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 ten years ago and diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"They said Derek, you've got cancer," Fitzgerald told ABC30.
His best shot at survival was chemotherapy. Derek underwent six rounds. It destroyed the cancer, but also damaged his heart.
He lived with severe heart failure for seven years. Then he 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?" Fitzgerald said.
It's a reality Dr. Mariell Jessup says few patients are aware of.
"In Derek's case, there are chemotherapy agents that actually weaken the heart," Dr. Mariell Jessup, Professor of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine Heart & Vascular Center, told ABC30.
In fact, she says treatment may put a survivor at three to seven times greater risk of developing heart disease.
"So many patients that come here say, 'I just can't believe something else happened to me,'" Dr. Jessup said.
Dr. Jessup recommends talking to your doctor about your risk and getting regular health screenings.
Derek found a new heart and despite having never exercised before, began to, 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," Fitzgerald explained.
Derek is the first cancer and heart transplant survivor to finish an Ironman and his third chance at life keeps getting better. After struggling with infertility, he and his wife had their first baby this year.
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Senior Medical Communications Officer
Penn Medicine Cardio-Oncology Program