Tom Halford and Alison Stem's first years of marriage were tested by Tom's colon cancer diagnosis, but their journey has only strengthened their love and inspired a community of support from those around them.
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 Hunterdon County, NJ, get married, and get involved with Alison's family's business," explained Tom.
A Cancer Diagnosis
Their first years of marriage were marred by incredible challenges: Tom's father passed away, Alison suffered a miscarriage, and Tom was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to two of his lymph nodes — the same disease his father had passed away from.
"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 Team
But 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 Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, MD, medical oncologist, and John N. Lukens, MD, radiation oncologist.
Confidence in one's care team is integral to having the best possible experience and outcomes, looking upon them not only for their medical expertise, but also as patient advocates.
"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," says Tom.
This included stepping in as a health insurance advocate. Because younger people are not typically affected by colon cancer, insurance does not currently cover proton therapy for the disease. And at $50,000, this places a considerable financial burden on patients and their families — and for some would be a deterrent to the treatment.
Dr. Lukens took it upon himself to appeal directly to the insurance company's medical board to argue for the benefits of proton, particularly in terms of long-term effects of treatment on such a young person. Their initial refusal was overturned and they agreed to pay for proton in full—the first time ever for colon cancer.
"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 explains.
Tom's care team devised a treatment strategy that focused not only on Tom's cancer, but also on his family history. Tom's father passed away during his chemotherapy, which can be caused by a DPD enzyme deficiency, so Tom was tested to ensure sure he didn't have the same sensitivity. And because genetic testing offers families the opportunity to make more informed decisions about their health, Tom underwent genetic testing to confirm that he did not have CFI lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum — fortunately the test was negative.
And Dr. Lukens also considered the life Alison and Tom would have after Tom's treatment was over.
Before his chemotherapy and proton radiation treatment even began, Dr. Lukens informed the couple they wouldn't be able to try for a baby until a year after his last treatment and advised them to consult Puneet Masson, MD, Director of the Male Fertility Program. Tom and Alison decided to cryopreserve Tom's sperm prior to treatment and plan to undergo fertility treatments at the Abramson Cancer Center's (ACC) Oncofertility Program at Penn Fertility Care.
Access Is Powerful Medicine
"I have now been both the family of a patient as well as 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.
"Our doctors were amazing, but we cannot say enough about Dr. Loaiza-Bonilla's nurse, Melissa Fritz, who checked in with us every day for months during Tom's treatments. She also set us up with a home nurse to come twice a week to administer IV hydration and check on Tom during his post surgical healing period and throughout his chemotherapy," says Alison.
This personal touch was given 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 adds, "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 3rd, 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 starting a family.
And to think it all began with a humorous story about a mechanical bull.
Learn more about treatment options for colon cancer