Most St. Thomas seniors know the feeling of being overworked and stressed about the future while trying to enjoy their last few months on campus.
Joe Hall, class of 2011 graduate, knows it all too well.
Two days after he graduated, Joe stepped into the doctor’s office due to pain he’d been feeling for months and was diagnosed with stage four desmoplastic small round cell cancer. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the rare form of cancer is aggressive and found mostly in young adults. The five-year survival rate for victims is less than 15 percent.
“When I was diagnosed, I had a tumor roughly the size of a soccer ball sitting in my abdomen, and then I had a second one the size of a softball a little higher up – closer to the pancreas,” Joe said.
His doctors didn’t know how long the tumors had been growing. Because of Joe’s almost daily workout schedule, he had a strong core that pushed everything inside toward his back. He said he had discomfort in his body but had no idea the tumors could have been the cause.
“Then they show you this three-dimensional picture of yourself, and you’re like, ‘… this is bad.’” Joe said. “You can see just this giant glowing mass, and you’re just like, ‘Where are my organs?’”
His plans for after graduation in 2011 took a 180-degree turn. He moved back in with his parents and was forced to live one day at a time.
He started treatment at Mayo Clinic and was eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota to try some different chemotherapy options. This included different surgeries to try to remove portions of Joe’s tumors and a debulking surgery to reduce the size of the tumors. However, Joe said even if you remove all that, the cancer can continue to grow and spread.
After three years of different treatments and more than 20 different chemotherapy methods, Joe still has tumors in his system. Scans from earlier this month showed that the tumors he had close to his lungs and liver looked smaller or less active. But the biggest tumor in his lower abdomen was larger and more active.
For now, Joe and his family are thankful that he will have more consistent treatment. Different medications and chemotherapy options caused him to react in different and often more traumatic ways. For a year or two, Joe said he would vomit five to six times a day.
Joe said he’s stayed in touch with some of his classmates from St. Thomas, but the change in his life has made it harder for him to keep in touch – his physical state usually takes precedence.
Faith and family also have helped to keep Joe going, he said. Before the diagnosis, he had a strong Catholic faith and was close with his family. But he said being forced to focus on the present has helped his family bond even more.
“We just have learned to just live with changes and the fact that things can change,” brother David Hall said. “We’ve learned to love each other more.”
“Our journey is far from over, but it is only through faith that I can live in joy, and without joy, life would be unbearable,” sister Loretta Hall, St. Thomas class of 2014, said. “Honestly, it has been really hard to get to this point. A lot of days I don’t feel like joy, and I know Joe feels the same. Faith doesn’t always come easily. I have struggled to understand and accept the cross my family has been given to bear.”
As for what the future will bring, Joe said he can’t plan much longer than a day or two in advance.
“I literally have no idea what my life will look like next week,” Joe said.
Joe posts on his Facebook page to keep family and friends updated on his current state.
“I will keep on fighting, taking it one day at a time and focusing on all the many blessings that life continues to provide,” Joe posted Monday, Aug. 4.
Caroline Rode can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.