(03/13/14) - Imagine surviving cancer, only to find out that the treatment that healed you may have caused another life-threatening illness. It is no secret that there are some devastating side effects that come with chemotherapy, but most people would never imagine heart disease is one of them.
Fit and strong are two words to describe Derek Fitzgerald, but his life is just getting back on track after doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor in his stomach 10 years ago and diagnosed him with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"They said 'Derek, you've got cancer,'" and, he says, they told him chemotherapy was his best shot at survival.
Derek underwent six rounds. It destroyed the cancer, but also damaged his heart. He lived with severe heart failure for seven years, then was placed on the transplant list.
"Every night as I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I wondered, how long can I go through this? How much more can my body take before I just close my eyes and don't wake up," Derek said.
It is a reality Dr. Mariell Jessup, of the University of Pennsylvania, says few patients are aware of. "In Derek's case, there are chemotherapy agents that actually weaken the heart."
In fact, Jessup says treatment may put a survivor at three-to-seven times greater risk of developing heart disease, "so many patients that come here and say 'I just can't believe something else happened to me.'"
Her best advice - talk to your doctor about your risk and get regular health screenings. Derek had a heart transplant and, despite having never exercised before, began to in order to honor his donor.
Eight-months post-transplant, he ran his first 5K. Two months later, he ran a half-marathon. Just two years later, he completed his first Ironman.
"Every time I get out there, it's a celebration of this chance that I've been given," because Derek says, he doesn't not want to take it for granted.
Derek is the first cancer and heart transplant survivor to finish an Ironman. He has now moved on to his greatest accomplishment- after struggling with infertility, he and his wife had their first baby this year.
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