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Tom Dempsey opens up about cancer battle: The diagnosis

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-21 19:42:33-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This week, 41 Action News reporter Tom Dempsey has shared his personal story after being diagnosed in May 2019 with testicular cancer. This article is about the treatment he underwent, including surgery, and what he learned before and after. For anyone fighting or facing a similar battle, Tom hopes his experience offers some insight on what to expect. This is the first of a four-part series.

Part 2: The support system

Part 3: The treatment

Part 4: The new 'normal'


As I write this, it is Monday morning on May 20th.

In many regards, it was a normal Sunday for me. I woke up early to watch my favorite soccer team, Celtic FC, capture the Scottish Premiership title. Afterwards, I struggled mightily through a crossword puzzle online but eventually finished, thanks to incorrect entries showing up in red.

As a lover of golf, I had my eye on the PGA Championship for much of the day. I had a big dinner, watched WWE at night, and said my prayers before falling asleep.

The days prior to this, however, have been anything but normal for me.

Barely a week earlier, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As a 31-year-old TV reporter still trying to capture an elusive Emmy and one day move closer to my home in New Jersey, never in a million years did I think I would type that sentence.

I have cancer.

It still seems strange for me to type that.

What followed the diagnosis has been a true roller coaster of emotions — shock, terror, hope, relief, anger, love, more terror, more hope.

Cancer is never an easy thing to deal with, but I feel compelled to do something as a journalist.

I decided to write about everything — the events, the emotions, the amazing show of support from family and friends, the parts that made me tremble in bed, the thoughts that helped me get up in the morning.

Maybe, just maybe, this story will lead someone else to do a self-exam. Maybe he’ll decide to go see a doctor. Maybe, just maybe, this will offer him a reprieve from his own thoughts as he too fights through a battle he never saw coming.

I know I didn’t.

———

"THAT DOESN'T SEEM NORMAL."

I remember thinking that as I laid in bed during an early Saturday morning sometime in April.

People don’t talk enough about testicular cancer. It remains a taboo subject in social circles or at the dinner table, but, as reporter who appreciates details, I feel it is important to describe some of the more private moments of this journey.

For around three weeks, I felt discomfort around my right testicle. Not pain.

Experts and medical reports say the telltale sign of testicular cancer is an enlarged testicle. I did not have this.

My right testicle felt hard at times and, during a few self-exams, I had discomfort. I felt what seemed like a hardened vein on the backside of the testicle.

The strange thing about all of this is that feeling never went away.

The true scare for me came on that early Saturday morning in April when I awoke with the discomfort. My right testicle was pointing in a different direction and had moved over further than normal to the right side. It felt harder than before.

I remember panicking as I laid in bed, "This is not normal. What if it’s cancer? Dear God, this is horrible. Please make it go away!"

I waited another week and thought, "Maybe the discomfort will go away." It didn’t.

I remember traveling to Atchison for a recent story on Missouri River flooding for a 10 p.m. newscast on 41 Action News. As I was getting back in the car, I experienced a sharp burst of pain as I sat down.

I compare it to feeling like my jeans were too tight and the right testicle got smushed as I took a seat. As with the previous few weeks of discomfort, it was not normal.

Did I think I had testicular cancer? I absolutely knew it was a possibility. Any man, when dealing with a strange discomfort “down there,” probably knows cancer is a possibility.

However, in the age of Web MD and other medical resources, I knew it was important for me not to jump to such a huge conclusion.

Fun fact: There are such things as testicular cysts. There’s also a condition known as epididymitis, a type of genital inflammation, which strangely enough I hoped I had instead.

A few more days passed before I went to go see a primary care doctor. Luckily, the day I called, the office had an opening later that afternoon.

The fact they had an opening on the day I called is one of several moments, in particular, that make me believe there was a greater force at work during this journey.

———

"LET'S DO AN ULTRASOUND."

Those were the words of my primary care doctor in early May.

First things first, I hate going to the doctor.

I respect anyone who chooses to work in the medical profession, as my mom has been a hard-working nurse since I was born and a few of my friends work for prestigious hospitals in the Kansas City area, but I get uncomfortable seeing other people in pain, the equipment that's used for God knows what, and thinking of the ailments that lead people to go see the doctor.

I don’t enjoy going, but I knew I needed to go. During the half-hour drive to get to the office from downtown, I listened to Bruce Springsteen, my all-time favorite singer.

I met with a doctor and told her my story. She said epididymitis was definitely a possibility. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as she prescribed me some antibiotics I could pick up at CVS.

