David Hernandez certainly thought it would never happen to him.
He thought cancer was something that happens only to other people – one of those things people read in the newspaper or hear about from others.
So when the warning signs developed, he ignored them. He continued to go to class and keep his normal routine.
“I didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it,” David said.
But when it did happen – when David was diagnosed with testicular cancer in early November – the CSU sophomore’s life was forever changed.
“My first reaction was ‘why me?’ and to be mad at God, but then I said to myself, ‘if I keep this attitude up I am going to die,'” David said. “Sitting there saying ‘why me?’ doesn’t change the situation, it doesn’t make you any better.”
Left with no hair from the chemotherapy treatments and wearing a blue hooded CSU sweatshirt, David slowly sipped his coffee and picked at the muffin in front of him as he sat in a coffee house on a small building’s second floor in Fort Collins on Friday.
He is not into pity; that’s not why he is telling his story. David believes everyone can benefit by his story, and that is why he wants it to be heard.
“If one person reads this and benefits from it, it’s worth it,” he said.
David admitted that if he knew more about cancer before it affected him, he might have been able to detect it earlier than he did. He believes a better understanding of cancer will increase the likelihood of people detecting and preventing cancer when it really counts – during its early stages.
“I want people to know that if they have (irregularities) they shouldn’t wait to get it checked out. Had I done that it would have made such a difference,” David said. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. The likelihood of something being wrong isn’t very high, but if something is wrong every day is important.”
David’s story began the morning of Aug. 5, 2003.
When he awoke from a punk concert he attended the night before in Denver, David noticed a “lump” in his chest.
Not quite sure what the lump was, David assumed it came from the mosh pit at the concert the night before. But when the lump did not go away for three months, he became concerned and scheduled an appointment at Hartshorn Health Service.
The lump on David’s breast was first diagnosed as a symptom of gynecomastia, a hormone imbalance that typically occurs in men going through puberty.
But when he called his family physician in Denver to schedule a minor surgery, he was asked two questions – “are you on steroids?” and “do you have any pain elsewhere?”
David said, “Oh man, I have this throbbing in my testicle.” He also mentioned a hard buildup in his testicle that he had discovered and could feel.
“It felt like a jellybean was inside my testicle,” David said he told his doctor.
David began to get nervous. His doctor told him not to worry just yet. The hard spot in this testicle was probably just a calcium deposit and the lump in his chest was probably a cyst. The doctor scheduled him for an ultrasound, and he went home.
Ten days before the ultrasound, David begun to feel an “excruciatingly painful” stomach ache. During the 10 days leading up to the tests, David’s pain became more unbearable until, on the eve of his ultrasound, he began to vomit blood.
“I spent the entire night on the bathroom floor, I could barely move,” David said. He believed at the time he was suffering from a stomach ulcer brought on by the stress of his situation.
The next morning David went to Hartshorn for the ultrasound test and then to the emergency room at Poudre Valley Hospital to be treated for his stomach pains.
“The technician at the health center wouldn’t give me the results of the test because she wasn’t a doctor. So she said she would fax it over to the hospital,” David said.
Once he arrived at the hospital, David immediately asked the doctor to go check the fax machine for his test results.
David watched the doctor walk behind the counter and look at the fax. He was tense. The doctor then walked over to David’s parents, who had come to Fort Collins from Denver.
“And then my mom started to cry,” David said. “He then came over to me and told me that I might have a suspicious tumor – and then I started to cry.”
David and his family learned the true extent of his condition after he underwent a CT scan at the hospital.
“(They) told me I had cancer throughout my entire body,” David said. When doctors count cancer cells in the body, they stop counting at 2 million cells. At this count the cancer has reached the entire body, David said. His count was 2 million.
The doctors also informed David he had two tumors in his lungs, one in his breast and one on the lymph node of his stomach. The next day David learned the excruciating pain in his stomach was a result of the lung’s tumors bleeding into his stomach.
