moved into biopsies and MRI. That’s when they noticed something. It wasn’t, like, “Oh, let me get checked for cancer.” It was discovered by accident.
When they initially told me, I went through this moment of shutting down. I kind of numbed myself to it and I didn’t tell anybody. At all.
This was around March of 2012. They wanted me to start pretty quickly on treatment, but I really didn’t want to. I didn’t know how to process this. I ended up keeping it quiet for, like, two months. I took a vacation away from everybody to start processing it. I was terrified to tell my parents, to tell anybody. We had all these plans. And suddenly now, this was my life.
For a while, I started living life like, this is the end. This is it, so I’d better enjoy it. I was not myself at all. I wasn’t focusing on my responsibilities anymore. I was in denial. I was extraordinarily angry. I have been a very spiritual person, but I went through a huge, cliché thing of being angry at God. [The diagnosis] just came out of nowhere. I guess that’s how it always works. It’s never planned.
I was 29 and it felt like a death sentence even though my case was very different – it was caught by accident and it was very early. I later learned that every case is different and there are many survivors.
My biggest enemy was myself. I had such a bad outlook on things. Part of me was ready to die. I was learning how to accept death, which is so odd because on Paranormal State, professionally, my job is to explore questions about death. People come to me all the time about their loved ones: Are they in a better place?
Looking back on it, I feel like I was totally amateurish in understanding people’s pain about death and the pain that they were going through.
For me to start pursuing treatment, I wanted to make sure I understood where things could go. I read a bunch of things, like once they do surgery, it’s possible that that could expose your body to the cancer cells in other ways. So I needed to make sure I was mentally prepared. As I got sicker and sicker … I was trying to process death and dying.
I really wanted to leave with things being better for everyone and leave the world a better place. I wanted to leave my family, my friends, my coworkers with something to move forward with. So I started to kind of focus on work, essentially building it up and getting it ready for me to bow out. I even spent some time filming tapes upon tapes saying my goodbyes.
I felt like every time I called to speak to someone, I was Death. And so I convinced myself no one wanted to talk to me because here I am, just the bearer of bad news. My parents always said I had such a childlike energy and I would always light up a room. Now it felt almost like I was a virus. That’s when my friend said my cancer is everyone’s cancer. This is a shared experience and we are here for you.
Check back for the second part of our exclusive interview with Buell, as he recalls the darkest days of his treatment and his steady road to recovery