Gibson City officer with cancer ready for 'chance to fight'

GIBSON CITY — After being diagnosed in June with Stage 4 colon cancer, Tony Row began to grow angry at the world.

Not even a year earlier, the nine-year veteran of the Gibson City Police Department had seen his beloved colleague, Police Chief Eric Hyatt, lose his 6 1/2-year fight with the same disease.

“It just sucks. There’s no other way to describe it,” Row said.

But like Mr. Hyatt before him, Row decided to keep a positive attitude and not let cancer end his life without a battle.

“After those first few days (following the diagnosis), I just decided I’m not going to accept it,” the 44-year-old Gibson City police lieutenant recalled. “I mean, I’m going to die when I’m going to die, but I’m not going to be the kind of guy who sits around and mopes around and feels sorry for himself and waits for it. I’m going to keep doing what I do and be there for my kids and try to make (life) as normal as possible.”

Amid his own struggle with colon cancer in the preceding years, Mr. Hyatt carried a similar attitude, battling until the end.

To Row, Mr. Hyatt was and continues to be an inspiration.

“I’ve seen all the stages and stuff (in Mr. Hyatt), so it’s scary,” Row said. “But Eric was a great example to live by, to be honest with you.”

Row is just thankful he still has a chance on life — a chance to fight.

“I can’t lie. I was pretty angry those first few days (after being diagnosed),” Row said, “because I lost my mom (Diana) in 2012 to bile duct cancer. And she never got a chance to fight — she passed away 30 days after she was diagnosed — so I just had all that picture of what we went through with her, and I didn’t want to put my family through that.

“But I get a chance to fight. She never got that chance.”

‘They’ve got a handle on it’
Row has put up a successful fight so far. Since June 14, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer that had also spread to his liver, Row has seen his “tumor marker” number — the value that doctors assign the activity of the tumors in one’s blood stream — fall from an initial 175 all the way to 14 as of last Thursday.

“So they’ve really got a handle on it,” Row said of the doctors he has been seeing at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in suburban Zion.

Row said doctors there have been able to narrow down the cancer to a “specific genetic mutation” and have “tweaked” his chemotherapy treatments “to go specifically after that mutation to really knock it down and try to beat it back into remission as soon as they can.”

However, Row’s battle is not yet over. Row said he will be going to Zion for 5:30 a.m. chemotherapy treatments every other Thursday until at least mid-September, when he will undergo more CT scans to evaluate the progress.

“Then we will make a decision on where we go from there,” Row said. “It could be surgery; it could be continuing the chemo; it could be a maintenance pill. We’ll know all of that later in September.”

Row said the chemo treatments take a toll on him physically, but he is dealing with the treatments well. Every other Thursday, Row travels to Zion for a six-hour infusion. He then wears a chemo pump for 48 hours after that, taking off the pump sometime Saturday afternoon.

“They’ve had me take a ton of vitamins and supplements every day, but luckily my body’s accepted the chemo pretty well,” Row said. “I get pretty rundown and tired a day after the chemo, but I don’t get the flu-like symptoms or sick or anything like that, so I’ve been pretty fortunate in that respect.”

Row has missed about seven weeks of work while battling cancer. About three weeks ago, he returned to work full time. Still, every other Sunday following his chemo treatments, he takes sick time off and spends the day at home resting.

Thankfully for Row, he has plenty of sick time built up. Before this summer, he had never missed a day of work at the Gibson City Police Department.

Diagnosed once, then again
It was actually by “accident” that doctors discovered Row’s cancer, he said.

“I’d never shown any symptoms of cancer at all,” Row said.

It was in late May when Row sought medical attention from his primary-care physician for “a really bad lung and respiratory infection.” During the first week of June, his lungs had “cleared out” and CT scans showed his lungs were clear of any infection, Row said. However, Row said he was still experiencing “crazy-high fevers off and on,” and his primary-care physician could not figure out why.

“So I was moved to OSF (HealthCare in Urbana) by my primary doctor for basically a fishing expedition to try and figure out what was causing the fevers,” Row said.

At first, doctors at the Urbana hospital told Row that he probably had a staph infection and that he would be “fine in five days,” Row recalled.

However, just hours later, after a CT scan was performed, doctors told him they had found some “suspicious” spots on his liver — each a centimeter or less in diameter — plus a suspicious spot on his pancreas, Row said.

“They didn’t know what it was; they just said it was suspicious,” Row said. “So they scheduled me for a biopsy for the next day.”

The biopsy confirmed the presence of cancerous tumors on his liver, and Row was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver.

Row would learn, however, that the Urbana doctors never biopsied his pancreas, instead making the assumption that the spot on his pancreas was cancerous, too, based off of the CT scan.

So, Row decided to seek a second opinion from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

“That’s where they found the colon cancer and got the correct diagnosis finally,” Row said, adding that there was no evidence he had pancreatic cancer, as well. “They found a single tumor, about the size of the tip of my pinky (finger), on my colon. Unfortunately, they didn’t find it before (the cancer) traveled to the liver.”

To Row, colon/liver cancer was actually better news than pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has only a six-month survivability rate, while colon cancer is “very treatable, especially when it’s found early,” and liver cancer has a five-year survivability rate of 45 percent, he noted.

“So my odds and my prognosis got a hundred times better whenever they ruled out the pancreas,” Row said.

