ELBURN – Thousands of people die each year in crashes around the country, but Elburn resident Dave Thomas is still alive because he was in one.
The longtime motocross racer was competing in Georgia in February 2017 when he crashed, breaking his wrist, sustaining a collapsed lung and cracking a few ribs. But seriously, that was nothing compared to what the accident would reveal.
While in the hospital recovering from his injuries, Thomas, 61, had blood work done and was informed that his Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) score, which screens men for prostate cancer, was really high. Shortly after returning home in Elburn, he got the feared phone call.
“Waiting for the phone call with the results of the biopsy was the longest week-and-a-half of my life,” he said. “And you don’t want to answer the phone. I didn’t feel any pain and there were no signs or symptoms and then you answer the phone and you have cancer. You hang up and think ‘Wow’ and think about a lot of things for sure.”
Thomas then met with a doctor who said there was nothing he could do for him.
“He painted a pretty gloomy picture and said he wouldn’t do the operation because I was too far gone,” Thomas said. “I tried to stay positive, but I was down after talking to that doctor. Maybe he was giving me and my wife the worst-case scenario. Why sugarcoat it? But he turned me on to Schaeffer.”
That second opinion from internationally recognized physician-scientist Dr. Edward Schaeffer, an expert in urologic oncology, ultimately saved his life. Schaeffer performed minimally invasive surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to remove Thomas’ prostate along with the tumor that was within the prostate gland and lymph nodes in that area of his body.
“Schaeffer was adamant about how lucky I was that it didn’t spread,” Thomas said. “He’s one of the best in the world and when my wife and I left after first seeing him we were really happy. He said that I’m still young, it hasn’t spread yet and that he was going to cut it out.”
Last year Thomas felt ready to return to racing, and didn’t miss a beat, winning the over-60 division Illinois championship among other races.
“I figured what the hell, (expletive) cancer, I’m going to race and win this plus-60,” he said. “They told me the medicine takes the testosterone out of your body, which is the fuel for prostate cancer and you’re going to get tired a lot and feel lazy. I decided that wasn’t going to be me. I’m going to get up everyday and if I feel tired I’m going to keep on keeping on and not going to let it take my life. I’m going to dictate my life.”
Thomas believes that keeping mentally strong has been a key to his miraculous recovery.
“I had a bit of a meltdown for a minute or two when I heard from that first doctor, but after I saw Schaeffer he put the sunshine back in my life,” he said. “I told myself to be positive and to not let this beat me. I always try to be mentally strong even if something bad happens and I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it. I did my radiation, but I kept riding and working out and tried to not let it consume me.”
After surgery, Thomas continued his treatment at Northwestern Medicine Center Delnor in Geneva with medical oncologist Dr. Christopher George, receiving 30 straight days of radiation treatments.
“He’s such a young robust person and we told him that we needed to be really aggressive with his treatment and that it could be rough,” George said. “He told us to do whatever we felt we needed to do and that he would be fine.”
George acknowledged that the treatment plan was built around Thomas’ active lifestyle, which included his passion for motocross racing (he has a race track in his back yard and has been riding since his early teen years), carpentry as well as spending time with his family and friends.
“We have to build the treatment plan around the patient’s lifestyle,” George said. “Not build the patient’s lifestyle around the treatment plan."
Today, his PSA level is totally fine and he’s cancer free. He also realizes how truly blessed he is to not only be alive but to still be enjoying life to the fullest.
“When you’re given a chance to live you should take it,” he said. “I had a bit of whining and crying and ‘why me?,’ and I have friend who died of prostate cancer who took a different route for treatment. It’s tough because people pass away from this and you hate to tell your story because it might make them feel bad. Why did it work for you, but not my husband? I have no answer for that. I just try to keep positive. Your mind can do a lot of things. It really can.”
As for what lies ahead for Thomas, he’s going to keep on doing the things he loves to do while never forgetting what he’s overcome.
“His journey isn’t over,” George said. “He’s done fantastic. He couldn’t do any better right now.”
And in the race for life, this motocross racer is in no rush to get to the finish line.