When Steve DeLuca was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 33, he was put in a support group with other 30-somethings who had stage 3 colon cancer. That was over 16 years ago. Now, he’s cancer-free - but he’s the only one in the group still living.
“I wasn’t doing anything differently. I tell people all the time, stay off the internet,” he says. “You start looking up different stages and think, I’m not going to make it a week. But you’re not a statistic.”
Far from it: DeLuca is a firefighter and marathoner with four kids ages 7 to 19 who just turned 50. Here’s his story.
HealthCentral (HC): How were you diagnosed with colon cancer?
Steve: My wife told me, “You know, it seems like you pee a lot.” Turns out, it’s a common firefighter thing; we have to go when we can.
But while I was at the doctor he said, well, let’s check your prostate. Nobody wants to do that! She said, “It looks OK, but there is some blood. Have you been having any bleeding?” Off and on I had, but nothing that would raise a flag. It was bright red, which usually means hemorrhoids, and it’s not like it was filling the toilet with blood or saturating the toilet paper.
I got sent to a gastroenterologist, and he was like, well, it’s probably internal hemorrhoids so let’s do a colonoscopy. He noticed the look on my face and said, “Why do you have this worried look?” Prior to that, I’d had a brain tumor that knocked out my hearing in my left ear.
So, I said, last time a doctor told me everything would be fine I had brain surgery within a month. He said, everything will be fine. And then he wakes me up and there’s a look on his face.
They had to stop because they couldn’t get the scope past two tumors in my colon. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be cancerous,” he said. And the next week I had colon surgery, and started chemo a couple of months later for six months.
HC: How has the experience changed you?
Steve: I don’t take anything for granted. Nobody lives forever. Cancer patients are more aware of that than other people. Tomorrow is guaranteed for nobody, but everybody walks around like it is.
I’m far from a picture of fitness, but I’ve done marathons since having cancer. I finished chemo in May of 2002 and did my first marathon in October of 2002. It was something I chose to do because I could decide to stop it. When you’re in chemo, so much is out of your control you kind of become lab-rattish. But when I’m running, if I decide to stop I’ll stop.
I tend to do stupid things sometimes. I see the end goal without thinking about what it’ll take. So, I had never done a triathlon, and I decided to do Ironman Wisconsin at five years cancer-free. This was not a very well-thought-out plan. 26 miles is far even when you’re not tired from swimming and biking.
But it got talked about; I was on the local news stations, etc. And that’s very inspirational; it’s always nice to hear and know I’m not doing it for nothing. I’d love to do another Ironman, but it’s life-consuming, and I have four kids.
HC: How did you end up posing topless in your firefighter gear in a calendar for colon cancer?
Steve: I don’t even know how I stumbled upon Colondar, but I applied and it was the most fun experience. We were flown out to New York, and it was great being with people who all had the same experience. When you’re with other people who got diagnosed relatively young with a cancer that’s usually found in older persons, all of a sudden, it’s OK to talk about things like embarrassing bathroom issues.
That was in 2006, and we keep in touch via Facebook. But it’s crazy that there’s a whole new group [of Colondar models] every year that are young and have colon cancer. It’s kind of disheartening.
HC: What would it be helpful for people to know about colon cancer?
Steve: Don’t ignore the signs. There’s no reason not to get a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is not a big deal. It’s much more in people’s heads than anything else. People tend to freak out, but the prep’s worse than the test. It’s really a nothing test. Once you drink the stuff and spend the day in the bathroom, you’re all done. They give you an IV and you sleep through the test; you have no idea what’s going on.
HC: You mentioned that people don’t always know what to say to cancer patients. What are some things you’ve heard?
Steve: I should have a top 10 list of dumb things people have said. In the absence of having something intelligent to say, they say something stupid. I say, don’t try to make me feel better. It’s not like anything you say is going to make me have some epiphany.
When I was doing six months of chemo, people would say in February, oh, you only have a couple more months, it’s almost over, May is just around the corner, and I’d think, “Months? I don’t even know how I’m going to get to 10 o’clock tonight.”
Another thing people say is, “Oh, what’s your prognosis?” No one wants to have that conversation. You hear the words coming out of their mouths, and you don’t know what to say to that.
Are we talking death overall? Am I going to die today of cancer? Probably not. You’re going to die too. You could get hit by a bus. But they think they’re going to live forever. Having cancer definitely woke me out of my slumber about that.
There’s no history of cancer in my family at all. Everyone wants to hear that my dad or grandfather had it, but I didn’t fit into the risk factors. It could happen to anyone.