The doctors told him he had just a 20% chance of surviving the surgery to remove the tumor from his esophagus, but if he didn’t go under the knife, he wouldn’t make it to the next Christmas dinner.
Tom Gray didn’t care about those odds. He wasn’t going to stop fighting.
While he has made it through two different surgeries since his diagnosis of esophageal cancer, the Seymour man is still battling for his livelihood.
The 52-year-old’s cancer story began in 2017 when he started having trouble eating at the dinner table.
"It felt like something was getting lodged in my throat," Gray said. "My brother was in a serious accident and had passed away, so I kind of put it on the backburner. I didn’t want to go to the doctor and thought it would just go away. Christmas of 2017, I couldn’t eat anything at dinner. I couldn’t even keep fluids down."
Tom’s wife, Diane, stressed to him that he needed to go and get some help starting Dec. 26.
After failing to find a timely appointment with local ear, nose and throat doctors, Gray decided to go to Schneck Medical Center in Seymour.
"My wife said, ‘We are going to go to a hospital and stay until they find out what is wrong with you,’" Gray said. "We went to Schneck, and the doctor in there said that he had a feeling there was something bad in there and told me to come back and talk to Dr. Emanuel Nearing, a surgeon."
A scope was ordered for Gray that day, and when he woke up from the procedure, his life was changed, as he found out he had esophageal cancer.
"When I came to, I was cutting up with everyone, and (Nearing) came in and had a look on his face that said, ‘This isn’t good,’" Gray said. "I probably should have suspected I would have something like this because I smoked three packs per day and I drank. I lived as bad a life as you could live. He said there was a mass in there and that he was going to send me to Indianapolis to get it removed."
Gray went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center in Seymour to help shrink the large tumor in his throat before finding out if he was eligible for surgery at the IU Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis.
While he received the good news that he was eligible, it also scared him.
"They told me that I was a candidate, and they told me that I had a 20% chance to live through the surgery," Gray said. "I asked how long I would live if I didn’t get it. They told me to buy my Christmas presents early this year because I wouldn’t be around to give them out. I really had no choice."
Going into the surgery, Gray was confident in his doctor’s abilities.
"I would be up (in Indianapolis) and people would be waiting in the waiting area and I would ask them where they were from," Gray said. "They’d be from France, Canada, all over the world to see if Dr. Kessler would operate on them.
"He’s the best in the country," he added. "It makes you feel good to know you can get this kind of care just 60 miles away. If I didn’t go there, I probably would have needed to go to California to get my surgery. I’ve been very lucky. They are very good people, and you will not get finer care than what you get at the Simon center."
The surgery, done by Dr. Kenneth Kessler at Simon, lasted 13 hours.
Gray was supposed to be sedated for 72 hours, but that process didn’t go as planned.
"Fourteen hours after (surgery), I woke up and got out of the bed," Gray said. "I didn’t know who I was, where I was at, and I ripped out all the IVs and monitors out and went crazy. They sedated me and got me back to bed, and I was out a couple days. I was in there only 11 days."
Gray returned home from the surgery but received bad news during his recovery process.
"I was able to come out of there and it changed my whole life," Gray said. "I couldn’t walk without a walker at first and that kind of thing. It was really rough. I spent several months trying to get back to a somewhat normal routine. They then found that I had another mass in my adrenal glands. Last May, they went in and Dr. Chandru Sundaram at Simon cut out all my adrenal glands. I have been recouping again."
Both surgeries altered Gray’s physique to an extreme.
"With the first surgery, they took about two-thirds of my stomach and all of my esophagus," Gray said. "I no longer have an esophagus at all. What was left of my stomach, they stretched it up and made a new esophagus so that I could speak and breathe."
Gray said he can only hold four ounces of any kind of food or liquid in his stomach without getting sick.
"I’ve lost 170 pounds. I was obese, and that’s the only time in the world that being obese helped me other than football," Gray joked.
The biggest support Gray has received is from his sister, Jean Back, and wife, Gray said.
He said he also has become much more spiritual over the past two years.
"I’m not a guy that prayed every day, but I have a strong belief in the lord," Gray said. "That outlook (of cancer) can change a lot of that, and you wonder if this is the end. It has been a blessing."
Gray said his cancer will never go away, and he is hoping to have one — or no — surgeries per year.
Cancer forced Gray to retire from full time driving for Walmart, but he’s not spending all of his time inside.
He’s still president of the Seymour Area Cruisers and is involved with the annual Scoop the Loop event in downtown Seymour. Gray also is heavily involved with the local Cops and Kids program.
Gray also added another member to the family recently, as he and Diane adopted a golden doodle puppy named Shelby.
He refuses to use a cane or walker while strolling with the pup, as he’s determined to keep his strength up.
The two can be found walking around Seymour most days, the only home that Gray has ever known.
"You can never give up. You have to fight," Gray said.