A stage IV cancer survivor, Joe has taken a lot of punches. Cancer has knocked him down hard to the mat a few times, but Joe has always gotten back up on his feet, standing defiant and proud.
He is a true cancer warrior.
Joe entered the ring with cancer after his first colonoscopy in early 2010, when he was 40. His symptoms began when he was 38 and consisted of fatigue, paleness, dizziness and insomnia. When Joe eventually went to see his family doctor, blood work showed that his hemoglobin levels were extremely low, so low that Joe’s doctor did not know how he was staying alive. Joe received a few units of blood and underwent an upper endoscopy that revealed some ulcer activity, which was blamed for the blood loss.
Joe was told to carry on, but this did not sit right with him. Maybe it was the survival instincts of a 14-year military veteran kicking in, but Joe thought there was more to it than just ulcers and decided to see a gastrointestinal specialist. A colonoscopy was ordered right away, which revealed a mine field of polyps — thousands of them — that had likely been growing for years. The biopsy indicated it was colon cancer and Joe headed into surgery. His surgeon removed two-thirds of his colon and cleared out the polyps in the one-third left intact.
Now that Joe had struck against the adversary growing inside him, the fight was on. After waking from a follow-up colonoscopy five months after surgery, Joe learned that, in that brief span of time, thousands of new polyps had appeared. His doctor recommended removing Joe’s rectum and the remainder of his colon, which would mean a permanent ileostomy. Again, Joe sought a second opinion, but the doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. agreed. Joe had his second surgery in eight months and was left with a permanent ostomy.
Joe and cancer have been battling ever since. A precancerous mass on his duodenum and liver lesions were found in early 2012, making him a stage IV survivor. A second liver recurrence was detected in late 2012. On his birthday in September 2013, he learned of a recurrence to his gall bladder and a third liver recurrence. Each recurrence was a struggle and each took its toll. Joe’s situation was particularly grave after his most recent liver surgery. He was in the hospital continuously for almost two months fighting post-surgery complications, which included kidney failure. According to his doctors, he was within a day or two of meeting his demise.
At last count, Joe has endured over 30 rounds of chemotherapy and seven major surgeries. At the Colondar photo shoot, Joe added a tattoo to his collection of scars to memorialize his cancer journey. The tattoo is a colorful DNA double helix with a blue middle section, representing Joe, bounded by red and green sections, representing his daughters Regan and Michelle. The green represents Regan and symbolizes her growth, harmony and freshness. It also represents nature and fertility, something very important to Joe as he was close to losing Regan when she was born. The red represents Michelle, and stands for her passion, desire and love. The tattoo represents the importance of family ties, the role that genetics can play in a person’s predisposition for cancer (both Regan and Michelle have tested negative for FAP) and the importance of knowing your family history.
Since the Colondar photo shoot, cancer has continued to wage its war against Joe. Scans shortly after he returned home showed spots on his liver, which miraculously disappeared less than two months later — without Joe having undergone any treatment. Ever the survivor, the folks at the Mayo Clinic call Joe their “Miracle Child.” When they see people in situations like Joe’s, they usually do not give them much of a chance. “Whatever it is you’re doing,” they tell Joe, “keep doing it.”
And one thing that Joe is going to keep on doing is living life the best he can. Throughout his journey, Joe has kept a positive attitude and has sought to help and inspire others. He also recently proposed to the love of his life, Julie, and they celebrated their engagement with a trip to Las Vegas.
Joe hopes his long, grueling battle with cancer is over, but if not, he will continue to draw strength from his firm belief that everything he has gone through, he has gone through for a reason. That his battle will somehow help others.
Joe has to look no further than his own brothers for the proof that he has done so. Joe’s brothers were at increased risk for developing colorectal cancer because of Joe’s early diagnosis. Joe did not have the benefit of knowing that his mother carried the gene for FAP and that she had battled colon cancer, since she walked out of Joe’s life when he was only three. Joe made sure that his brothers took advantage of what he has gone through and kept after them until all four had colonoscopies. Two were clean but two were diagnosed with colon cancer. One tested positive for FAP and had a total colectomy, and one was diagnosed with stage II colon cancer. Joe credits the burden that he has had to bear with saving their lives. And it is the knowledge that he has helped them, and that there are others out there that he can help by spreading the news of his battle, that keeps him going, that keeps him fighting.