When Alison first met Tom, she wasn’t looking for love—she was happily focused on work and her circle of family and friends. But love always seems to come when you least expect it.
“I met Tom at his bar while out with friends. It had a mechanical bull, and he kept insisting that I learn to operate it, telling me it would be great for my resume and professional development. I thought, ‘this guy is a little weird, is he for real?’ But I also thought he was very cute,” recalled Alison.
While Tom’s strategy may have seemed like a play from the romantic comedies Alison loves, his intentions were true—and it worked. After a few dates, they realized that despite Alison’s lackluster bull riding skills, they were kindred spirits—two country folk who didn’t quite fit the mold of their 20-something New York City contemporaries.
“Because we worked in the real estate and restaurant worlds, we took advantage of our non-traditional working hours with movies, excursions out of the city, and mid-week vacations. Ultimately, we decided to leave New York City for Bucks County, PA, get married, and get involved with Alison’s family’s business,” explained Tom.
|Tom and Alison on their wedding day.|
“It was a shock to our system, shifting gears from being newlyweds who wanted to start a family to researching cancer centers,” said Tom.
Like so many families, both Tom and Alison had been personally touched by cancer. Tom’s mom and sister are survivors, and Alison’s mother was treated for thyroid cancer at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. While she had a great experience at Penn, they decided to research other cancer centers before committing to Tom’s treatment.
Luckily, they did not have to go far.
“I know people tell you not to go online, but I am comforted by information and we knew were going to have to be aggressive in Tom’s treatment. And through my research I learned that proton over regular radiation would give Tom the greatest chance at beating his cancer, and allow a good quality of life afterwards. This therapy wasn’t available anywhere else but Penn,” shared Alison
The Roberts Proton Therapy Center is the largest and most advanced facility of its kind in the world, offering radiotherapy that beams protons directly at tumors, but sparing the healthy tissue, resulting in fewer harmful side effects after treatment.
A Comprehensive and Coordinated Care TeamBut the Roberts Proton Therapy Center was not the only thing that drew Tom and Alison to the Abramson Cancer Center, from their first inquiring call they felt a warmth and compassion they had not experienced at any of the other institutions they visited.
Tom’s surgeon, Najjia Mahmoud, MD, Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery in the Department of Surgery, put together a Penn team that included, John N. Lukens, MD, his radiation oncologist.
“I have met a lot of doctors, because of my sister, mom, and dad, and Dr. Lukens is by far the most amazing physician I have ever met. We connected right away and he went above and beyond during my treatment,” said Tom.
This included stepping in as a health insurance advocate. Because younger people are not typically affected by colon cancer, insurance does not cover proton therapy for the disease. And at $50,000, this places a considerable financial burden on the patient and their families—and for some would be a deterrent to the treatment.
|Tom 'ringing the bell' after completing |
his proton therapy.
“My doctors took an active interest in my life, not just my cancer. And through it all, they took the time to build relationships with us and answer all of our questions. It isn’t just a business here, and we weren’t just a number,” Tom explained.
Beyond thinking of the bottom line, Tom’s care team devised a treatment strategy that focused not only on Tom’s cancer, but also on his family history. Because his father had a heart attack during his chemotherapy, Tom took an enzyme deficiency test to make sure he didn’t have the same sensitivity. Tom’s father also had CFI lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum, and so Tom underwent genetic screening through the ACC’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics.
And his doctors also considered the life Alison and Tom would have after Tom’s treatment was over.
When Dr. Lukens informed them that they wouldn’t be able to try to have a baby until a year after his last chemotherapy, they consulted with Puneet Masson, MD, Director of the Male Fertility Program and decided to cryopreserve Tom’s sperm prior to proton radiation. They plan to undergo fertility treatments at the Abramson Cancer Center’s (ACC) Oncofertility Program at Penn Fertility Care when Tom’s cancer treatment is complete.
Access is powerful medicine“I have now been both the family of a patient and the patient and can honestly say, cancer is rough on everyone, and probably almost more so to the family. We found that you find support in places you wouldn’t expect,” said Tom.
Beyond their family and friends who stepped up and helped out, Tom and Alison found personal support from their medical team—with a little help from technology.
Another added benefit of being at Penn, was myPennMedicine, Penn’s portal that enables patients to view their health records, including laboratory and test results, and medications. And an especially valuable feature—allows patients to directly ask their Penn health care team questions, as well as request and manage appointments.
“There is so much anxiety surrounding every treatment and procedure. Having virtual access to our doctors and nurses helped us through some scary nights when Tom was very sick,” said Alison.
Tom added, “We did the math and we had over 200 appointments, all coordinated through myPennMedicine. Our specialists were able to communicate with one another and we were able to communicate with them. This was such a stress relief. I was able to focus on being a patient and Alison on being my care giver. We didn’t find that at other facilities we looked at.”
And over a year after his diagnosis, Tom and Alison are officially seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Tom has been cancer free since September 3, and with his major surgeries, chemotherapy, and proton treatments behind him, they are now able to finally look ahead and focus on married life and having children.
And too think it all began with a humorous story about a mechanical bull.