Paranormal State's Ryan Buell on His Cancer Battle: 'I Had to Go to Death's Door'
The TV star opens up exclusively about fighting pancreatic cancer and facing his own mortality
Having starred on A&E’s Paranormal State, Ryan Buell is no stranger to navigating talk about death. But in 2012, the paranormal investigator was forced to face his own mortality when, at age 29, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
In the first part of his exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Buell candidly revealed the shock of his diagnosis, as well as coming to terms with the looming possibility of his death.
Now, in his own words, Buell recalls the depths of his struggle as he underwent treatment, and looks back on the people who’ve bolstered him along the way as he treads a slow, steady path to recovery.
A Turn for the Worse
They wanted to do preventative treatment: build up my organs, especially my kidneys. My understanding is that most people die of other complications due to the cancer, like kidney failure.
At times, I was experiencing almost like a traffic jam in my body and my kidneys would shut down or I’d be in insane, intense abdominal pain, like I was being stabbed to death. I was throwing up constantly, suffering fever, changing of the skin. It took some time to get things under control. I was grateful for this preventative measure as opposed to breaking out the hacksaw and just going straight in.
I remember one time I was rushed to the hospital because they thought there may have been a spread into my kidneys. And there were all these looks, like, “Dead man walking.” They kind of gave me that look of, “Aw, so sad.” I had to go in for, like, my 12th CT scan. It was a bright, sunny day and I had to go back into the hospital after I had just gotten out. I remember being scared at that point.
Really my hope came when, I would say in March, when I had one of my main surgeries. It happened out of nowhere. We were doing preventative care and things started to get a little worse. It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was like, Okay, it’s time to go in. It wasn’t like the year before, where [the diagnosis] was a shock.
I had a year to process it, and I made my mistakes. I saw the surgeon, and it was like, “We’re going to do this tomorrow.” It just felt right. I just felt like, it’s time for this to be done with, it’s time for me to turn a chapter and have some happiness.
[Around that time], I had a friend who came. An older gentleman, Charles, who was in his early 60s – we met him through Paranormal State. He was a former priest, and he became like an uncle. He talked to me about how … having faith means accepting loss sometimes and just knowing it’s going to be okay.
Faith isn’t when you keep getting rewards over and over again. Having faith is making peace with the fact that you may die, but you know it’s gonna be okay. He ended up passing away two weeks before my surgery, so he wasn’t able to see it through.
So [my fight] was for him and for my family. And, in a way, for the underdogs, because people were saying they weren’t expecting me to live for three months. Here I was a year later. I had to go to death’s door, in a way, and I had to accept that. And suddenly I found that there was a beauty to it. Maybe faith is accepting loss and death.
A Demonic Connection?
There is this belief that once the demonic notice you, they will remember you, they will torment you, punish you. And one person who was allegedly under possession once said, “It knows me. It knows my face, it will never forget, it will always find me.” Maybe the demons did give me cancer. Maybe demons give everyone cancer. Let’s just say they did. Well, I can’t change that, but what I can do is fight.
And if they can do everything, including deciding when to kill me, which is also beyond my control, I’m not going to stop suddenly doing this work. I have thought about that and people have asked me things like, “Aren’t you afraid that demons are going to attack you?” But I just choose not to worry about that. Because then I give them power.
Recovery and Prognosis
They did remove the tumor laparoscopically, and there has been no spread. My body is still not 100 percent, I’m still weak, I still have to be careful of what I eat. I have to be a bit more mindful – I can’t go 100 m.p.h. like I used to. I won’t travel as much, and now I just have to be a bit more patient.
I also had my gallbladder removed due to complications there. My kidneys are extraordinarily weakened because of this, so I’m still experiencing a lot of the symptoms. We’re monitoring and trying to figure out what those next steps are.
[The doctors] are very happy, but I still have a road ahead. It’s a process. There’s a whole line of other people that have it worse than I. I wasn’t discovered having this at stage three or stage four. It hadn’t metastasized all over my body. I’ve seen other people who were in the hospital for months and months, never leaving. That wasn’t the case for me. So I am happy because I was able to go back to work.
When you read up on cases of pancreatic cancer, you hear of Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze. I remember one story about other celebrities who’ve had pancreatic cancer. And it was like: dead, dead, dead, dead.
But celebrities are, like, 0.1 percent of the population. I did meet others, actually, through my fan base, people on Twitter and Facebook who told me they were survivors. Anonymously, I joined a cancer support group online and read a lot of stories, and a lot of them really inspired me.
[My business partner] Chad’s father, he was an ex-military guy. He had this saying: “Soldier on.” He said we’re all soldiers in our own ways. We don’t know what life’s going to give us – like a solider who sees the spoils of war, the worst of humanity. Why do we go through such dark times? It’s because we’re fighting for those great moments to come. Maybe hope is as foolish as believing in ghosts, but it’s something we need, it’s something we need to fight for, to believe in.
I wish that [my illness] would just be done and they give you some sort of certificate. But it’s not like that, it’s not like in a movie where everything’s wrapped up. But there are those moments of peace, and I’ve had those moments.
Of family reunions, having my mom say to me, “It’s good to have the old Ryan back.” Being excited about the book [Buell is penning his second project, following his debut tome], and cowriting the upcoming Mighty Morphin Power Rangers comic book, which comes out in May. I grew up watching Power Rangers, so it’s a childhood dream.
Venturing back into TV, all those things. For the first time in a while, I get to focus on more than just today. I can focus on tomorrow.