Meeting Others With Cancer: The Value of Shared Experiences

Justin OzunaStoriesLeave a Comment

TJ Hutchings leans against the wall during a recent photo shoot.

Growing up in a single-parent home, TJ Hutchings didn’t have the luxury of knowing that education after high school was guaranteed. He knew that he’d have to create his own path to college. The three-sport athlete hoped sports would be his ticket in.

The morning after a high school football game during his sophomore year, Hutchings felt an uncomfortable pain in his hip. When over-the-counter pain medication didn’t help, he visited a doctor. A cortisone shot later, Hutchings was back on a football field, beginning a cycle of doctor’s visits and cortisone shots that would last for more than a year.

When the pain kept returning, Hutchings sought an MRI. It revealed some inflammation in his back, a minor setback that didn’t preclude the now junior pitcher from helping his baseball team advance to the state playoffs. When the season was over, Hutchings and his mom sought a second opinion.

To know someone is going through the same experience is extremely important. When you’re around others your age who understand what you’re going through, you can lift each other up. TJ Hutchings

“We went to a physician’s assistant that my mom knew,” he recalled. “He said, ‘If the pain is in your hip, why aren’t they looking at your hip?’ He performed an MRI on my hip and saw the tumor.”

The tumor was Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer most commonly diagnosed in children and adolescents. A full-body scan identified four additional tumors in Hutchings’s right lung. The cancer had spread.

It was bad timing for Hutchings, who was about to enter his senior year of high school. Instead of realizing his desire to play college baseball, Hutchings began focusing on a different goal – getting through his nearly year-long cancer treatment. The protocol consisted of 42 weeks of chemotherapy and 10 weeks of radiation to his chest and pelvis.

“In my mind, I was working toward my senior year. When I was diagnosed, I kept training and thought I was going to be able to play. Chemo didn’t impact me the way I thought it was, but the radiation was life changing. It really got me down.”

Following months of radiation, Hutchings experienced stomach pain. An ultrasound, followed by exploratory surgery revealed that portions of his large and small intestines had been seared by the radiation.

Young adult cancer survivor TJ Hutchings leans against a wall during an AYA photo shootHe required three surgeries to repair the damage, keeping him in an Oklahoma City children’s hospital for more than five months. The once tall, 205-pound athlete shrunk into a frail, 115-pound patient who could barely walk and relied on a wheelchair to get around.

Hutchings missed his entire senior year of high school. He didn’t get to go to the prom, watch his former baseball teammates play one game or prove that he was good enough to play baseball at the next level.

“Looking back, it is sad to think about, but at the time I was taking so much pain medication that I was in a different reality,” Hutchings said. “A lot of the time, I was living day to day. I was cognizant enough to know that visitors were coming by to say hi and goodbye. Nobody knew if I would make it.”

Fortunately, he met other young adults his age who were diagnosed and admitted to the hospital around the same time. The friendships provided an experience he wishes every patient could benefit from.  

“Your body is changing and you’re going through something that’s so hard to explain, rationalize and understand,” Hutchings said. “To know someone is going through the same experience is extremely important. When you’re around others your age who understand what you’re going through, you can lift each other up. We all have good and bad days, but when you have cancer, that kind of thing means even more.”

Following nearly a year of physical therapy, Hutchings enrolled in college with a new perspective and took more time to develop meaningful relationships with his peers.

Hutchings continues to build those relationships today. He volunteers his time to visit with young adult cancer patients at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. He hopes to provide the same benefits to others that he received while going through treatment.

“You have all of these changes going on with your body and you can’t control any of it,” Hutchings said. “You didn’t choose to be sick. You didn’t choose the treatment that you’re going to have to go through. The one thing I knew I could control is the one way I approached life every day. I could choose my attitude. I knew that nobody could take that away from me. No matter how bad it got, I wasn’t going to let my life get cloudy and storm on me. Everything else, you have to keep in stride.”

This article is a part of a series of stories that highlight the life-changing impact cancer has in the lives of local young people. The Fort Worth AYA Oncology Coalition exists to ensure that all cancer patients, survivors and their families have relevant resources, comprehensive support and specialized care they deserve. Learn how you can help us make that a reality at our North Texas Giving Day headquarters.