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Tom Dempsey opens up about cancer diagnosis: The support system

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Posted at 6:04 AM, Jun 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-20 10:16:35-04

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 second of a four-part series.

Part 1: The diagnosis

Part 3: The treatment

Part 4: The new 'normal'


When someone is fighting cancer, they should never have to do it alone.

For the longest time, I always preferred to deal with stressful, bad days by myself. I am perfectly fine watching a show, playing video games or reading a book to get my mind off a long day.

When I got the diagnosis on May 10th, however, everything changed. This was a battle I knew I couldn’t handle on my own.

That feeling when the doctor looks you in the eyes and says it’s cancer, the experience of sitting in bed and trying to sleep but shaking in fear thinking 'What if the cancer spreads?', waiting days for medical results that could potentially be life-changing.

I tried to remember something Rudy Giuliani said on 9/11 that struck close to my heart: “In times of chaos, even if you aren’t calm, pretend like you are.”

I wanted to project confidence and strength during my battle. The truth is, this wasn’t always the case.

The diagnosis was a lot to bear and I needed warriors for the fight.

Within a few hours of being diagnosed, I soon found out how strong my team was. I had an army by my side.

———

“HERE, HAVE ONE!” I'd say handing out #TomsArmy bracelets

When you need warriors for the biggest fight of your life, you feel even stronger when your best friend is right by your side every day.

Nicole was the first person I called after I got the diagnosis. It blindsided both of us tremendously and the news was met with shock and tears.

Cancer can be just as tough for a spouse, family member, or good friend and I know the diagnosis struck Nicole just as hard as it hit me.

Neither of us wanted this experience. Both of us had big goals and busy lives but everything suddenly took a back seat to this fight.

From the time I came home after the diagnosis, Nicole made sure I was never alone. We called family members, went on walks, watched movies, and ate dinners together.

She always made sure we were together during one of the toughest times of my life.

Nicole took charge of keeping my family informed of every development during the journey and made sure I was on top of every call that needed to be made, every appointment that needed to be scheduled.

She put many others before herself and always made sure I was doing OK.

Nicole even created the coolest memento of the whole cancer journey.

My dad, step-mother, Nicole and I had just finished eating lunch and were heading back to our apartment a few days after my diagnosis. It was raining outside and we were hustling back to our place when I saw a package waiting for me outside the door.

“It’s for you,” Nicole said.

It was white plastic, soft wrapping.

“What’s inside?” I thought. “Feels like a T-shirt.”

I ripped it open and the contents left me speechless.

Inside were 200 wristbands with a special message on them: “#TomsArmy. No One Fights Alone”

“They’re all light purple,” Nicole said. “The official color of testicular cancer awareness.”

I was speechless and in shock — the good kind, this time.

Tom’s Army officially had wristbands.

Having Nicole by my side on the day of the diagnosis, and all the others to follow, was crucial for me.

For any one reading this and going through a similar battle, don’t be afraid to lean on others. It’s okay to call someone and tell them you’re feeling terrified about the fight (I did). It’s awesome to be motivated to kick cancer’s butt and tell someone else about it (I did).

Soon after my first call to Nicole about the diagnosis, Tom’s Army would get even bigger.

———

“LET ME HANDLE THIS!” My friend, Stephanie, insisted the day I was diagnosed with cancer

The hours following my cancer diagnosis felt like a bad dream. I was diagnosed on a Friday and I remember looking at my daily planner. Everything I had written down and every task I thought was important suddenly became an afterthought.

Nicole and I made a list of people we wanted to call.

Mom, Dad, Brian, Carolyn…..

Each time I wrote out a name I was picturing the conversation.

Nicole’s brother, Chris, her mom, Sue, and dad, Steve….

How would they react? Would they be strong or would they cry?

I had around two dozen names on the list, including my immediate family and best friends I keep in touch with from high school.

It sounds silly, but this part of the whole cancer diagnosis was the one I dreaded most. I felt like I was ruining everyone’s days. I know this wasn’t true, but that is how it felt at the time.

We called my mom first.