As part of the visit, she also did a physical exam and said, “Let’s do an ultrasound to get another look."

Big gulp. Oh, boy! "Does this mean I have cancer? Maybe she wants me to do this just to make sure, but I actually have epididymitis," I remember thinking.

Again, the office miraculously had opening for an ultrasound appointment and what followed brought my first tears of this whole experience.

I was on my back, worried I had cancer, and praying this appointment would be over. I teared up thinking about the possibility of having to tell my parents I had cancer.

The ultrasound lasted 10 to 15 minutes. I could finally leave and was told that a nurse would reach out with the results later that week.

———

"WE FOUND A CYSTIC MASS"

When that call came, it was my primary care doctor and not someone on staff.

*ring* It’s early Thursday morning and I reported for the 10 p.m. show the night before.

*ring* I am tired. Oh, boy, I’m tired, but I see it’s the doctor’s office calling.

“Hello?” I said, ready for answers. I knew the details to follow could be horrible but I was eager to get closer to the truth.

The doctor who I saw a few days earlier told me the ultrasound showed a “cystic mass” on my right testicle.

“So is that a tumor?” I asked. “Is it cancer?”

She tells me in most cases, like mine, it is testicular cancer and makes an appointment for me to see a urologist the next day.

From the moment I get out of bed to the moment I go to sleep that night, I am thinking about the possibility of having cancer. I was scared out of my mind and the only person who knew at this point was my girlfriend, Nicole.

She was the one who told me to make the appointment with the doctor after I told her about having discomfort for a few days.

She is my therapist, my No. 1 fan, a huge part of my support system, Most of all, she's my best friend.

Before going to bed that night, I remember talking to her about how afraid I was. "What if it’s cancer?" We talked for a half-hour before dozing off that night.

Nicole has remained my bedrock during this crazy experience. I don’t know where I’d be without her.

———

"IT'S CANCER."

I'll never forget hearing those words from the urologist.

I was scared to death all Friday morning. I can only compare the feeling to “walking on air,” but not in the fun “I just won the championship” or “I just got some amazing news” kind of way.

I was called to the urologist’s office and took a seat on a chair near the door. He would be in soon.

I looked out the window. Cars passed on a nearby highway, the sky was beautiful with several clouds, the sun was shining, and cows grazed in a pasture across the road in the distance.

It was a beautiful day, but all I felt was inner turmoil.

It felt like my life was at a tipping point — my current life, working as a reporter and my quest to do the best possible job at work, versus the prospect of cancer. That would mean a whole new endeavor in which I might need to get my testicle removed, might not be able to have children, might lose my hair — and, oh yeah, might die if the cancer spread too much.

Fifteen minutes passed in silence.

I was the only person in this office. No music was playing. I had my phone nearby, but I was too nervous to think about anything else. "What if it’s cancer? How will I tell my dad and mom? What if it’s something else and I dodged a bullet?" I thought.

I remember looking down at my phone. It was 11:11 a.m. Time to make a wish.

“God, you know what I want,” I thought.

Thirty minutes passed.

“Where the heck is this guy?” I wondered.

I felt like I was in some sick version of purgatory. I was waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

The only thing at stake was what the next few years would look like. No biggie.

Finally, the door opens. It’s the urologist. We talk about what I’ve been experiencing. He nods.

A physical exam follows. More pain on my end. I swat his hand away at one point.

“That’s OK,” he said, as he took a step back. “I’ve seen all I need to see.”

I take a seat.

After going over some notes, looking at the ultrasound, and doing the physical exam, he uttered the words that have forever changed my life.

“It’s cancer,” he said.

I kept my composure. It was time to fight.

In true reporter fashion, what did I grab for after getting the news? My notebook.

He said the diagnosis almost certainly meant that my right testicle would need to be removed. The procedure would happen early the following week.

“So soon!” I thought to myself.

I asked him some questions, particularly about fertility. He said having a testicle removed obviously impacts being able to have children, but said that going to a sperm bank is an option.

There also was perhaps the biggest question, “Did it spread?” I asked.

He said a CT scan would be needed to answer that.

I asked a few more questions before heading out.

Immediately, I called Nicole to tell her the news while she was at work. We agreed to meet back at the apartment and I drove home with tears streaming down my face.

Shock is the first emotion I felt after being diagnosed with cancer and what followed was terror.

Most of all though, I would soon find out that I was not in this fight alone.

We'll have more on Tom's journey — from his cancer diagnosis to cancer survivor — in the second part of this series on Tuesday.