When I proposed to my girlfriend, Sarah, in September 2013, I thought that would be the biggest moment of my year. Little did I know that just a few months later, at the age of 24, I would be diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer.
My diagnosis came after I’d started to notice a pain in my back. I thought it was just kidney stones, but doctors found a mass in my abdomen during a wellness exam. An ultrasound and a CT scan revealed a racquetball-sized tumor in my colon. Not wanting to take any chances, I came to MD Anderson and had a colonoscopy with Patrick Lynch, M.D.
I anxiously waited and prayed for results, so when I got the phone call confirming my diagnosis, I was scared but relieved. I knew my faith in God would keep me going.
Because I have no family history of cancer, colorectal cancer at my age was quite surprising. However, Dr. Lynch ran genetic tests that showed I have Lynch Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that made me more susceptible to getting colorectal cancer and that was actually discovered by Dr. Lynch’s father.
My initial colorectal cancer treatment
In December 2013, I started treatment at MD Anderson. I endured six rounds of a chemotherapy cocktail called FOLFOX-6, which stole my energy and my appetite, and caused neuropathy in my fingers and toes.
On Good Friday of 2014, I visited a local emergency room for severe internal bleeding. The doctors got me stabilized so that I could return to MD Anderson for an emergency embolization procedure to stop the bleeding.
A few weeks after I’d recovered, Miguel Rodriguez-Bigas, M.D., performed an 8.5-hour surgery to remove the tumor. I felt very comfortable in his care and knew that I was in good hands.
The surgery removed about 40% of my colon, as well as 20% of my right kidney and more than 30 lymph nodes. I also had intraoperative radiation therapy. Fortunately, I didn’t need an ileostomy, a surgical opening created in the abdomen wall to remove bodily waste. I’ve learned to find small silver linings in experiences like this.
After recovering, I had six more rounds of chemotherapy. It felt so good to ring the bell at MD Anderson to mark the end of my treatment in September 2014.
A colorectal cancer recurrence
Following my treatment, I moved on to planning my wedding, but cancer had other plans. A checkup revealed two enlarged, cancerous lymph nodes near my spine. We decided to try another six rounds of chemotherapy with a drug called irinotecan. This time I lost all my hair, and I was constantly exhausted and nauseous.
When scans showed that the chemo wasn’t helping and I wound up in the ER with a swollen tongue and disorientation, my doctors took me off irinotecan.
Choosing an immunotherapy clinical trial
At that point, my oncologist, Michael Overman, M.D., recommended an immunotherapy clinical trial he was leading. I decided to give it a try.
I started taking nivolumab in March 2015, and I’ve had nothing but positive results. My lymph nodes have returned to normal sizes, and I’ve got my energy and appetite back. I’ve had no significant side effects, and everything else has more or less turned around for me.
Finding strength and encouragement through others
I married Sarah on Nov. 28, 2015, seven years after I first asked her out. I’m so glad that she has been with me throughout this rollercoaster ride. She’s been my rock since my diagnosis.
During my journey, I’ve learned the importance of seeking encouragement from others battling colorectal cancer. I became an active participant in a Facebook support group, which was a great source of inspiration and strength.
I’ve also been participating in the annual SCOPE 5K at MD Anderson since 2014. My first year, I had to do the run in a wheelchair because I was weak from chemotherapy, but I got up to walk across the finish line. My family and friends have been by my side every year, with a team we call “Boom Shaka Team Tydlacka.”
Most importantly, I received strength and courage from God. My faith has helped to keep my spirits strong, despite everything, and I know that I wouldn’t be here without Him.
When you face off against cancer, you learn to live life one day at a time and enjoy the little things. Most importantly, you learn to never give up.
Thomas Tydlacka will be honored at the 12th annual SCOPE 5K run, which will be held at MD Anderson on Saturday, March 25, 2017. The race promotes colorectal cancer screening and honors those diagnosed with the disease. Learn more.
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