Son Steps Up to Help Dad Beat Colon Cancer

If you’re ever diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it helps to be like Sean Schwinghammer – focused, tenacious and ready to meet any challenge head-on. It also helps to have a son who’s willing to put his own life on hold to care for the family so that you can fully devote yourself to your healing.

Despite facing cancer and numerous other tragedies in his life, Sean Schwinghammer keeps on smiling

For Sean Schwinghammer, tenacity comes naturally after having battled back from a lifelong series of accidents and tragedies – colon cancer being just the latest – that would have kept most others down. The 51-year-old father of three, who lives with his family in Miami Lakes, broke his neck at age 17 when he was run over by a car. He broke his back in a later car accident, and years later was injured in another bad accident (neither was his fault). Then he lost his home and all of his possessions in a fire.

But cancer, according to Mr. Schwinghammer, was by far thehardest. Yet it’s also been the best. “It’s been such a blessing, in so manyways,” he says.

Mr. Schwinghammer was diagnosed with rectosigmoid cancer twoyears ago. For more than a year before his diagnosis, the physically fitgovernment relations executive had been feeling unwell with somegastrointestinal issues that were mostly just irritating and inconvenient. Heeventually went to see his doctor, who said his numbers looked good and therewas nothing to worry about. He hadn’t even reached the age of 50, when a firstcolonoscopy is recommended. Yet his symptoms persisted and just days aftercelebrating his 50th birthday, Mr. Schwinghammer finally went to seea gastroenterologist.

“I knew something was wrong but I was expecting to bediagnosed with colitis or something that would entail a modest lifestylechange,” he says. “Instead, I learned I had stage 3 colon cancer. And just twodays later I was at Baptist having a large tumor and part of my colon cut out.”

Radiation oncologist Michael Chuong, M.D., director of Proton Therapy and MR-Guided Radiation Therapy at Miami Cancer Institute

The hardest part for Mr. Schwinghammer lay just ahead,however: he was told he’d have to undergo aggressive chemotherapy and radiationtherapy. After seeking second opinions at several other cancer centers inFlorida, he chose MiamiCancer Institute for his treatment, enlisting the help of medicaloncologist SantiagoAparo, M.D., and radiation oncologist MichaelChuong, M.D., director of Proton Therapy and MR-Guided Radiation Therapy atthe Institute.

“I did my homework and found that Miami Cancer Institute wasthe only cancer center in the area with every type of radiation therapy underone roof,” says Mr. Schwinghammer. “And living here in Miami, it was certainlymuch more convenient for me and my family.”

To make sure they could eradicate any last trace of the tumor that surgery may have missed, Dr. Aparo and Dr. Chuong recommended an aggressive treatment plan for Mr. Schwinghammer.

Santiago Aparo, M.D., medical oncologist at Miami Cancer Institute

“His tumor was on the large size, about 10 centimeters, andin a dangerous spot, right up against the liver,” recalls Dr. Aparo. “We treatedit with daily doses of chemotherapy, often in tandem with radiation therapy,over a period of almost nine months. At the same time, we didn’t want to damageany healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.”

Knowing his father would undergo grueling cancer therapy formany months to come, Broderick Schwinghammer, then 20, decided to hit the“Pause” button on his own plans. He had just graduated from the University ofFlorida two months before his father’s diagnosis and was about to take a jobout of state. But who now would help his busy mother with all of herresponsibilities? Who would drive his little brother to school and all hisdaily activities? Who would help take care of things around the house?Broderick realized that his father – and his family – needed him more.

“Broderick was selfless and amazing,” says Mr.Schwinghammer, who was feeling “half-human” during his months of chemo andradiation. “He did all the things his parents normally do – chores, errands,cooking, keeping the pool clean, driving his brother to school – and he helpedfinish a remodeling and repainting project we had started shortly before mydiagnosis.”

Broderick also made sure his father was eating correctly andwould drive him to and from work and meetings when he was struggling with theside-effects of chemotherapy and radiation. When in early 2019 his father was toldby his doctors that he couldn’t fly to Tallahassee as planned for the inaugurationof Governor DeSantis, Broderick drove him all the way up and back. Mr.Schwinghammer says his son even drove his older sister to her freshman year atcollege – a father’s rite of passage that he had to forego because of hiscancer treatment.

“Hedid everything he could to make life easier for me and his mom,” says Mr.Schwinghammer. “He made my cancer easier to manage, he helped relieve my stressand he supported all of us in such a loving way.”

His treatmentwasn’t always easy, Mr. Schwinghammer says, with side-effects that included, attimes, headaches, weakness, fatigue, numbness and incontinence. But he tookfull advantage of Miami Cancer Institute’s survivor program, which emphasizes aholistic approach to cancer treatment encompassing stress reduction,meditation, physical therapy, diet and nutrition, and more.

Sean Schwinghammer celebrated his final round of chemotherapy at Miami Cancer Institute by dressing up for the occasion

Mr.Schwinghammer celebrated completion of his therapy by “ringing the bell” atMiami Cancer Institute on April 16, 2019 – dressed for his final round ofchemotherapy in a dapper tuxedo and red bow tie. Just three months later, hetook his family on a trip out west where they went hiking in the Grand Canyon,Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. Today, more than a year later, he isofficially in remission and the family will be spending this Father’s Day in avacation home on Little Torch Key. “I wasn’t allowed to be in the sun for ayear, so I’m looking forward to spending some time in and on the water,” hesays.

Becausecolon cancer is such a preventable disease, Mr. Schwinghammer wants people toremember one thing: “Early detection, early cure.” Dr. Aparo agrees. “You wantto have a colonoscopy before you have symptoms, because if you find aprecancerous polyp, you can treat it right then and there.”

Dr. Aparo also says that colorectal cancer is beingdiagnosed in increasing numbers of younger adults, and newguidelines from the American Cancer Society recommend that people should bescreened starting at age 45, not 50. Mr.Schwinghammer is a perfect example, he says. “He was experiencing symptoms atage 47 and if he had had his first colonoscopy then, his cancer would have beenmuch easier to treat.”

Asfor Mr. Schwinghammer, who recently celebrated his 26th anniversarywith his wife, he will forever be grateful to Broderick for taking care of thefamily while he was being treated for cancer.

“The best Father’s Day gift of all is my health and I’m so glad tobe back as ‘dad’ and caretaker for my family. But I couldn’t have done itwithout him,” says Mr. Schwinghammer of his oldest son, now 23. “Thanks to Broderick,I was able to keep working the entire time – in fact, I didn’t miss a singleday of work.” He’s also grateful for all the doctors and nurses and staff atMiami Cancer Institute. “It’s such a well-organized team there. Everyone is soincredibly talented and caring.”

Sean Schwinghammer, seen here with son Broderick and the rest of his family, is officially in remission from stage 3 colorectal cancer

Dr. Aparo says Mr. Schwinghammer was a model patient throughout his treatment. “He was an active and engaged participant in his treatment plan, and asked all the right questions,” recalls Dr. Aparo. “The real struggle for him was when he realized he couldn’t do certain things, but he was very open to recommendations for treating the side effects he experienced and he was able to take it easy and give his body time to recover.”

According to Dr. Aparo, Miami Cancer Institute will belaunching an interdisciplinary rectal cancer clinic in the next few monthswhere a patient can come in and meet with all the different specialists and havea treatment plan developed the very same day. “As cancer specialists, we knowthe value of interdisciplinary care and we have weekly meetings to review anddiscuss new cases,” he says. “The new clinic will make it even more convenientfor the patient.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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