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Sean's Story

Long Island, New York

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From March 2016 to September 2016, I was repeatedly visiting doctors to tell them that something was wrong with my body, but I wasn’t being taken seriously. I had blacked out three times in recent months; however, I had been in an accident three or four years prior where I had broken my back and neck, and had to relearn to walk. Every doctor I went to wrote off the blackouts as being post-concussion syndrome from my accident.

This situation came to a head when my local medical facility planned to put me in a psychiatric hold, as I had visited so often without them taking me seriously. I pushed for an MRI, but they refused. I went to my parents’ house, and shortly after I was throwing up, my face was drooping, and my legs wouldn’t work. My Dad took me back to the medical facility, who were annoyed to see me again. I was put into the non-emergency area of the hospital; I asked for a CT Scan, and was refused based on my age. I then had a stroke, during which a golf ball-sized tumour was found in my cerebellum, which had caused a massive hemorrhage. The tumour was late-stage melanoma. When my Dad told me after I regained consciousness, the first thing I was was “okay, we’re gonna fight this thing and we’re gonna beat it.”

I was in Sloan Kettering Hospital for a month, receiving radiation. During this time, the people around me really showered up: my football teammates from high school and college even made a spreadsheet of when they were going to come visit me. While I was receiving radiation, I had the experience of sharing the unit with children, as there was not a separate pediatric unit at the time. As I looked around at these very young, sick kids, I thought: “I’m not gonna sit here and feel sorry for myself. I’ve made every mistake a 31 year old man can make, and these kids haven’t even had a chance to steal a cookie yet.” I decided that whatever happens, happens. I also came across an interview with former American football player Inky Johnson which spoke to me; he was speaking about how it’s not always about you, it’s about the people who come to lift you up. I think that sometimes as a cancer patient or cancer survivor, it gets lost on us that in actuality there are still people around us, and we have a responsibility to them too. So the “it’s not about you” really resonated with me.

After radiation, we tried different chemotherapies and immunotherapies, however these kept causing my liver to crash. While I was in the ICU, I was told that I had a rare complication called lepto meningitis disease where the cancer spreads to your spinal cord fluid, causing the cells to coagulate and compromising your brain functions. I was told I had 12 weeks to live and to get my affairs in order; that was a right hook that sent me to my knees real quick. But, I’m stubborn, and I didn’t want to accept it. However, with some more research and genetic testing, we discovered that I have certain mutations that could be used to my advantage in my treatment plans. The progression of my disease slowed, and in April 2017 I started another infusion in addition to the oral medications I was taking; I responded well to this combination, and my disease went into regression.

At this point, as my health was beginning to improve, I started to get back to life. I began to coach high school football. My sickness held the kids accountable: if a guy showed up late to practice, you’d have someone on the team saying “He was in chemo today, but you’re late? What’s your excuse?” At one of the games, my friend arranged for all of the kids to wear these shirts that said Long Beach Football on the front and Coach Wachter Strong with the melanoma ribbon and the saying “what’s your excuse” on the back. It makes me cry to this day.

I also started dating again and met my wife. When I told my mom about her, she actually said that we were born five houses apart, so she was the first girl I ever hung out with! Within a few months, we moved in together and I started helping her raise her daughter, which has been the biggest blessing. I have done so many cool things, but raising my stepdaughter has been the coolest thing I’ve gotten to do. She’s my best friend.

 

I decided to go into business and open an independent coffee chain on Long Island, both to show myself I could and to leave my wife and stepdaughter with something just in case. I always tell people that the coolest thing about doing the coffee shop was that it showed me what I still had in the tank because I would go from six o’clock in the morning to one o’clock in the morning working at our three locations. It’s cool to say I got to run a company from a chemo chair. Sometimes people treat cancer patients like they are totally disabled, so that showed me I was still able and that no matter the circumstances I needed to keep living my life.

In the summer of 2021, I got some more scans done and they showed further regression without treatment. So I took my last IV infusion of immunotherapy and got to ring the bell, which was awesome. I was still taking the oral chemo pills, so I wasn’t fully good yet but my scans and spinal taps kept coming out positively so in 2022 I had the option to stop taking the oral chemotherapy. In July 2022, my wife, my stepdaughter, and I were going to see a WWE live event in Connecticut. I absolutely love wrestling, so I rented a limousine for us and got premium tickets. When we were on the way, my phone rang, and I saw the number of the hospital. I didn’t know if I wanted to answer it right then, but I begrudgingly picked it up, and I got a “congratulations. As of right now you are the only documented survival case of this type of cancer.” I was crying happy tears and I got to tell my wife and stepdaughter. It was amazing.

My buddies wanted me to throw a party, but I did feel some survivor’s guilt so I decided to throw a fundraiser for Memorial Sloan Kettering Kids. It was a wrestling fundraiser and one of my friends had this brilliant idea of putting a poll on Facebook, essentially saying “if Sean wrestles, will you donate more money?” I wrestled and it was a big success. Since then, I married my wife and we had our miracle baby. We also hosted another fundraiser where I wrestled in honor of my friend who passed away. It was such a wonderful event, it was twice as big. It was attended by local politicians and the press did an article on me that I put it on my LinkedIn, and from that ESPN found me. From there, I started wrestling a lot more and now we’re working on some amazing stuff. It’s been a crazy ride and I think my story really is a testament to folks that there’s life during and after cancer. To me, without cancer there’s no wrestling and I realize that I have this responsibility to keep spreading awareness and sharing my story. I just hope that if somebody hears my story or sees me wrestle, they’re able to live a little bit fuller, or fight a little bit harder. I’d go down the same road 1000 times again, if it helps one person out.

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