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. They diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“They said Derek, you’ve got cancer,” Fitzgerald said.
Derek underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. It destroyed the cancer, but also damaged his heart, so much so that after seven years, he was placed on the transplant list.
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 Ivanhoe.
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.
Her best advice? Talk to your doctor about your risk and get regular health screenings.
Fitzgerald got a new heart and began to honor the donor by exercising for the first time in his life. Eight months later, Fitzgerald he ran his first 5K. Two months later, he ran a half-marathon. He’s now completed his first Ironman.
“Every time I get out there, it’s a celebration of this chance that I’ve been given,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald is the first cancer and heart transplant survivor to finish an Ironman.