Thomas Donnelly

Anorectal Cancer Patient Stories

Metastatic Rectal Cancer
Thomas Donnelly

In 2005, Tom Donnelly left his teaching career to start a web development company. "Although it was a great experience, in 2008 a friend who owned an HVAC business asked me to do account management and sales for him," explained Tom. "It was a wonderful opportunity to work for a fantastic company.” Almost immediately chronic fatigue set in which Tom couldn’t explain. Assuming he was working too much, Tom ignored the weakness and fatigue for two years. He was 38 years old, his career was thriving and he was about to begin graduate school. Tom was also involved with charity and volunteer work. But by the summer of 2010, during a motorcycle trip to New York, Tom experienced excruciating genital and rectal pain that he could not ignore. Tom’s doctor originally diagnosed him with hemorrhoids, but to be safe, he ordered a colonoscopy. “I didn’t drink or smoke. I was healthy and happy, but the pain was destroying the quality of my life,” he said. What Tom didn’t know was that he had cancer growing inside.

Once Tom learned he had stage III rectal cancer, he quickly began to research his options and chose Fox Chase Cancer Center. Tom met with Steven Cohen, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers. Dr. Cohen started Tom on an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink the tumor so that he could be a candidate for surgery. The final step would be chemotherapy to reduce the risk of recurrence. 

"Fox Chase operates with such fluidity."

"So much of cancer treatment is psychological, and from the beginning, because Fox Chase operates with such fluidity, it created the perception that we were attacking the cancer," shared Tom. "I cannot stress enough how crucial that was for me.” 

Tom's tumor responded to the treatment and he made the decision to undergo his surgery at another hospital because he was hoping to avoid a permanent colostomy. The surgeon successfully removed the final twelve inches of Tom’s sigmoid colon, the rectum and 27 lymph nodes, including the original tumor which had invaded a great deal of the surrounding tissue and more than half of the excised nodes. Tom’s abdominal wall was perforated and a permanent ostomy was performed. So much tissue needed to be removed that Tom essentially lacked a pelvic floor.

"Every time I stood up, the herniated intestines dropped out the bottom of me and each time I sat down I could feel them forced back up inside of me,” Tom shared. The most pressing issue was more tumor in the lymph nodes than the doctors suspected. Tom's cancer had progressed to stage III2b and he feared that the cancer had metastasized elsewhere. He was also in excruciating pain. Michael Levy, MD, PhD, director of the Pain and Palliative Care Program at Fox Chase, met with Tom to discuss pain control. "I have seen Dr. Levy every two months since the fall of 2010," shared Tom. "He is one of the most compassionate doctors you will meet. By helping control my pain, I had a much improved quality of life than I would have had otherwise." 

Tom returned to Fox Chase to complete the final step of treatment and learned his fears were confirmed. A PET scan revealed the tumor had spread to Tom’s groin and stomach. Tom met with Jeffrey Farma, MD, a surgical oncologist, to learn if he was a candidate for more surgery. Dr. Farma explained that Tom's tumor was growing quickly and unless the metastasized tumors responded to an aggressive course of chemotherapy, surgery would not be an option. “I really believed this was the beginning of the end," thought Tom. "Every patient’s worse fear is stage IV or metastasis. It was a crushing blow.”

In the spring of 2011, after several months of the new chemotherapy, Tom learned that the tumors were responding to the chemotherapy. “I’ll never forget sitting in that room waiting to hear the results of that PET scan. My life literally hung in the balance. Dr. Goodyear walked in, smiled and we all hugged," Tom said. The scans showed the tumors responded to the treatment and Dr. Farma considered surgery.

Tom appreciated Dr. Farma's honesty.

“Dr. Farma was honest with me about the risks that I faced," admitted Tom, who decided to move forward with the surgery. In April 2011, Dr. Farma performed the delicate procedure to remove the metastatic tumors growing in Tom’s groin. Following surgery, an ecstatic Dr. Farma explained that the chemotherapy had eliminated the tumors; he was cancer-free and they preserved Tom’s stomach. “Dr. Farma wanted to impress upon me just how fortunate I was and how rare it was to open me up only to find dead cancer.”

“My body did not bounce back like I had hoped after surgery.” Tom was hospitalized with infections and side effects for weeks at a time and it began to take an emotional toll. “It just seemed as though there was no end to it.” Finally, in June 2011, Tom resumed his treatment, but it was a struggle. “My body would not tolerate the chemotherapy. I was at the limit.”

By the fall of 2011, Tom's initial PET Scan was clean. “Dr. Cohen called with the good news. I cried for twenty minutes. I was numb. It was the first time in almost two years that for even a moment I could let my guard down.” However, Tom was having a difficult time managing some of the side effects of his treatment, especially the lymphodema, the colostomy bag and the herniated intestines. “Before cancer, I had been a confident, physically fit young man, and now I was physically deformed. I felt ashamed," admitted Tom.

In January 2012, doctors performed plastic surgery to repair the herniated intestines and rebuild Tom’s pelvic floor so he could function normally. “My activities were severely restricted due to the location of the surgery and I was in rehab for a full year," shared Tom. "I was living alone, experiencing a great deal of anxiety that the cancer would return and about my future.” Tom's nurse practitioner, Karon Martyn, encouraged Tom to make an appointment with Karen Mechanic, MD, director of psychiatry at Fox Chase, and her associate, clinical psychologist, Michelle Rodoletz, PhD. 

"Fox Chase psychiatrists, Dr. Mechanic and Dr. Rodoletz, were a tremendous help to me."

"Fox Chase psychiatrists, Dr. Mechanic and Dr. Rodoletz, were a tremendous help to me," shared Tom, who needed help transitioning back into life. "My entire life was reduced to battling cancer and managing side effects. I felt like I was dealing with emotions associated with events that happened two years earlier. My emotions were all over the place.”

In 2013, Tom is cancer-free and he is slowly returning to a normal life. “Physically, I deal with some issues that will be permanent, but I’m back to work, which I love," explained Tom, who looks forward to the future. "I feel as though I have an entirely new opportunity in life and this extraordinary experience from which to draw upon to connect with others who suffer.” Tom still enjoys helping others and has used this opportunity to volunteer once again with prisoners. He volunteers as a peer mentor at a rehabilitation hospital working with spinal cord injury patients. “I would love to be involved with patient advocacy to help others who are struggling with metastatic cancer.”

"Each person at Fox Chase, in his or her own way, went above and beyond, day after day and they saved my life."

“In this small space, it would be impossible to properly relate the pain and fear that a cancer patient endures or the mental strength that one must possess to overcome it. However, no one does it alone and succeeds," shared Tom. "I could never have survived this ordeal without the support and prayers of so many loving family and friends. I could never thank them all. I include the doctors, nurses and support staff at Fox Chase among that group. My whole team – Dr. Farma, Dr. Cohen, Dr. Goodyear, Dr. Levy, Dr. Horwitz, Dr. Mechanic, Dr. Rodeletz, nurse practitioner Karon Martyn, the incredible nurses, Bonnie, Bill in pain management; Sue in Oncology; Anne in surgical oncology, the technicians, the support staff, Karen Schmidheiser in financial aid, the secretaries were all amazing. I think of these people as family. Each person at Fox Chase, in his or her own way, went above and beyond, day after day and they saved my life.”