Thomas is a first year masters student studying Biology at the Indiana University/Purdue University, Fort Wayne. In the summer of 2011 he is riding with a group of college students on a 70 day, 4000 mile bike ride from Baltimore to San Francisco. Money raised by our riders goes to support 4K for Cancer's mission of spreading awareness, fostering hope and uniting communities across the country in the fight against cancer. We do this through cancer education programs, health screenings and by visiting cancer patients at hospitals, cancer centers and hospices each day during the ride. 4K also gives financial support to local, cancer centric non-profits in the communities we bike through.
As a graduate student pursuing my master’s degree in biology, while working in the field I spend most of my nights carrying around 30 pounds of gear patrolling the beaches in Greece, looking for elusive mother turtles until almost daybreak. Days are spent attempting to locate them using crude radio tracking and by surveying the sand for tracks. One night shift could easily have me walk 8 miles in sand. This leaves very little time for sleep, as even the time I have to sleep is seriously impaired because we sleep in tents near the beach. It is very hard to sleep during the day while dripping sweat in 90 degree heat. In addition, the diet provided by the volunteer camp is vegetarian, which can be fully nutritious and complete, except that it is cooked by mostly non-vegetarians who have not quite worked out how to successfully integrate an inclusive diet.
I tell you all of this so that you can begin to enter my mind and body in July 2010. During this time I had many symptoms which were minor, and in my mind completely explainable. I was losing considerable weight, because of the diet and work. More importantly to me, I had lost much interest in food which is remarkable since I love food and in fact I attended culinary school for 4 years. I needed to urinate constantly (maybe once per hour), which didn't bother me because I thought I was doing an exceptional job hydrating. I was utterly exhausted, physically and mentally, again, attributed to the high stress and work load. My colleagues commented on me having a “smokers cough,” even though I have never been a smoker. I could not even swim well, and had to stay close to shore for fear of drowning because I always felt that I could not catch my breath. These issues I mockingly chalked up to old age and a stressful environment. I would soon find out that it was something much more insidious.
I was relieved when the time came for me to return to America where I had a little under a month to rest and recuperate before beginning my second semester of graduate school. I thought that all of my health issues would certainly be solved by a month of fast food, sleeping late, and socializing with my friends. I was wrong. After my recovery month, I found that nothing had changed, so after class one day I went to an urgent care provider (hoping to return soon enough to teach my next class). No one knew exactly what was wrong, so I underwent a battery of tests culminating in a chest X-ray. The doctor strongly suggested that I go to a specialist at the hospital for further tests. Not tomorrow, not in a couple of hours, but immediately.
The next week was a whirlwind. From the urgent care location I was hustled to a full hospital, where I received a CT scan, and was booked for surgery the following afternoon to remove a strange mass from my chest. I knew something was not right when the ER doctor told me this was a pretty big deal. I knew something was very wrong when the thoracic surgeon told me he was very interested in my case and sad that he would not be the one to investigate. Since I am originally from Baltimore, with one of the best hospitals in the world right down the road, I elected to leave Indiana and come home for what could be a life altering event. My parents drove out to get me, driving 18 hours in a 24 hour period and not allowing me to help with the driving duties.
When I arrived in Baltimore, the head of thoracic surgery at Johns Hopkins took my case, and operated on me about 12 hours after meeting me due to the urgent nature of my condition. He removed a 4.5 pound tumor from my chest (which had actually collapsed my left lung) and a moderate size section of the lung itself. Several days later I actually received my diagnosis of Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma.
I have been receiving treatment ever since, including chemotherapy, with another big step coming in April of 2011. I will have surgery to help alleviate chronic shortness of breath caused by paralysis of my diaphragm, because as the tumor was growing, it caused nerve damage resulting in intense shortness of breath with mild exertion. I hope this surgery is the last step on my cancer road, but one never really steps off this path once it has begun. I will always think, in the back of my head, that something might not be OK with me. For example, I contracted pneumonia in January, which presented through pain in my chest and further shortness of breath. I did not know what the cause was, but my symptoms pointed to a potential return of my tumor (at least in the rattled mind of a cancer patient).
While my body failed, I discovered that the passion and attitudes that make my life worth fighting for help me the most as I fight. One cannot go through this type of trial without discovering many things, both internally and externally. While I have certainly found some physical limitations, I have also reached broad depths of mental reserves. The funny thing about my cancer journey is that the most difficult things were not what you would expect, but the small things. Sending my mom a text message to ask for help and opening up about embarrassing situations with friends, family, and medical professionals were more difficult than surgery, chemotherapy, and mentally accepting what had to be done.
That is what I expect on this trip; many smaller experiences being more memorable and difficult than the overall journey. It is my hope that through small connections and gestures that I (we) can make a large difference to people affected by this disease. I will bike for the whole cancer community, but in particular for my parents and grandfather who have all been diagnosed in the past 5 years. See you on the road.