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Tom Dempsey opens up about cancer journey: The treatment

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Posted at 6:18 AM, Jun 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-20 10:16:55-04

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 third of a four-part series.

Part 1: The diagnosis

Part 2: The support system

Part 4: The new 'normal'

Getting treated for cancer is no easy task.

The diagnosis itself is a whirlwind: all your dreams, every little item on the to-do list and everything that seems so important suddenly takes a back seat.

Overnight, this is your new to-do list:

  • Find doctors
  • Multiple trips to the hospital
  • Get all sorts of shots
  • Lying very still and holding your breath during CT scans while some strange dye is pumped into your body, making you feel warm
  • Wait for medical results that could potentially have life-altering impacts.

It involves lots of waiting. For phone calls. For appointments. For results. And, all of this in waiting rooms with people who are going through equally tough fights.

In my case, the treatment also meant having to get my right testicle removed. I had no choice. There was a tumor growing inside my body and the longer I waited, the more of a chance it could spread to other areas.

After receiving an overwhelming amount of support, Nicole and I were ready for the next step of the journey.

We soon had one of the best urologists in the country on our side.

With Tom’s Army fully behind us, we were ready for surgery.

SUPERMAN SOCKS

When taking on something as huge as cancer, you want to make sure you are with the best of the best.

Shortly after being diagnosed, Nicole and I reached out to two of our best friends who work at a prestigious hospital in the metro.

They mentioned one doctor in particular we should see, but before we officially teamed up with him, we wanted additional opinions.

Two months before my cancer diagnosis, I was able to meet the chairman of another regional hospital. We had dinner at Q39 and aside from eating some amazing food, we also found out we shared a lot in common, such as being from New Jersey and big Miami Hurricane fans.

Little did I know, I would be calling him weeks later for some significant advice.

“Hey, sorry to reach out to you in a time like this,” I said over the phone. “I’ve been diagnosed with testicular cancer and really wanted to get your opinion on who I should see.”

I was vulnerable. I told him all the details, holding nothing back. I needed to know whose hands I should put my future in — a future that would impact my ability to have children, a future possibly involving other types of cancer if the disease spread.

“Let me make some calls and I’ll get back to you,” he said.

I felt relieved that I had such a big person on my side.

He texted me the next morning with a screenshot of the same doctor that our two friends recommended.

“Let me know if you need more help,” he wrote. “Let me know how things progress.”

Three people were all saying the same doctor. I felt relieved.

To make matters even better, my brother Brian reached out to his friend on the east coast who also works in the medical field.

We told his friend that we were willing to travel if it meant we were seeing the best of the best.

His friend later gave us an answer that seemed like a greater force was helping us along the way: without knowing our prior recommendations, he believed we should see the same doctor.

Fortune continued to be in our favor.

The following Monday, we were set up to meet with the doctor within the week.

We met him at the hospital and went over my prognosis. He confirmed I had testicular cancer and my right testicle would need to be removed. Not a shock considering I had already seen another doctor who said the same thing.

In the best way possible, everything he said made the entire process sound routine. I trusted his experience and confidence. Heck, he was even wearing Superman socks during one of our appointments!

He also told me news that brought significant comfort to me; even after the procedure, I would still have an 86% chance of fertility with one testicle.

The doctor brought a tremendous amount of reassurance during our cancer journey.

It is important to do your homework, reach out to people in the medical field you may know, and make the best decision for your treatment.

With the utmost confidence in my doctor, we were ready for whatever this fight would throw our way.

“LET'S ROLL,” I said when it was time for surgery

The morning of my surgery, I meditated and prayed. I listened to a special playlist my brother made for me to play while driving to the hospital.

After putting on my hospital gown and getting hooked up to all sorts of devices and machines, the staff said my loved ones could join me in the waiting room. Nicole, my dad and my stepmother did not leave my side.

I remember feeling calm. The cancer diagnosis was a shock and terrifying. However, today the tumor would be out of my body.

The longest part of surgery day? No, it wasn’t the operation.

We waited for about an hour as I was on a hospital bed and talking with multiple doctors about the procedure. I was armed with two books I borrowed from the library and a set of crossword puzzles that Nicole bought for me if I needed them.

