Roy Lucas Coker was "frozen in disbelief" when he heard the news, which came as complete shock.
Doctors, on Dec. 17, 2013, told Coker that he had a mass in his liver, colon and possibly his kidney.
A few days later, after some test results came back, his kidney was not an issue. But Coker learned he had a 60-percent mass in his liver and a softball-sized mass in his colon.
The official diagnosis was Stage IV colon cancer with liver metastasis.
"I was in the best shape of my life [at the time] and exhibited almost no symptoms of colon cancer," Coker said. "During the first few doctors' visits, I was told that my cancer had been growing for likely more than 10 years. If I had waiting about a month longer, I would have been terminally ill and may have not made it past the summer of 2014."
Coker, now 32 and living in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, has since had 16 rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries ( one to remove 60 percent of his liver and one to remove 15 inches of his colon ).
"The cancer was definitely unexpected, but then again, who expects to get cancer especially [in their early 30s]," said Coker, who is openly gay and a bartender at one of Chicago's Maggiano's Little Italy Restaurantsalthough he had to go on a leave of absence from Maggiano's for a year while he went through treatment.
"Going through that type of an illness can be extremely isolating," he said. "I was fortunate enough to have wonderful family, friends and co-workers by my side. The staff at Creticos Cancer Center, [including] Dr. Sangeetha Nimmagadda, Dr. Ajay Maker, Dr. Nikolas Dallas and nurse Tamiko King were right by my side the entire time.
"Since the diagnosis, my lifestyle has had to take a turn. I've had to cut back on socially drinking and I have personally been focused on physical fitness. I would say though that the diagnosis changed my perspective on life. The small stuff that I used to think mattered, doesn't. What really matters in life are people, family, friends and taking care of oneself."
Coker's long-term diagnosis is good, he said. He now gets rechecked by his doctors regularly through colonoscopies and CT scans. There is a 60- to 70-percent chance that the cancer will come back in five years, "but it's really just continuing to live your life and relying on the doctors to take care of the illness," he said.
Coker, originally from South Carolina, has lived in Chicago for the past seven years. He will, on May 9, be the student commencement speaker at Roosevelt Universitythe day he completes his undergraduate degree ( in criminal justice ).
At Roosevelt, Coker has been a teaching assistant to Tana McCoy, who also is openly gay and is the chair of the school's Criminal Justice Program. At times during his ordeal he wore a portable IV-bag that pumped chemotherapy medications into his system while taking classes with McCoy and others. He will be the first in his family to graduate from college.
"To see the great attitude he had during some really rough times was eye-opening," McCoy said in a statement. She has been one of Coker's mentors. "He's helped me to understand that after you go through something like this, most things are not a big deal. He's taught me a lot about just living life and embracing the moment every day."
Coker said McCoy "has been a strong support system and made sure along with my friends that I was well supported." He noted that McCoy has been "a positive influence" in his life over the past five years. "We have worked together for the past three years, alongside each other in the classroom," he said. "She really takes the time to get to know all of her students, not just myself. She called and visited throughout the cancer treatment and was a strong pillar of support for me."
Coker also praised his close group of friendsMaureen Jones, Dane Jardine, Lloyd Winkler and Chris Montielwho he said were essential to his recovery. He also praised the entire staff, led by Molly Bierman, Matt Rosen and Jessica Weber, from Maggiano's Little Italyand the restaurant even had a fundraiser for him and helped him pay bills for six months.
"I can't even fathom the thought" of graduating, Coker said. "I have worked so hard for this moment and it still hasn't hit me, yet. I continued to go to school throughout the treatment by utilizing online classes. In fall of 2014, I was able to attend classes in person by using a portable chemotherapy pump, so I was actually receiving chemotherapy while attending classes."
Coker added that it is very important for the younger generation to know that, yes, it can get colon cancer as well, although medical statistics say that only 10 percent of colon cancer patients are under the age of 50.
"If I had not walked down to Advocate Illinois Masonic and complained of a small side pain and they had not had the wonderful staff to investigate further into it, I would have died by now and that's a very real thought," he said. "When one is confronted with their own mortality, it changes everything. You realize just how fragile the human bodies are and the finality of death.
"I didn't stay positive the entire time, but I will say that I stayed resolved to win this battle. I stayed resolved to finish school. I went from using the motto of 'never quit going to school no matter what' to a lifestyle of 'never give up.'"