The summer of 2014 was an eye-opening one for Tony Rash.
That June, the Longview resident began to feel off. His appetite was gone, and when he did eat, it only took a couple bites for him to feel full.
He knew something was not right but kept finding excuses for his unusual symptoms.
”It was so easy for me when I first started to say ‘Oh, it’s hot. I’m not eating as much because it’s hot weather,’” Rash said. “So many times we put off what we know are real problems.”
However, for whatever reason, on a blistering July afternoon, while at lunch with a group of close friends, Rash decided to get it checked out.
“I told myself I’m not going to put it off. I’m going to go see the doctor today and that probably saved my life,” he said.
For the next month, Rash underwent a series of tests to identify the issue. All the while, the avid runner was continuing to lose weight; dropping nearly 18 pounds.
Then he got unsettling news – a test on his gall bladder showed something on his liver but his doctors were not sure what.
“That’s the call you never want to get,” Rash said.
To investigate further, the doctors ordered a CT scan — which provides detailed imagery of bones, blood vessels and soft tissues inside the body. An hour after the scan, his doctor asked him to come to his office.
The scan showed his liver was fine but there was a large mass in his abdomen. He would need immediate surgery.
“I remember going to my office and writing an email that I would be out for a few days because I needed some pretty major surgery. I wrote ‘I should be back in a week, and I’ll talk to you guys when I get back,” said Rash, a public safety and health manager at Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO).
He was in the hospital for a month.
On Aug. 8, surgeons removed the mass, which was at the base of Rash’s stomach in his duodenum. It was the size of an Easter egg and had been preventing his stomach from working properly.
Still unsure of what exactly they found, doctors sent it to pathology for testing. The results baffled Rash even more – it was melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
“Wait a minute, melanoma is on the skin,” Rash said. His doctors explained that melanoma could occur anywhere on the body.
The official diagnosis was stage 4 metastasized melanoma. Doctors believed the cancer had started on his skin and metastasized – or spread to another part of the body. Then it began to build the tumor on his stomach.
His prognosis was not good.
Surgeons told him his stomach was not working and they needed to repair it. He was down nearly 40 pounds from his normal weight and essentially skin and bone.
However, the result from surgery did not go as expected, and 14 days later, Rash still could not take in any nutrition even through a feeding tube.
“It became urgent that they go back in,” he said. “I had another surgery identical to the first in which they did a radical procedure to make things work. They were hoping for the best, but I was at a critical point.”
Rash said his doctors were blatantly honest with him prior to the surgery.
“They weren’t sure I was going to make it to surgery much less through surgery,” he said.
But he did, and roughly a week after the procedure, his stomach began to work.
Now, his body needed to heal.
“I needed to get as healthy as I could because I had to have treatment for the cancer,” he said.
Months later, he began an experimental treatment he says is now the standard for care in melanoma cases – immunotherapy. The treatment boosts an individual’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
The immunotherapy drug Rash took worked; however, it came with severe side effects.
“A lot of people quit taking the drug because they can’t tolerate the side effects. It’s mutating your immune system so your immune system begins to attack your own body,” he said.
Over the course of the few months Rash underwent treatment, he lost his eyesight and developed rheumatoid arthritis, which created acute discomfort in his joints that prevented him from standing or walking. In addition, he got countless autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s and Colitis.
The side effects were so extreme that Rash required another emergency surgery to repair his fragile organs.
By the holidays, Rash had completed his therapy and was combating the autoimmune diseases with a new drug that had its own distressing side effect – it caused cancer in certain patients.
Rash became one of them.
“It turned out because of the type of cancer I had, my doctors didn’t realize how susceptible I was and it caused me to have another type of skin cancer,” he said.
He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma – the second most common form of skin cancer. It was caught early and surgically removed.
By spring 2015, Rash was on the mend but doctors were acutely aware of his high risk of reoccurrence.
He had consistent CT scans and other tests to ensure the cancer had not returned.
Thanks to those continued tests, doctors were able to detect two additional maladies, including an issue with his gall bladder and an abnormality on his pelvis.
“They didn’t know if my gall bladder had gone bad from all the drugs I took or whether it was what was wrong to start with,” he said. “I joked with my surgeon: ‘You were already there, why didn’t you go ahead and take it out the first time?’ He replied, ‘We were too worried about keeping you alive to worry about your gall bladder.’”
In June 2016, Rash had his gall bladder removed.
Several months later, on a subsequent CT scan, doctors noticed an abnormality on his pelvis. It turned out to be osteochondroma, a bone tumor.
Almost two years after his initial surgery, Rash went in for his sixth and final procedure to remove the bone tumor.
Today, Rash has been cancer-free for five years.
He said his biggest takeaway from this experience has been not to put off going to the doctor when you think something is wrong.
“Listen to that voice in the back of your mind that says there is something not right,” he said.