In 2013, our brother, Derek, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at 27 years old. Needless to say, his life was devastated in nearly every aspect. But, in a triumph of modern medicine, just 9 months later, after multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, Derek was completely clear of the disease by the start of 2014 (read more about Derek's diagnosis below). Unfortunately, just 3 months into the year, the cancer has returned and metastasized in several areas. He is once again fighting advanced stage cancer, and after never getting a chance to recover from last year's ordeal, finds himself with tremendous financial difficulties. We're raising money in an attempt to lessen just one of the stresses placed on him. It's unimaginable to believe, after everything he went through last year, that he again finds himself in the same battle for his life. This is all difficult enough without having to worry about petty financial issues, so we're trying to eliminate just one of the obstacles in Derek's journey.
Derek had been complaining about stomach pain for a while, and everyone told him to get to a doctor, but he's stubborn, and does things when he's ready to. He started a relationship with a local gastroenterologist a couple months after the first time he was hospitalized with stomach pain. Between then and now, our father had passed away (non-cancer related), and we took a long Thanksgiving road trip to connect with distant family. Most of trip he didn't feel well, immediately after Thanksgiving dinner he was in bed with his "normal pain". We got through the trip, and he had seen the gastroenterologist a couple of times, each time adjusting diet, assuming it was a simple digestive issue. Eventually, after not much progress with the GI doctor, he was in the ER for stomach pain multiple times within a single week, and after several inconclusive CT scans it was decided that a more intrusive test needed to be done.
In the beginning of April 2013, the day of the colonoscopy would be the first time Derek was under anesthesia, but he was in too much discomfort to be concerned with that. The colonoscopy prep had not gone smoothly, soon we would know why, but he was looking forward to some peaceful sleep. When he awoke, he was given strange news, not necessarily alarming, but certainly of some concern. The gastroenterologist couldn't complete the colonoscopy, even their smallest scope did not make much
progress. There was something blocking his colon, it was biopsied at the time of the colonoscopy, but there was not much else the gastroenterologist could do. He set up a "just in case" appointment with the local hospital surgeon, because whatever this was needed to be removed one way or another. They also scheduled a barium enema the next day (a Friday) to try to get a better look at what the blockage was. The same day he met with the surgeon, and scheduled a tentative surgery for Monday morning, in which they planned laparoscopically to remove the section of colon with the blockage. It sounded simple, a colon resection, where they removed a section of the colon and reattach it. A weeks recovery in the hospital to get this in the past sounded fair enough.
Derek received a call from the surgeon from his cell phone early Friday evening. The results of the barium enema were shared with him, along with a rushed pathology report from the biopsied growth in the tumor, and indeed he had a tumor in his colon. We lived that weekend with the knowledge that Derek had colon cancer, and the thought that it could be simply removed, and would be on Monday. He was calm and jovial about it, there were plenty of "I have cancer" jokes that weekend (they would get old soon enough). We all gathered at the hospital for the surgery, they brought him back for anesthesia, it would all be over soon enough.
Minutes into the surgery, the nursing staff came running into the cafe where we had moved to, pointed at us, "The doctor needs to speak with you now!". After watching the surgeon twist a rubber band through each of his fingers while saying,"Things are more complicated than we originally thought", we knew our lives were about to change for the worse. Derek's cancer wasn't contained. At 27 years old, with virtually no family history (despite a huge family), Derek was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We later found out that the doctor had described that the whole ordeal as one of the hardest things he has ever had to do.
While on the operating table, some decisions had to be made. The cancer had already spread to his stomach wall. The local cancer center at the hospital was consulted, and one of the oncologists happened to know of a case similar to this, and knew a surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center that was performing a semi-radical surgery just for this specific case. Essentially, the colon resection would occur, and the surgeon would scrape the diseased tissue from the stomach wall. They'd also perform intra-abdominal chemotherapy, which was described to us as “spraying water on the fire”, where the chemo drugs were applied directly to the effected area. While Derek was still asleep, the surgeon was consulted, and agreed Derek could be a good candidate for this surgery. Plans that would effect the rest of his life were made while he was still under anesthesia.
He took the news well, although it was most likely the pain drugs and the idea that he didn't have to spend the next week in the hospital, but he happily walked out of the hospital that evening with a stuffed cat, and a few more family members that had showed up after the bad news had come in. The next day he had his first appointment with his oncologist. They planned to treat with chemotherapy for 3 months to try to shrink the tumor and affected area, then proceed with the surgery, and after recovery, finish up with another 3 months of chemo.
