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Facing the challenge of cancer survivorship

January 21, 2020 | Tonya Becerra
uci health cancer survivor dan wheeler
“Everybody’s journey is different,” says testicular cancer survivor Dan Wheeler. “But the hardest part for me was recovery. It’s traumatic.”

Dan Wheeler thought he was invincible until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. But fighting cancer turned out to be only part of the 45-year-old Rancho Cucamonga businessman’s battle.

“Everybody’s journey is different,” says the UCI Health patient. “But the hardest part for me was recovery. It’s traumatic.”

After his treatment ended, Wheeler turned to UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Cancer Support and Survivorship Services program for help.

Treating the whole person

Cancer Support and Survivorship Services is designed to treat the whole person: the physical, mental, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual. Led by UCI Health oncologist Dr. Paul H. Coluzzi and nurse practitioner Meetal Dharia, the program addresses issues faced by patients that are either not reported or under-reported during and after cancer treatment.

“We know that 30% of patients experience some distressing symptoms after treatment,” says Coluzzi.

“We also know that patients during treatment under-report their symptoms, mainly because they're trying to really focus on getting through each day, week by week. Getting through the intensive cancer treatments, as we know, is hard.”

Wheeler concurs. “If it wasn’t for Dr. C., I wouldn’t be here. He is a lifesaver.”

Thrown by his diagnosis

Wheeler had always been active. He lifted weights at the gym most days, ran a successful machinery business, was a doting husband and a father to three children. He frequently enjoyed hunting and boating.

“I thought I was bulletproof,” explains Wheeler. “But cancer taught me that things can take you down.”

What started as a lump he discovered while in the shower was diagnosed as Stage IIC testicular cancer.

Treatment was aggressive: two chemotherapy sessions per day, five times a week for four weeks. It took an immense toll on Wheeler.

“It also had a huge impact on my family. My kids were scared I was going to die. So was I. It was a really scary time — not just physically, but mentally.”

“There was a point after the third week of chemo that I wanted to quit. But my oncologist Dr. John Fruehauf said, ‘Don’t give up, Dan. You’re so close. Don’t stop now.’”

Chemotherapy’s toll

Wheeler is glad he kept going. But the after-effects of chemotherapy caught him by surprise.

“Chemotherapy left me 30 to 40 pounds lighter. I lost all my hair – everywhere. I was so weak and fatigued. I had the mind of a 45-year-old, but the body of a 100-year-old.”

Chemotherapy also left Wheeler with neuropathy in his hands and feet. It felt like he was walking on broken glass: painful, and also frustrating.

“I wanted to be healthy for my family, but I wasn’t in a good place mentally after the chemo,” he says. “It’s like PTSD after cancer treatment. It beats you down.”

Finding a lifeline

A cancer triage nurse told Wheeler about the new cancer support and survivorship program. He almost didn’t go to his scheduled appointment. But his wife, Gina, strongly encouraged him to try it.

Coluzzi began by assessing Wheeler’s symptoms. He prescribed medication that has helped manage the neuropathy and pain, as well as ease hormone irregularities from cancer treatments and alleviate some fatigue.

He also reinforced how important all of Wheeler’s appointments were: getting scans and tests to keep track of his recovery and to watch for any other issues — including other cancers — he might be susceptible to.

Gaining perspective and a new pace

Coluzzi also truly listened to him, Wheeler says. “He helped me understand that my experience was normal – and temporary.”

He even taught Wheeler how to work on his recovery even with his physical limitations. For example, instead of getting upset about not being able to go to the gym every day, together they created a schedule that would get him to the gym —just on a different schedule.

Treating Wheeler’s emotional and mental concerns was also important.

“We know there’s a connection between the mind and the body,” explains Coluzzi. “The mind, the body and the spirit are as important as the physical treatment of cancer.”

Wheeler attests to that approach: “He’s taught me to focus on the good things and to try not to self-obsess. Half the battle is just accepting what’s happening. He’s been a ray of hope for me.”

Gratitude to spare

“Dr. C. is so responsive,” Wheeler says. “I can reach out on MyChart, and he always emails or calls me back. He’s the best doctor I’ve ever had.”

Wheeler says he’s not the same man he was before his diagnosis.

“It changed me. I learned empathy. I learned acceptance. I met amazing people who don’t look like me. I grew to appreciate the people who work for me even more. And I realized how well I married.”

Wheeler has already volunteered to speak with cancer patients, to share his story and encourage them to see that they, too, can make it through.

“I used to be selfish as hell,” he says. “Today I think about what I can do to help other people. I didn’t used to be that way.”

Wheeler can’t say enough about the support and survivorship approach. “Dr. C. has nailed it with this program. It’s going to help a lot of people out.”

Dan Wheeler’s advice for cancer patients and survivors

  • Check yourself! I found a lump in the shower, but I put off getting it checked for two or three weeks. What if I had waited longer? Or just ignored it?
  • Ask about medication side effects so you can be prepared.
  • If you end up with testicular cancer — or any kind of cancer — it’s not necessarily the end of the world. A bunch of us have survived.
  • You don’t have to be alone. My friends and family and social media helped me immensely. And Dr. Coluzzi and Cancer Support and Survivorship Services gave me hope.
  • Have patience. First I was disappointed at how long it took to heal. Now I know it’s normal.
  • Listen to your body. Take breaks.
  • Be kind to yourself. Learn to love yourself.

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