“Stay strong, Tom,” I told myself as the phone rang. “Remember the Giuliani quote.”

“In times of chaos, even if you aren’t calm, pretend like you are.”

The more I spoke with loved ones, the more real the cancer felt. My diagnosis was officially out there. Every time I shared the news, it was met with unwavering support.

Our best friend and neighbor, Stephanie, immediately came over to our apartment. She texted our good friend, Jolene, about the diagnosis. Both of them work in the medical field and immediately offered relief and guidance that was truly indescribable that day.

“Let me handle this,” Steph said, taking my phone and dialing a top metro hospital. “We want you to see the best doctor and I know what to do.”

Navigating through the medical world during a cancer battle can be overwhelming, but here was Steph on her day off from work making sure we would be OK.

Days later, as a result of both Stephanie and Jolene’s help, we were scheduled to see one of the best urologists in the country.

Little did I know, the support would also come in from strangers around the country.

———

“YEAH, WE HAVE PLENTY OF OTHER GUYS WHO HAD THAT TOO,” Mike from the Testicular Cancer Society, during a phone call with me

Before I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, the only person I knew who once had testicular cancer was cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Testicular cancer is one of the most treatable cancers on the planet if caught early and yet no one really talks about it. For better or worse, it is taboo to talk about your testicles. However, here I was. For days I had been telling family members about how my right testicle had discomfort, was hardened and now had a tumor on it. While it feels good to talk about your emotions during a fight with cancer, it takes some “getting used to” when talking to everyone about your testicles.

I posted my news for the world to see on Facebook and Twitter.

Within a few hours, I had an email from Mike Craycraft, the founder of the Testicular Cancer Society.

“I happened upon your Tweet about your diagnosis and wanted to reach out,” he wrote. “How can I help?”

He gave me his number and I called him the following day.

I told him my diagnosis, the discomfort I had been experiencing for the last several weeks, how I had an aggressive form of the cancer called non-seminoma. The diagnosis felt so unique to me and I never knew anyone else personally who had fought it.

I soon found out, in the best way possible, that I was nothing out of the ordinary.

Mike proceeded to tell me his story. He was diagnosed and beat the cancer. He now works as a clinical pharmacist.

I was nervous about being a non-seminoma case but Mike told me there were plenty of contacts he could connect me with who went through a similar ordeal.

I asked about what the recovery from the surgery was like.

“Nobody seems to ask, but going to the bathroom doesn’t hurt after surgery, surprisingly,” he said as we both shared a laugh. “I was at happy hour with my friends by the third day of recovery.”

I thanked him for his support.

I officially felt like I was in a special fraternity of brothers. None of us wanted to have this disease but we all took it on. Our stories are personally significant to us, yet many others have also experienced something similar.

People like Mike now spread the good vibes to others going through the same thing.

In his case, he even gives special presentations to high school boys on the subject and tells them to check out ballchecker.com.

———

NO ONE FIGHTS ALONE

After I was diagnosed with cancer, Nicole and I received special gifts from friends and family.

The first was a WWE figure of John Cena from our friend and former co-worker, Catie.

Nicole’s friend, Danika, sent us some cookies and brownies that offered the comfort that only sweets can.

My aunt from Boston sent a special stone representing hope and faith that I could bring with me to appointments.

I received many cards and flowers from others, some of which were delivered by my co-worker Cat Reid during her precious break time.

The day of my surgery, I found out we had a pump-up video too.

My co-worker, Rae, put together a 12-minute series of snippets from co-workers offering encouragement as we took on the cancer fight together.

It even included a message from WWE legend Jerry “The King” Lawler!

One after another, my co-workers took time out of their day to try and brighten mine. I showed the video to my family and it brought a lot of happy tears to us.

As a result of the effort from Rae and the 41 Action News team, one of the toughest days of my life was much easier.

My brother even made a special Spotify playlist for me to play on the day of my tumor removal procedure, including the theme song of WWE legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

I was officially ready for for surgery and whatever the cancer fight would throw my way.

No one fights alone.

Read part 1 of my story by clicking here.