Koeritzes celebrating life

NORTHROP – Tom Koeritz doesn’t remember any pain, but he does know that he spent the day before surgery 52 years ago walking the local rail lines and playing outside.

Then 7 years old, Tom was about to have a large tumor removed from his abdomen.

He had cancer – neuroblastoma to be exact – and though he doesn’t know how his parents knew he was sick, common symptoms of the disease include abdominal pain, a tender mass under the skin, and changes in bowel habits.

According to Mayo Clinic, neuroblastoma is a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. Neuroblastoma most commonly arises in and around the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. It also can develop in other areas of the abdomen, and in the chest, neck and near the spine.

At age 7, Tom was already older than the normal neuroblastoma patient. It commonly affects children 5 and younger.

And while Tom doesn’t recall feeling bad before the surgery, he does remember the painful journey back to health.

Radiation treatments left him sick to his stomach; he suffered from a staph infection; and he was unable to attend school.

To keep him up to date, his teacher at St. James Lutheran in Northrop came to his home to tutor him; occasionally brought his class over to visit; and his classmates made him cards and drawings to cheer him. He still has them in a scrapbook.

All these years later, as Tom approaches his 60th birthday, he is reflecting on his experience.

“I feel very, very blessed to make it through that,” he said.

He said his parents talked to him about the cancer as he grew up, but he didn’t know anyone else who had cancer, child or adult. It was just not something people talked about.

“Even the word ‘cancer’ wasn’t used,” Tom said. “I don’t recall ever hearing it when I was a kid. Now more people are aware of it.”

Tom lost his older sister to breast cancer when she was 34. And, in 1975, when he was 22, Tom had to have a kidney removed because of damage caused by radiation treatments he received in the basement of the old hospital across from Ward Park.

His kidney was so damaged his surgeon took it to a urology conference to show other doctors the damage that radiation could cause.

“With childhood cancer, they just knew if they didn’t do anything the child would die,” Tom’s wife Heidi said. “They didn’t know much about long-term effects.”

When Tom married Heidi, she knew the cancer treatments he received as a child could make having children of their own difficult.

“We have two kids,” she said, “which I have always considered a miracle because if they blasted his abdomen enough to fry a kidney …”

Outside of the removal of his kidney, and some stunted bone growth that left him with back pain, Tom doesn’t feel he has suffered any long-term ill effects.

Even though he has been a cancer survivor for most of his life, when the Koeritzes began supporting Relay for Life with luminaries, he was surprised when Heidi listed him as a cancer survivor. He had been thinking in terms of his sister’s battle with cancer.

“It was Heidi who first started putting me on the luminaries as a survivor,” he said.

Heidi and Tom hope telling Tom’s story so long after the fact will be an encouragement to parents of children suffering cancer today.

“To know that there are adult survivors of childhood cancer out there and you wouldn’t even know it,” Heidi said. “It seems devastating at the moment, but it does get better.”

Martin County Relay for Life is set for 3 p.m. to midnight Saturday at the county fairgrounds. The event includes a silent auction and pork patty feed from 5-7. Survivor registration is from 3-7. The survivor ceremony will be held at 7:30 p.m.