Pascagoulan Derek Terry, 26, tells his cancer survival story

At 26, Derek Terry didn't think cancer was something he had to worry about. He was wrong.

jmitchell@sunherald.comJuly 12, 2014 

PASCAGOULA -- "You wouldn't think at 26 years old you'd have cancer," Derek Terry said.

What started as a dull pain in his right testicle two years ago eventually turned into a pea-sized knot. Terry didn't think to have it checked by a medical professional at first.

"I kept putting it off and putting it off," he said.

By Thanksgiving, the swelling had intensified and Derek was having trouble walking.

On Dec. 2, Derek and his wife, Tori Terry, went to the emergency room.

"I didn't go to the ER until I was in excruciating pain," the Pascagoula man said. "My right testicle was four times bigger than the other."

After a CAT scan, blood work, chest X-ray and three hours of waiting, a doctor told Derek and Tori what they feared -- it appeared to be testicular cancer.

December

Derek had surgery Dec. 6 to have his testicle removed.

He said when he heard the news, he was more concerned about Tori's and his parents' reactions.

"I've never been the rock in this relationship," Tori said. "When he walked in, he didn't even have to speak and I knew. I couldn't catch my breath."

Derek didn't want to cry in front of his family, but got emotional as soon as he called Tori's father.

"It was go time," he said. "I had to do whatever had to be done."

He chose Dr. Brian Persing as his oncologist. Persing had treated Tori's grandfather for prostate cancer. On Dec. 12, Derek and Tori learned his cancer was stage 3-C. It had spread.

He developed tumors in his lymph nodes, lungs and liver.

Though the cancer was aggressive, he said Persing assured him it was 100 percent curable.

Derek would start a chemotherapy regimen to reduce the tumors present in his body.

January

It was time for Derek to become acquainted with The Cancer Center at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula.

His treatment plan called for four cycles of chemo. Each cycle would last three weeks. The first week, Derek would be in treatment for five consecutive days for

five to six hours per day.

The second week, he would go one only day per week, usually Tuesdays, for about 90 minutes. The last week of the cycle was back to the five-day regimen.

At the end of this fourth cycle in April, Persing would re-evaluate Derek's tumors with a PET scan.

His first round of chemo started Jan. 6. Before treatment, the he said the tumors on his lymph nodes felt like rocks, and he suffered from chronic back pain.

After the first round of treatment, he said the back pain was gone.

"It was pretty marvelous," he said.

Derek suffered from some nausea, but he said the first round of chemo didn't make him terribly sick.

"He's much stronger than I would be," Tori said.

Derek noticed he was often tired and began taking daytime naps. His appetite was curved, and he noticed he lost a little weight.

"The hardest part is making yourself eat," he said.

He would crave a hamburger, and Tori would drive to a fast-food restaurant to pick him up a meal. By the time she got back home, the smell of the burger would make him nauseated.

Soon, Tori created a section in their refrigerator of high-calorie, high-protein shakes for Derek to drink.

"Solid foods don't even taste normal," he said.

February

"She's always 'right behind me,'" Derek said, arriving for chemo at the Cancer Center before Tori.

Tori, who works at a country club in Pascagoula, arranged her shifts to mostly evenings and weekends to be able to go with Derek to chemo every day. When she arrived, she had a bag packed with an iPad, books and granola bars.

Derek waited patiently in a reclining chair for the nurse to come in and administer the first drug.

"I watch the 'Price is Right' until 'Judge Mathis' comes on," he said. "He's pretty clutch."

To save Derek's veins from being constantly prodded with needles, a port was inserted near his collarbone into a main artery, which allows chemo drugs to be pumped directly into his bloodstream.

"I'll be glad when it's over," Derek said. "I'm terrified of needles. This (port) freaks me out."

As the nurse walked in to administer medicine to prevent nausea, Derek told her a joke to lighten the mood, but tensed up as the liquid was pumped into his port.

Soon after, two rounds of chemotherapy were administered, which took about an hour each to finish. The nurse was wearing protective gear to completely cover her skin when administering chemo drugs. The chemicals that can't touch her skin are being pumped into Derek's bloodstream.

"It was definitely a shock to see that at first, but now it's routine," he said.

The medicine made Derek have to use the restroom frequently and often causes fatigue.

