It’s a necklace with great spiritual significance and includes medallions of the Virgin Mary, or the “Blessed Mother” as Stephen refers to her in his soft, southern drawl. A necklace that represents faith, family and healing — everything Stephen deeply believes in and will rely on in the days ahead.
Stephen did what he was supposed to do. He went to the doctor when he first started seeing blood in his stool in September 2012. He knew the ribbon-like blood was concerning and probably not from hemorrhoids. After being treated for the more common conditions and seeing no improvement, Stephen told his doctor it was time to get a colonoscopy. He wasn’t going to wait around. You can’t wait to figure out what’s wrong when you have three young boys and a wife to care for. You can’t wait when your oldest son has autism and is especially attached to you. You can’t wait when you plan on coaching all your boys in sports.
Waiting is not an option.
Planning on returning later that morning to his job as an Administrator at the local school, Stephen went in for a colonoscopy on December 19, 2012. The first thing he remembers when he woke up from the procedure was asking the nurse “Is everything all right?” When she quickly answered that the doctor would be up shortly to discuss the results, his heart sank. The doctor confirmed Stephen’s fears: “We found a mass — a mass that looks like cancer, acts like cancer and bleeds like cancer.”
Stephen was devastated and his room soon filled with family members who felt the same. That’s what happens in small southern towns when family is close by and people care deeply for each other. People like Pastor Bubba, someone Stephen hears from that day who will become a huge source of support in the days ahead.
A CT scan confirmed the cancer had spread to one spot in both Stephen’s liver and lungs. Stage IV rectal cancer. Chemotherapy would take place near home — four rounds of FOLFOX with Avastin and surgery at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in March 2013. Successful surgery of the colon and lung resulted in a temporary ileostomy, even though he’d been told there was a very small chance he’d need one.
Upset when he awoke overhearing the nurse say “The rectal tumor is gone, the lung tumor is gone, and he has a bag,” Stephen immediately asked to see his wife, the person he considers his rock. He needed the comfort of his family. Eight more rounds of chemotherapy would take place, half before Stephen had his liver resection in July 2013.
Stephen’s message to others in all this is clear. He wants to save lives, and especially wants other young parents to catch their cancer at an early stage so they can be treated and raise their children. He wants to let others know that colorectal cancer can happen to anyone at any age, all while urging people to be their own advocate and never settle for less than the best available care. His message is also one of HOPE, through faith, family and healing.
Stephen is grateful to his family and friends, and the many clergy he has met along the way. He wants to share that he finds peace when he reflects on the number three: the three very significant religious figures in his life, his three children, the number he wore as a baseball player, his basketball number (33), and his age at diagnosis, also 33.
The future is uncertain and Stephen is scared at times, but this quiet southern gentleman is a man of strong faith. While this interview was ending, he casually touched his necklace. The necklace he wears every day hadn’t come up in conversation, even though he wears it in his Colondar photo shoot and it’s very significant to him. A necklace he is willing to wear, even though it leaves green marks on his neck, because it belonged to someone special — his Grandmother. And because family and faith means everything to him.
Since Stephen’s interview in June 2014, he underwent the following surgeries: lung nodule resection at MD Anderson in June and two laser lung met resections in London; 4 metastases in right lung in October and resection of 3 metastases to his left lung. Along with his surgeries, Stephen began FOLFIRI again in December.