The prognosis is positive.

“My colon cancer’s been found pretty early,” Row said. “It’s just a single tumor, and it’s not causing any blockages or bleeding. And the spots on my liver are all a centimeter or less. So even though it’s still considered Stage 4 since (the cancer has) traveled (to my liver), they said it’s in a very treatable, manageable stage right now.”

Looking, feeling better
When Row started chemotherapy six or seven weeks ago, he lost nearly 40 pounds from his 250-pound frame in the course of a week. He said the rapid weight loss was caused by a “mix-up” with the drugs he was receiving that had caused his liver to become inflamed and enlarged. After that problem was corrected, Row then experienced a different problem, as he gained 20 pounds of “fluid retention” within a two-day period, he said.

“But, luckily, after a week of treatment up in Zion, they were able to take care of all of that,” Row said.

Row said he has gained most of his weight back and is now “in the low 240s again.” He added that he is following — “to the letter” — the high-protein diet his doctors have recommended.

“My trusted partner, (police department secretary) Lisa Helgesen, tells me I look better now that I’m sick than what I did before,” Row said with a laugh.

“He does,” Helgesen said. “He really does.”

In addition to addressing the weight fluctuation issues, doctors have also been able to bring Row’s hemoglobin levels back to normal, Row said, allowing him to “function now and not get rundown and tired” as easily.

Today, Row said, he is able to do his job just the way he always did.

“I might not be able to bench-press as much as I could three months ago, but as far as being able to do anything else the job requires, I don’t have any problems doing it,” Row said.

Row said life is starting to make a return to normalcy, despite the medical issues he still faces. Row said the cancer diagnosis and early setbacks had caused a lot of stress on his wife and three kids, but he said they are doing better today.

“Those first six or seven weeks when I was really sick and stuff were really hard on everybody,” Row said, “but now we’re getting back to somewhat normal.”

Community ‘rallied around us’
Row’s fellow officers — and the community as a whole — have stepped up to help Row and his family through these tough times.

“We’ve got a good bunch of guys,” Row said of his colleagues in the police department. “Whoever has (the day) off and wasn’t here, they were coming by my house every night to see me and visit and stuff. ... If I need anything or my family needs anything, they’re right there for me.

“Everything’s been great — from the city administration to the chief to the town itself,” he continued. “I mean, everybody’s just come out and rallied around us. I haven’t had to want for anything or even ask for anything. As a matter of fact, I’ve got to ask for people to kind of stop (helping) because I feel bad they’re doing so much for me, to be honest with you. We’ve had about every kind of casserole known to man dropped off at our house at one time or another, and people mowing our grass, washing our cars. And there’s been a lot of donations. A group of kids did a lemonade stand and just raised an incredible amount of money for a lemonade stand.

“That’s just the generosity of the people in this town.”

Early detection is key
Row said doctors have been unable to determine what caused his cancer to develop. Row said that other than his mother dying from bile duct cancer — which is an extremely rare form of cancer — and his grandmother dying from lung cancer after being a heavy smoker, there is no known history of cancer in his family.

“(Doctors) said there’s really no rhyme or reason for it — some people get it; some people don’t,” Row said.

Row said he hopes that by speaking publicly about his colon cancer, others will get themselves screened early. In the US, colon cancer is the third-leading type of cancer in males and the fourth in females.

“Early detection is the key,” Row said. “If this would have been found earlier, they would have just come in and snipped out 6 to 12 inches of my colon and I’d have been cancer-free. But now that it’s moved to another organ, I’ll be doing chemo indefinitely, for who knows how long.

"I know there’s a lot of taboo around the colonoscopy for guys and stuff, and I bought right into it just like everybody else. But when it’s your life on the line and you’ve got to do whatever (to live), it’s not that big of a deal (to get a colonoscopy). They knock you out, you wake up, and you don’t even know what happened.

“So I think everybody owes it to their family to get it done as soon as they can.”

Although he is admittedly worried about how his family would deal with it if he died from cancer, Row said he is not letting those concerns affect his attitude — and his hope.

“You get nervous about all the things you could miss, but then you just get that attitude that you’re going to see it,” said Row, who has been married since September 2014 to his wife, Stacey, and has three children — Abby, 20; Emily, 18; and Tyler, 14.

MEET OFFICER ROW
Lt. Tony Row has been working for the Gibson City Police Department since 2009. He started as the department’s canine officer before becoming a patrolman around 2012 or 2013. He was promoted to sergeant in July 2017 and then lieutenant later that year following the death of Police Chief Eric Hyatt and the subsequent promotion of Adam Rosendahl to Mr. Hyatt’s position.

Prior to coming to Gibson City, Row worked as a canine officer from 2003 to 2009 in East Dubuque. Before becoming a canine officer, Row first worked as a patrolman and firearms instructor in East Dubuque starting in 2001.

From 2000 to 2001, Row worked for the Iowa Department of Corrections as a correctional officer at Anamosa State Penitentiary, the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River.

His law enforcement career began in his native Montgomery County, where he worked as a part-time patrolman for police departments in Nokomis and Raymond before working as a full-time patrolman in Nokomis from 1997 to 2000.

Row was born and raised in Hillsboro and graduated in 1992 from Hillsboro High School. He later attended Lincolnland Community College in Springfield but never earned a degree.

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