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Tom Dempsey opens up about cancer journey: The new ‘normal’

Tom Dempsey cancer new normal.jpg
Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-20 09:52:51-04

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 conclusion of a four-part series.

Part 1: The diagnosis

Part 2: The support system

Part 3: The treatment

By the grace of God, cancer ended up being more of a speed bump for us than a sinkhole.

By the time Memorial Day arrived, Nicole and I had plenty to feel good about.

Nicole’s dad had traveled in to be with the two of us following the cancer battle. Having family come in for the surgery, the recovery and the days to celebrate the excellent test results certainly proved to be a special occasion.

The previous month had been a hurricane of events and emotions for the two of us. During that time, our lives revolved around cancer.

If it wasn’t the shocking diagnosis and needing to call everyone, it was needing to schedule appointments or waiting for test results to come back.

Just to be able to sit at a nice restaurant and not have to think about any scary uncertainty was a gigantic weight lifted off our shoulders.

However, after going through the cancer battle, life took a giant shift. Nothing seemed the same. Every task that was important before just felt like something I had to get done.

Cancer is more than just getting needles put in your arm or having to go through surgery. It’s a whole new way of life.

For Nicole and me, this “new normal” would take some getting used to.

TIME FOR WORK

Let me be crystal clear, I wanted to get back to work.

The thought of searching for an exclusive story, making calls for interviews and putting together a package for a show seemed amazing. All I wanted was my life back and the feeling of normalcy I had before the diagnosis.

Nicole and I soon found out though, for better or worse, that things didn’t seem the same anymore.

Cancer puts a lot of things in your life in perspective. You see how quickly “big” issues or goals can be thrown to the side and replaced by something far greater.

You see many people sacrificing their time to make you happy.

You see how fragile life can be.

You recognize the importance of being healthy even more.

For all the terrifying stress cancer put me through, I also felt incredibly rewarded by the time my doctor told me there was no more evidence of it inside my body.

The amount of stress from things other than cancer sharply declined. I feel that I have a much better understanding now of what is worth worrying about and what isn’t (Hint: Due to plenty of blessings, I feel that most of my life now falls into the latter.)

The fight also reminded me once again about the power and importance of family, friends and a great support system. I loved my family with all my heart before all this happened but witnessing the outpouring of care during my cancer journey was overwhelming.

To me, life is all about the things you think of when a doctor looks you in the eyes and says, “It’s cancer.”

I thought of my life with Nicole. I thought of my family.

The return to work and juggling of different daily tasks again, while a big milestone, felt like the grind of daily life was rushing back in and the fire I had within me during the cancer battle was slowly going away.

Unfortunately, I soon found some of my “old ways” were coming back as the time passed.

Without realizing it, I was complaining about little things, like someone not responding to an email in a timely fashion or having to get off the couch to take out the trash. I had a new “lease on life” and here I was focusing on the things that were bad or annoying in my mind.

I didn’t want to lose the feeling I had waking up every day and wanting to fight cancer with everything I had.

How did I get through all of this? What was this “new normal” going to look like? I started by taking one day at a time and finding gratitude in each situation.

My first day back at 41 Action News was a big one for me. People applauded when I walked into the newsroom. It was great to be among my friends again.

It also just so happened to be one of the busiest news days of the year.

Tornadoes had swept through parts of Kansas and Missouri and destroyed homes. I was in charge of covering Bonner Springs shortly after the storms moved through.

I remember seeing the damage. The siding ripped from homes. Others left in pieces.

Who the heck was I to complain when people there were going through such a tough time? I wanted to be able to show the stories of neighbors helping others in need — the people who stopped what they were doing to deliver food and water to the local church, the woman who made jewelry from pieces of her home that came off in the storm so she could raise money for local relief efforts.

While I was so used to focusing on the cancer fight, work got my mind off of me feeling bad for myself. Pretty soon, I was grateful that the routine of being a full-time TV reporter felt normal again.

It felt great to be back but the fight was still not over.

— — —

A 20% CHANCE

Even though there is currently no evidence of cancer in my body, the next few years will bring more trips to the hospital, additional appointments and, you guessed it ... more waiting.

Even with all the good news, there is still a 20% chance cancer will resurface in my body during the next two years.

Chemotherapy would have lowered the chances to 4%, but our trusted doctor did not recommend this option. The chemo treatment would open a whole other side of possible issues.

I faced having to visit a sperm bank, if I wanted to have children down the line, and wondering if I would lose my hair and some weight.

My doctor instead recommended “intense observation” for my case, because of all the possible side effects. If my cancer does come back, I am told I will be doing at least three rounds of chemo.

So, what does that mean for now?

Blood tests every three to four months.

Driving to the hospital on random days.

Getting my arm pricked and being told to “make a fist” as blood gets drawn.

I don’t enjoy shots and always have to look away when I get one.

It means CT scans every six months. I’ll be lying on my back for 10 to 15 minutes and told to hold my breath as I go through a medical contraption.

To get the best reading possible, they’ll need to prick my arm once again to put in an IV. I’ll get a dye pumped in my body. It makes your body feel warm and gives a metallic taste in your mouth.

While the chances of cancer recurring plummet after that first two years to 2%, the doctor visits will continue until at least 2024.

I had a best-case scenario during my fight with testicular cancer.

I went to the doctors and caught it early. Doctors found a tumor on my right testicle. I had it removed before the cancer spread to other parts of my body.

The experience came with terrifying shock in the beginning and fear later on about what could come next. The nights I was shaking in bed wondering if the cancer would get any worse and the impact it potentially could have on my body will not be forgotten.

However, the support I received also will always be in the back of my head.

From the day I was diagnosed, Nicole was always by my side and provided a crucial helping hand every day moving forward.

Others sent gifts, text messages, or personal letters. In my 41 Action News team’s case, they did an amazing 12-minute video that made one of the biggest days of my life easier to take on.

Not everyone has these blessings during their fight.

Not everyone makes it out of testicular cancer alive.

When looking back on the amount of support and good fortune I had during my cancer battle, I am reminded of a scene near the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is slowly dying after getting shot in the last battle. His death was preceded by multiple other officers who died in the line of duty to make sure one man, the titular Private Ryan, would be able to get home and see his family.

Miller leans over to Ryan and utters a phrase that is now is at the core of my heart following the cancer battle.

“Earn this,” he whispers in Ryan’s ear, before passing away.

Despite the incredible odds for people fighting testicular cancer, I feel lucky to be alive.

It is now my mission to help other men going through a similar experience.