Living proof: Flint cancer survivor has felt scared to death twice

February 23, 2008

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Living proof: Flint cancer survivor has felt scared to death twice

Posted by mawhites April 28, 2007 17:45PM

Tom Devine, 56, has felt scared to death twice in his life.

The first time, he was 19, crammed in a plane bound for Vietnam with other jittery young soldiers who camouflaged their nerves with banter and bravado.

Name: Tom Devine, 56, of Flint

  • First diagnosed: 1991
  • Type of cancer: Non-Hodgins lymphoma, Stage Three
  • Recurrences: Three. Devine has been free of cancer for the past seven years, his longest remission since the original diagnosis.
  • See and hear Tom speak about cancer in his life in
    16-year survivor.
  • Invite him: Tom Devine is available for speaking engagements. If your organization or club is interested, call (810) 720-5451 or e-mail

The plane descended. The tough talk subsided. Beyond the windows, red machine gun tracers formed a fiery rope over the ground.Devine’s heart thudded in his ears. His mind was a rifle jammed with one round: “I’m going to die.”

The second time was 20 years later. Devine was a 40-year-old husband and father living in Flint. Tanned and fit, he was sitting on a paper-covered table in an examining room, awaiting news about what he’d once been convinced was a nagging gallbladder.

But it wasn’t his gallbladder. It was cancer.

“That word was the biggest, scariest thing in the world,” Devine said. “The first thing you think of is, ‘I’m going to die.'”

Devine had surprised himself by surviving his tour in Vietnam, despite a bout of malaria and injuries sustained when he drove a tank over a land mind.

His next tour of duty was with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an immune-system cancer that strikes more than 71,000 Americans each year. Survival rates vary by type and stage.

Devine’s cancer was advanced. It was diagnosed as late Stage Three, within shouting distance of the fourth and final stage. By the time of his diagnosis, a large mass had a strangle-hold on his esophagus and aorta.
Devine was “fighting the war all over again,” he said.

But he had a lot to fight for.

“I’d look at my wife and my 7-year-old daughter and think, ‘If this is going to get me, it’ll have to get me with a fight.'”

Free help 24/7 At the American Cancer Society’s free help line, trained cancer information specialists are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions about cancer, link callers with local resources, give information about local events and provide emotional support. Each year, staff members at the help line personally respond to more than 1 million calls and e-mails from patients and family members. If you have questions, call (800) ACS-2345 or visit http://www.cancer.org.

Devine underwent six months of rigorous chemotherapy. An electronics engineer, he scheduled his treatments around his work schedule.But 44 weeks of daily radiation therapy forced him to quit his job. While his wife, Donna, was at work and his daughter, Jenny, was at school, Devine was often home alone with too much time to brood.

“On good days, I thought, ‘I survived being wounded in Vietnam twice; I can get through this.’ On bad days, I wanted to give up. All cancer patients feel that way sometimes. If one of them tells you they haven’t, they’re lying.”
Chemo and radiation caused hair loss, vomiting, depression and fatigue. But they did the job. The cancer retreated.

When CAT scans could no longer detect any sign of the disease, Devine was given an indefinite furlough. He need only report back for checkups every three months.

Life returned to normal, but it was never the same.

“It was better,” Devine said. “Having cancer is having someone jerk your leash and say, ‘Life is here right now. Don’t take it for granted.’ That’s a good thing.”

Devine never again took for granted a kiss from his wife, a hug from his daughter, a walk with his dog. He lived in a state of heightened appreciation – until a week before each checkup.

“You notice the date on the calendar and you start to think about it,” he said. “You go to the appointment, scared to death they’re going to find something. Each time they don’t, you want to celebrate.”

Devine had 2 1/2 years of celebrations before he heard the words he dreaded: the cancer was back.

“I came home and cried for almost a whole day,” he said. “Then I said, ‘I’ve done it once. I guess I can do it again.'”

And again.

And again.

Devine is a seasoned veteran who has fought cancer four times. Each time, he’s beaten the enemy back with an improving arsenal of chemotherapy concoctions he irreverently dubs “Mountain Dew” and “Hawaiian Punch,” according to their colors.

Somewhere along the way, Devine stopped obsessing about dying, and gave up trying to predict when death would come.

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  • Listen to, read or download personal stories and discussions among survivors and caregivers
  • Explore and contribute to the Expressions Gallery, a compilation of survivors’ stories, poems and songs
  • Create a personal home page to share stories and get connected to others
  • Participate in chats and discussion groups
  • Find and communicate with other survivors and caregivers via secure e-mail
  • Search suggested books, articles, Web sites, support groups and organizations
  • Become a registered Cancer Survivors Network member at no charge
  • Access the American Cancer Society’s Resource Center for cancer information

“My time card can be punched any day, but that’s true of all of us. I decided that only God knows when I’m going to die. In the meantime, he must have a plan for me.”With a new sense of purpose, Devine volunteered with the American Cancer Society and the Great Lakes Cancer Institute.

He was featured in a McLaren Regional Medical Center commercial about cancer treatment.

He ran a local support group for cancer patients and their families, and lectured publicly on what he calls “the positive aspects of cancer.”

In 1999, his activities were put on hold when he received a bone marrow transplant, courtesy of a sister who was a near-perfect match.

Treatments to prepare him for the transplant left him so weak that it took him four hours to take a shower. He suffered bouts of depression and anxiety. He developed an immune suppression disease that has left him with chronic pain and the loss of pigment in his skin and hair.

“The transplant aged me 20 years,” he said. “I’m still working on getting my strength back. Right now I’m at about 75 percent.”

Feeling better by the month, Devine knows he is living proof that cancer, even if it strikes repeatedly, does not have to mean imminent death.

He has been free of the disease for seven years – his longest remission since his original diagnosis 16 years ago.

He has lived to see his young daughter become a grown woman. In July, he and Donna will celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary.

Devine dreams of someday bouncing a grandchild on his knee. He wants to take Donna on a vacation to Hawaii. He’d like to start a new support group for cancer survivors and their families, and is ready to resume his public speaking.

“I want to get the word out that having cancer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to die. I’m Stage Three, and I’m still here.”

Like all good soldiers, Devine knows that the enemy is stubborn and can return at any time. But he also knows its weaknesses.

“There are a lot of things cancer can’t do,” Devine said. “It can’t take away spirit, love, friendship or faith.”

What it can do is teach you the value of life.

“I enjoy each day,” Devine said.

“Cancer has taught me to love better, love deeper and love more.”

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