Tim Hollern is an educator, but lately he’s the one doing the learning.
He’s in the midst of a thicker-than-textbook challenge of learning how to live with cancer.
Somehow in that lesson, life strips itself down to bare essentials, the things that really matter—like spending time with his wife, Alicia, and his children, Emma, 13, T.J., 11, and Ally, 8. And feeling enveloped in the support of friends, co-workers and loved ones.
Hollern, assistant principal at Forest Hills Eastern High School, hangs with a young crowd: his 800-plus students by day, his young children by evening.
He feels young himself. And healthy. But his blood tests and scans have said otherwise.
It all started about five years ago when he began noticing sporadic blood in his stool. He thought maybe he had a hemorrhoid, or he wasn’t getting enough fiber.
During an annual physical in 2011, he appeared healthy.
“Everything checked out and looked good,” Hollern said. “I told him I was still experiencing some blood in my stool. He suggested we get a colonoscopy to rule out anything serious. He said, ‘Quite honestly, they’ll just have to rule it out and you won’t have to have another one for 15 years.’”
But instead of ruling out cancer, the colonoscopy pointed out a mass in his colon.
“I was kind of in and out of it (from sedation) but I remember them telling my wife it was consistent with cancer,” Hollern recalled. “The next step would be to remove it the following week.”
Prior to surgery that September, his doctor ordered a CT scan to make sure there weren’t other suspicious spots lurking. That happened on a Friday.
That Monday, he received a call.
“I also had metastasis to my liver,” Hollern said. “I had six or seven cancerous spots in my liver. That kind of changed the plan of having surgery.”
And that kind of changed a happy start to a new school year.
“Oh man, honestly, my first thought was, ‘How long do I have to live?” Hollern recalled. “I assumed I was dying. Shock. Just total shock.”
“They put a game plan together on how to ultimately cure me from this,” he said. “We were going for a cure. A couple weeks after diagnosis I was feeling much better about the prognosis and realizing every journey is individualized. I can’t base anything off (life expectancy) numbers I read on the internet. If everything on the internet was true, I wouldn’t be here today.”
A curative plan
Hollern underwent chemotherapy for a couple of months and had a liver resection done, followed by more chemotherapy, a colon resection and even more chemotherapy.
He also had radiation for several spots in his liver and his lungs, and several surgeries.
“When they did the liver resection, they took out half my liver,” Hollern said. “But when they did, there were still two spots on the other side of the liver. They had to leave me with enough liver to function. I had some radio frequency ablation done on those.”
Hollern is grateful for the Spectrum Health radiation therapy program, which offers a comprehensive scope of treatments and ranks as the highest in terms of patient volumes for the region.
“It’s very laser-guided and very precise so it only hits certain areas and has little impact on surrounding tissues and organs,” Hollern said. “You hear so many stories about radiation. What’s been nice is the treatments have been going three, four or five times at the most over a two-week treatment. Giving treatments in high dosage in a short amount of time really helps me be able to maintain normalcy in my everyday life.”
Hollern is able to attend school, then head to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center for treatments in the afternoon. It’s been his goal to maintain normalcy and appreciate the simple things.
Despite the liver and lung involvement, ablative radiation treatment has been effectively controlling the cancer spots, Dr. Brinker said.
“His last scan looked good,” the doctor said.
The stereotactic radio surgery uses radiation like a laser to pick out and target individual cancer spots.
“There’s a potential for a cure with him,” Dr. Brinker said. “We’ve been treating him for several years but we still have to keep taking out a spot here and there. His prognosis looks good and promising.”
But Hollern realizes life has no promises.
He must make each moment count.
“We take it as it comes,” Hollern said. “That includes the kids’ questions. Other than the times I’ve had to be home because of surgeries, I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue work and do everything that I do.”
Hollern coaches his son’s football and baseball youth leagues. Every year he goes to Florida for spring break with family and friends. Michigan State University sporting events? Big fan.
Hollern said he and Alicia didn’t tell their kids everything because they were only ages 8, 6 and 3 at the time of diagnosis.
“We told them that I had cancer and told them we’re going to fight this and we’re going to win,” he said. “We’re trying to maintain normalcy for them in their lives, too. We’re blessed with a big, tight-knit family on both sides.”
Family and friends pitched in to take the kids to school, dance classes and sports practices when the need arose.
“The kids have been great,” Hollern said. “They’ve been supportive in a kid kind of way.”
The Forest Hills Eastern staff has been a tremendous source of support for Hollern, too.
“Our staff has done amazing things to help my family,” he said.
And the next time the medical checkup bell rings?
“We’re hoping that one (liver) spot will be gone and there will be nothing else on the scan,” Hollern said.
But Hollern knows nothing is guaranteed.
And nothing is certain.
Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever.
As he watched his senior class at Forest Hills Eastern graduated, he wondered if he’ll be around to watch his own kids graduate.
“I also realize I can’t spend too much time worrying about that,” he said. “Honestly, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. None of us are guaranteed tonight.”