I didn’t. All three of them were wonderful to have by my side and we told family stories as we waited.

After an hour, it was time to go in.

“Love you,” I told my family as the medical team started to take me away. “Let’s roll.”

Thirty seconds after saying goodbye, I was wheeled into the operating room.

I remember the room being pretty bright and a team of around half a dozen medical staff getting the room set.

One put a breathing mask over my mouth.

“Take five deep breaths,” he said.

The anesthesia had a strange taste to it.

I don’t remember making it to the fourth breath.

My family went to the hospital cafeteria and prepared to wait.

In 2019, however, the procedure is very routine.

Just over 45 minutes later, I woke up and it was hazy.

I felt woozy.

“Whoa,” I thought as I looked around the beige hallway. “It must be over.”

While I certainly felt strange with the anesthesia still wearing off, I can remember those first few minutes. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented but also tremendously relieved. I struck up conversation with just about anyone who would walk by me.

“Tom is doing just fine,” the doctor told my family after the procedure. “He is quite the chatterbox.”

As a journalist who gets paid to talk on TV, I’ll take that as a compliment.

The tumor was out of my body and it felt amazing.

CANCER, BE GONE

Did the days that followed bring pain? Sure. Getting in and out of bed and the car was particularly difficult.

However, the positive force knowing the tumor was out of my body felt tremendous. Get that cancer out of me!

Nicole was amazing, as usual. She made sure I was comfortable whenever I was watching movies or reading a book during the days of recovery. She would bring me lunch or dinner wherever I was sitting so I wouldn’t have to get up.

My brother traveled in later that week and it was awesome to have him by my side. We played each other in the NHL video game. Like old times, he beat me.

A few days later, I could walk normally again.

I didn’t even notice the prosthetic testicle I got put in during the surgery. It is only for “cosmetic” reasons but I am glad I chose to get it. Some men choose not to do this, which is totally fine. As I write this a month after surgery, I can’t tell the difference.

A POSITIVE TEST

While I had come to terms with the procedure well before the day of the surgery, the bigger question would be whether or not it had spread. We would learn the answer with the results of the pathology test.

You are waiting around for a phone call to see if cancer spread. If it spreads, that means plenty of more treatment and lots of terror about what could happen to your body and if your life is at stake. Take that in for a few seconds.

The first call came three days after my surgery. My brother and I were playing NHL ’19. I put the controller down.

“The pathology test is in,” the doctor said. Big gulp on my end. A huge one. “The cancer did not spread to the lymph nodes.”

I can only compare the feeling to winning a championship.

How did my brother and I celebrate? We went to an arcade bar up the street and had some burgers. I kicked his butt in Big Buck Hunter (he complained that his gun malfunctioned).

After the celebratory dinner, the uncertainty continued.

Now the focus was on blood tests. The science and exact names of them are complicated, but here are the basic facts: There are two markers that are supposed to be in the single digits for a normal and healthy human body. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my two markers were measured to be around 123 and 104.

The next call came about a week later.

“Blood test results are back,” the doctor said. “It’s looking good.”

My levels were back down to normal.

THE 5%

The cancer journey is a long, drawn out process. The test results were not met with popping champagne bottles and fireworks, but with a huge sigh of relief.

I was fortunate to have an amazing medical team and by the grace of God, the first month of my cancer journey was a best case scenario.

For others, however, this is not always the case.

I am one of the lucky ones. I caught it early.

Not everyone has results go their way. Some have to go through many rounds of chemotherapy and additional surgeries.

According to cancer.net, around 95% of men who are diagnosed with testicular cancer are still kicking five years after the diagnosis. Those are incredible odds and something that should always be in the back of a testicular cancer patient’s head.

It is the 5% though that still makes me tear up after getting so much good news over the past several weeks.

The 5% that had some discomfort, had their lives interrupted by cancer, and gave the fight everything they had. They were sons, brothers, husbands, and people who made big differences in the lives of other people.

It is the 5% that give me motivation to stop complaining, get out of bed and give life everything I have from here on out.