“I was literally choking on my own blood,” he said.
On Nov. 12, three months and one week after discovering the lump in his chest, doctors told David they needed to surgically remove one of his testicles.
“They told me there was a 50 percent chance of being infertile afterward,” David said. “That was one of the hardest psychological things I had to deal with.”
Despite the cancer’s consuming growth rate throughout his body, the doctors allowed David two days to secure a sperm sample. He then went to surgery.
During his operation doctors successfully removed one of David’s testicles and implanted a port into his chest.
“The port is where they put the chemo in,” David said while lifting his shirt to display the circular shaped device implanted under his skin and protruding an inch above his chest.
David awoke from surgery to find nurses getting ready to immediately begin what would become the first of many chemotherapy cycles. His chemotherapy treatment was more extensive than most, spanning many months and requiring eight days of treatment for every 28 days that passed.
David’s chemotherapy consisted of his doctors inserting a long needle through the artificial port in his chest. This sent the chemicals directly to an artery, where they were pumped to his heart. The chemicals were then dispersed throughout the body to kill both cancerous and healthy cells.
By killing the body’s cells, the chemotherapy helps the body overcome the cancer. The process works because it also kills the cancer cells along the way.
“It’s some of the most poisonous stuff on earth. The chemo kills every cell it comes across. It’s not discriminatory. It’s literally killing you,” David said. “I have the liver of an alcoholic because it has filtered out so many toxins.”
During the chemo treatment’s second cycle, David began to notice his hair coming out in chunks when he ran his fingers through it.
“The moment of going from hair to no hair is a big step. You are forced to look your cancer straight in the face – you are taking on another identity,” he said.
David chose to shave his head with the belief that if he was going to lose his hair, it was going to be on his terms, not on the cancer’s terms.
Despite the extensive chemotherapy treatment David received, at the fourth cycle’s conclusion doctors told him the cancer was not completely gone and that his tumors were still present.
Because of the treatment’s poisonous nature, he cannot undergo any more chemotherapy and has been left with few answers for beating his cancer.
David is hoping to get more answers when he goes to New York in the near future.
“It worries me that I’m so messed up I need the best doctors in the world to look at me,” David said. “I also know that I am going to need another surgery on my stomach.”
Currently, David is waiting to go to New York to see the specialists who might better help him. Still attending CSU as a full-time student to maintain his health insurance coverage, David gained a new outlook on life and a new message for others through his cancer.
“After this, there is nothing I can’t do. I have learned that you have to have a fighting spirit to get over this,” David said. “If you are depressed it gives the cancer energy. If you lie down, this cancer is going to take you – you have to fight every step of the way.”
Carol Diamond, a nurse practitioner at Harshorn and one of the first people to meet with David, remembered his demeanor when he first came to see her.
“From the first minute I met him, he just had that type of personality that resonates everywhere,” Diamond said. “He is a beautiful person with a beautiful personality. He just radiates friendliness.”
David wants people to know that any swelling or irregularities they discover should be checked out right away.
“There is such a huge push to have breast cancer awareness, and that is good. But there isn’t as much awareness about testicular cancer. If I had known more about it before, it could have made a difference,” David said.
The cancer’s effects have gone beyond him. David said his situation has been especially hard on his friends and family.
“This has been hard on my parents. My mom worries constantly. There is nothing she can do to fight the cancer, and as a mom, that’s very hard on her,” David said. “Honestly, at times I believe the situation is harder on my family then it is on me.”
The last couple of months have had some positives for David, however, and he never forgets them.
“I want to be a nurse now, an oncology nurse … I want to help people heal the spirit and body at the same time,” he said.
As he looked out the second floor window to the parking lot below, David began to speak of the truth he has found through his experience.
“I have learned to live every day to its fullest because you don’t have any idea what may end up being your last day,” David said. “After seeing how much effort, love and caring that has been put into my living, I know that I’ve got to do something special with the rest of my life.”