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Soldiering Through a Cancer Diagnosis

Herastico Pitty-DiazA stubbed toe turned into a life-saving event for Herastico Pitty-Diaz, who might not have learned he had cancer if not for that painful misstep.

After more than two decades of service in the U.S. Air Force, Herastico is physically strong and mentally tough. But when he accidentally slammed his big toe against the shower door in August 2015, he cried out in pain, the same as anyone else.

Three months later, the injury continued to bother him so he went to his doctor. His toe checked out fine, but Herastico, 50, learned he was due for a routine colonoscopy. It revealed stage I rectal cancer.

After hearing the diagnosis, Herastico said he broke down and wept for an hour. He was especially emotional because his wife, Rosa Elena, had just experienced a miscarriage. Herastico, a devout Catholic, said he prayed and then decided he needed to fight. From that point on, he approached his illness with determination and humor.

“A friend told me that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers,” he said.

The battle begins

At the urging of a coworker, he sought care at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

“My colleague said ‘You better go to KU’ because of their reputation,” said Herastico, who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri. He scheduled an appointment with surgical oncologist John Ashcraft, DO. Dr. Ashcraft ran more tests and determined Herastico’s cancer was actually stage II.

“Dr. Ashcraft said ‘this is the plan” and he told me how he was going to do my surgery so I would be good to go,” Herastico said, adding that he appreciated Dr. Ashcraft’s honest, straightforward approach. Dr. Ashcraft collaborated with radiation oncologist Andrew Hoover, MD, and medical oncologist Raed Al-Rajabi, MD, to determine the best treatment plan.

“Our patients go through treatment knowing their team of physicians is communicating and reaching a consensus about the approach that’s right for them. And because we work so closely together in the same building, it’s easy to coordinate care across specialties, adjusting the treatment plan as needed based on how the patient responds,” Dr. Hoover said.

In addition to surgery, Herastico had chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. During treatment, he stayed at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, which offers free lodging to cancer patients and their caregivers.

Blessed with humor

Throughout his journey, Herastico said he was surrounded by people eager to be by his side.

“My coworkers took me for treatment every week for six weeks, and they stayed with me when I was sick,” Herastico said. While staying at Hope Lodge, he and his wife taught salsa dancing to other residents.

Herastico said he wanted to help people there forget about their illness, often using humor to make light of the challenges he and his fellow patients faced. They appreciated it, as did his doctors.

“Dr. Al-Rajabi told me the percentage of patient survival, but he said with my sense of humor, the percentage was above expectations,” he said.

Dr. Ashcraft also said he admires Herastico’s optimistic attitude.

“Herastico has a very positive outlook and a wonderful sense of humor, as well as great family and co-worker support,” Dr. Ashcraft said. “He almost always had a fellow Air Force airman with him during his visits, and his wife was extremely supportive.”

Dr. Al-Rajabi agrees, adding that Herastico drew upon his military training to remain upbeat and resilient.

“He saw it as a fight, and he put on his boots and moved forward toward a cure,” Dr. Al-Rajabi said.

Herastico’s last surgery was in July 2016 and his cancer is in remission. He goes in for scans every three months and has an annual colonoscopy. Herastico is quick to note the compassion and care extended by the entire cancer center team and said the nurses are outstanding.

"The University of Kansas Cancer Center treats you like you are family, not a patient. The nurses, doctors and staff want to know how comfortable you are, how you’re feeling, what you need. I love the cancer center. Beautiful people are there to care for you,” he said.

 Herastico Pitty-Diaz, and his wife, Rosa.Giving thanks

Herastico is grateful for his physicians, but he said he also owes a debt of gratitude to Our Lady of Guadalupe, another name for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the patron saint of Mexico. 

As he met other cancer patients, Herastico promised each one he would light a candle and place a white rose on the altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. 

This summer, Herastico, and his wife, Rosa, plan to light 48 candles and place 48 white roses at the shrine.

As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.