Cancer survivor offers patients, caregivers Epic Experience

Epic Experience

Michael, Nancy, Mark, Kerry and Colin Ferro.

In June 2007, a month after he graduated from Regis University, Michael Ferro felt a lump on his testicle. He assumed it was a blemish that would go away within a few days. Two months passed, but the lump never went away.

By August, Michael was uneasy. He’d already been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and undergone treatment six months prior. This time he knew who to call; his endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Hospital, Janice Kerr, MD, who scheduled an appointment the next day with an urologist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Within 15 minutes, Paul Maroni, MD, came into the room.

Prior to the appointment, Michael underwent an ultrasound. His mother, Nancy, passed the time in the waiting area, but time seemed to be standing still, she remembers.

“When Michael came out, he looked at me and said ‘I have cancer and we are not going to cry about,” Nancy recalls.

That day, Michael was diagnosed with stage I testicular cancer—the most common cancer in American males between the ages of 15 and 34. Michael was at the prime age—23. Though testicular cancer is rare, when it does strike, it can be highly aggressive.

Long Recovery

Because many testicular cancer patients are young men, doctors often take a wait-and-see approach to treatment. Maroni, or “Doogie Howser” as Michael likes to call him, didn’t think Michael had time to wait. Surgery was scheduled immediately.

On Aug. 31, 2007, Michael underwent surgery to remove the cancer. Though his cancer was caught early, Michael needed to undergo treatment to ensure a good future prognosis. After he recovered from surgery, it was time to start thinking about treatment.

Michael was given three treatment options: wait and see if the cancer came back, chemotherapy or a radical surgery to remove the lymph nodes from his abdomen.

“We looked to Dr. Maroni for advice, and asked if Michael should go for a second opinion,” Nancy says. “He told us he could do the surgery, but said the very best, who he trained under, was in Indiana.”

A month later, the Ferro’s drove from Denver to Indianapolis for Michael’s second surgery—a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection. What Michael thought would be a 5-inch scar down his belly, ended up being a 15-inch scar or rather “train tracks” up the front of his chest. Recovery was slow.

“Cancer forced me to grow-up a lot faster,” Michael says. “I was forced to think about fertility and getting a job with good insurance that would cover my health expenses.”

After spending four months recovering, Michael went back to work in December 2007, but he was immediately handed another setback. Leaving work one evening Michael slipped on ice and broke his ankle in two places. Another surgery was needed.

Embracing Life

The next year, Michael found himself at a low point. Life had handed him too many cards.

A friend invited him to a week-long outdoor adventure camp for young cancer survivors hoping it would lift his spirits. It was just what he needed—time with people who shared similar life experiences. Not only did the camp lift his spirits, but it showed him life was still worth living.

“I’ve had friends with cancer who have passed away,” Michael says, “so I can’t feel sorry for myself. I feel it’s a dishonor to cancer patients who didn’t get to live up to their full potential.”

Wanting individuals like Michael to have an opportunity to embrace life again, Nancy and Abby Staible, a physician assistant at Huntsman Cancer Hospital, founded Epic Experience—a free week-long outdoor experience for individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer as well as their caregivers—in May 2012.

“There aren’t enough resources to get people out of their homes or out of the hospital and onto a stand up paddle board,” says Nancy. “We’re offering survivors the opportunity to experience something different.”

Through adventure based activities such as horseback riding, hiking, snow shoeing, cross-country skiing and stand up paddle boarding, Epic Experience will push participants beyond their fears, while celebrating their accomplishments.

“Cancer is so god-awful but at the same time it’s given us the best relationships,” Nancy says. “We recognize that cancer survivors have been down a lot of rocky roads, but we want to give them the space to just talk and experience new adventures.”

The space was just what Michael needed after so many ups and downs. Their dream, Epic Experience, can be that space for even more cancer survivors and caregivers.

“This is our gift to cancer survivors,” says Nancy. “The ranch is truly a magical place.”

The camp location is due to the generosity of Mark and Amy Wilhelm and family.

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In 2013, Epic Experience will offer ten camps for adult cancer survivors and their caregivers ages 18 years and older.  February 24 to March 2 and June 23 to 29 are designated camps for survivors of Colorado. March 3 to 9 is a designated camp for caregivers. Space is limited so apply soon.

Applications are currently being accepted online. For more information, please visit www.epicexperience.org or contact info@epicexperience.org.

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About the author: Kim Chriscaden

Kim Chriscaden is the communications manager for the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Reach her at kimberly.chriscaden [at] ucdenver.edu or 303-724-0114.

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