The first 3 months went fairly well, the chemo was hard on him, but he still got a couple days a week to feel semi-normal. He visited the surgical oncologist in Maryland a few times over that period, and felt confident in his hands. After a month recovery from chemo, we got to travel as a family down to Maryland for the surgery. He did not go smoothly into this one, again he had issues with the surgical prep he was given. They decided to operate despite his agonizing pain that morning. The 10-hour surgery went well, very well in fact, the surgeon was really pleased with the results. One of the unknown complications going into the surgery was based on the tumor location, Derek might have to live with an ostomy for a few weeks while the rest of the colon recovered, and indeed he did wake up from that surgery with an ostomy.
Recovery from the surgery was pretty horrific. Dealing with a new ostomy, home nurse visits, and an incision that didn't heal right, were just a few of the issues. His health really deteriorated during this time. The recovery effects and depression put him into a dark place where he barely ate and stopped walking completely. He eventually worked his way out of it, and got back on track with the plan. Although it was now 2 months later, rather than the 1 month that was planned, the chemotherapy resumed. Although the ostomy was theoretically ready to be reversed at this point, the oncologists did not want to wait any longer to resume the treatment, Derek had to live with the ostomy for a couple more months.
Chemo was more difficult this time. He began in a weakened state, which was the opposite of last time, and did not improve throughout. Regardless, he suffered through the next 3 months of chemotherapy, waited a few more weeks for recovery from that, and finally came a day he was looking forward to.... the ostomy reversal surgery. We can't begin to imagine what it would be like to live with that, but can understand why he was so happy to get rid of it. They also planned to take care of the surgical incision that never healed, which was now the other open wound Derek had been living with for the past 5 months. The surgery went well, and he even got to leave the hospital a day early, and was on the road to full recovery in early November. Although he had a serious bout with depression over the next month, he got through it and finally returned to "normal" life in mid-December. He was verbally given the news that he was considered NED (No Sign of Disease), and this was confirmed with an end-of-the-year PET scan. Cancer free for 2014. The story ended nicely and Derek was onto a new life, so we thought.
It's early April, and we're gathered as a family in Derek's oncologist's office. We shouldn't be here again, just 3 months ago his last PET scan showed him clear of disease. Something isn't quite right, otherwise we wouldn't have all been called back into this office. His oncologist is difficult to read, but we could tell from Derek's demeanor that something's wrong, although he's probably known that for days.
The cancer had returned already. A bout with severe stomach pain landed Derek a stay in the hospital for a couple days. This was not uncommon with him, but shouldn't have happened again since he'd been cleared. But massive surgery on the digestive system can have lasting effects, we didn't think much of it. That is what it was chalked up to, he was released once he was feeling better, with a scheduled endoscopy in a couple days to check things out. The day of the endoscopy came, and with it
was more pain for him, enough so that he asked to be admitted again immediately after the endoscopy was finished. The endoscopy, for the record, was clean. Unfortunately, other parts were not so fortunate. Luckily, since Derek was admitted at the same hospital he was treated at last year, his oncology team was able to get involved. A series of scans were done over the next couple days and Derek was again released from the hospital (this time with another PET scan scheduled and an appointment with his oncologist).
It turned out that a couple lymph nodes outside his bowels were found with the disease, which was bad enough, but there was a little more. He had been complaining of a pain in his back that he was convinced was a torn muscle, but it had gone on for way too long. It turned out to be a growth, and Derek was going to have his first experience with radiation.
As of now, Derek has started chemotherapy after having ondergone three weeks of intesive radiation to treat the cancer that was found to have penetrated his spine. Some of you reading this know what cancer does to a person and a family, some of you do not not (thank god). I have to watch my brother, a young man whom I've looked up to since I can remember, struggle with every waking second of his life. Derek was my hero before the cancer. A focused, intelligent, hardworking man who never let any obstacles delay his success. Now I wonder, "How can I be Derek's hero?"
Last year's battle left Derek financially crippled, and with no time to recover, he is in trouble. It was bad enough last year, despite more income and family members being more able to help. This year, he was solely surviving from state disability insurance, but now it has run out! He has no ability to pay outstanding medical bills or to even deal with unforeseen day-to-day issues. His bad days are more often, but we want to give him as many good days as possible to get him through this period.
How can we help? We can donate. Every dollar donated will go towards Derek's fight. One thing I've learned from this experience thus far, is that cancer is lonely and it takes you to a dark place. I'm selfish in that, I won't let Derek stay in the dark. I let him know everyday that he needs to fight, fight for me, fight for his family, and fight for his friends. He is never alone! Let's keep the fight in him!
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