"Six hours wears me out. I'm tired when it's time to leave," he said.

Tori said sitting through chemo is "like watching paint dry," but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's really nice to be here with him," she said. "I'm a natural worrier. We don't know what the future holds after chemo is over. It's hard not to be positive when you're around him."

March and early April

He was holding on to the last three hairs in his mustache, but Derek decided it was time to shave them off.

His eyebrows and most of his eyelashes are gone, too.

"I feel like (movie character) 'Powder' for real, but I've gotten used to it," he said. "I'm almost proud of it."

Tori said Derek's physical transformation because of chemotherapy was shocking.

"He had that beard for so long. It changed his entire face," she said.

Derek began making a conscious effort to gain weight by eating real food. He figured out he could eat broccoli and keep it down.

"I bought out the whole section at Jerry Lee's," he joked. He gained 6 pounds after the surgery to remove his testicle.

The day Derek got diagnosed with testicular cancer was the first day he was supposed to work on his own at the AT&T center in Ocean Springs. Since being diagnosed in December, he has been unable to work. Some days he and Tori would visit friends or family or go on short outings, but oftentimes chemo made Derek too weak to want to leave the house.

With Tori at work, Derek cooked his lunch, and sat on the couch with a plate of broccoli, a can of ginger ale and a bottle of Gatorade. He'd flipped through television channels and lie restless on the couch.

"I go out of my mind," he said.

His basset hound, Clyde, paced closely next to him. He said since he got sick, he noticed the pooch had become very protective of him.

Derek said the last three weeks in March were rough, but he was looking forward to his final PET scan April 21. At his second PET scan, Derek said, there were virtually no signs of cancerous activity. He was hoping after his final PET scan he would be in remission.

April 25

"Good news," Persing said while going over the results of Derek's final PET scan.

As Derek sat next to his oncologist nervously chewing gum, Tori stood behind him. His mother was close by, prepared to ask questions. Derek's father walked in late, but in time to hear the good news.

Persing showed Derek and his family the results from his first PET scan compared to his final PET scan, and the changes were significant.

Where the first scan showed brightly lit masses that represented tumors in Derek's lungs, liver and kidney, the new scan showed no activity.

"There was no evidence in liver in February or April," Persing said.

The scan showed normal activity in Derek's brain, heart, liver and kidneys.

Derek's stomach also looked clear of tumors.

"The belly was where we most concerned about," Persing said. "We see complete resolution in that."

Derek will have to monitor his progress with scans every two to three months, Persing said. The doctor also scheduled a procedure to remove the port from his body.

"You're in remission," Persing said.

May-June

Derek's eyebrows are back, and the hair on top of his head is slowly resurfacing.

"That made me feel like I was becoming normal again," he said.

At 150 pounds, he's the heaviest he's ever been. He eats like a horse, and has gotten all of his energy back. He sleeps in normal patterns now.

"Chemo wears you down and breaks your spirit," he said. "I don't have those restrictions on me anymore."

Derek is back in his own skin.

"I'm definitely at ease," he said. I don't feel 100 percent comfortable with it," he said. He will go for checkups regularly to make sure cancer isn't resurfacing.

"I feel like I dodged a bullet," he said.

Although he hasn't been released to work yet, he now has the energy to do the things he loves, such as painting, playing music, going on long bike rides with Tori and playing disc golf.

Through this journey, he said he learned to slow down at take life a day at a time.

"She's my other half," he said of Tori. "Having her there and staying positive helped my attitude stay positive."

Tori said she's also excited to slow down.

"For him to say the word 'remission,' you don't expect to hear that so soon," she said. "It's indescribable. When we looked at each other, that smile was real happiness."

Tori said this experience with Derek not only brought them closer together, but made her a stronger person.

"At first, I reverted back to a worry wart, a scared little girl," she said. "But I found a strength in myself that I didn't know was there. It blossomed in me."

Before Derek was diagnosed with cancer, he and Tori were planning on trying to have children. They plan on trying again soon and hope to have a child within the next five years.

The next step

Although Derek is in remission, he will undergo Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection, a major surgery to remove lymph nodes that have masses on them as a preemptive measure against the return of cancer. He had a consultation in Indiana in early July and will schedule the surgery in the near future.

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