A few words can change everything.
“It’s full-blown cancer,” the doctor told Dom Sitas in the recovery room after his colonoscopy. Sitas, a 38-year-old father of three young children, began to cry.
His brother, who had come for moral support, fainted. His wife, Lidija, stood in shock.
“A nurse put her arm around me and said, ‘You are going to have to be strong,’ ” recalls Lidija.
Very strong. Further tests showed the disease had spread to his liver. Dom had Stage 4 colon cancer with a 10 per cent chance of living five years.
There were surgeries, chemotherapies, scads of scans and tests and some dark nights of the soul. But this summer, at the significant five-year mark, his scan showed he was cancer-free. “I started sobbing, my body shaking,” says Lidija. “You carry it around for so long.”
Dom, 43, and Lidija, 42, are telling their beat-the-odds story so that another family in a seemingly bleak battle with cancer might find what they desperately searched for — hope.
“I looked at the obstacles as part of a journey,” recalls Dom, owner of the building firm Pebble Homes. “I kept telling myself, “Anyone who survived had to get through this part, too.’ ”
They’re sitting at the dining room table in their four-bedroom Oakville home. The drywalling had just begun on this, their dream house, when Dom got sick.
Across the blonde-wood table, Lidija slides an album labelled “Dom’s Journey,” pages of dates, quotes, photos, including a black-and-white one of the family. They’re wearing black and white and standing close together, showing smiles, but not big ones. It’s part of a photo shoot done shortly after Dom’s diagnosis.
“They were our family pictures in case he didn’t make it,” explains Lidija.
Dom first went to the doctor because he found blood in his stool. ‘Not to worry,’ said the doctor, who ordered more tests just to be sure. It was after the sigmoidoscopy, a procedure to examine the large intestine, that the doctor told him it was cancer, but likely small. Dom headed to the park where he knew Lidija was with the kids. He hugged her hard.
Next was the colonoscopy followed by surgery, the removal of a large portion of his colon. He remembers being in so much pain that he couldn’t turn to talk to his mother visiting him. “I knew she was crying,” he says, his voice catching. “I can only imagine how tough it was for her.”
The news kept getting worse. Not only did the liver biopsy confirm that the cancer had spread, but Dom had three spots on his liver, involving more than one lobe.
To be a candidate for liver surgery, a patient must have enough healthy liver that the surgeon can leave some. They worried his might be too compromised. Without liver surgery, Dom’s chances grew grimmer.
They walked into the surgeon’s office, their fate in his hands.
One of the spots was small. The surgeon concluded: “It’s worth a try.”
A few words can change everything.
“What I felt,” recalls Dom, teary, looking away, “was that I had a chance.”
Dom’s liver surgery was Oct. 31, 2005. “I remember that,” pipes in Anthony, 13, who has been listening to his parents’ story. “I remember going out that Halloween night thinking, ‘I hope Dad is okay.’” The eldest, he was more aware and more affected than his sisters, say his parents.
Lidija was waiting when the surgeon came out. “He was elated,” she recalls. He not only removed the cancerous parts, but one of the worrisome spots turned out to be — nothing.
“When they told me that lobe was clear,” says Dom, “I thought, ‘That’s a miracle.’ ”
No saintly intervention, however, spared him pain, physical or psychological. One night still hospitalized after his liver surgery, he was taken to a deep basement for an MRI where, still hurting, he waited for hours among extremely ill patients.
“I felt like I was seeing death, that I was surrounded by death,” he recalls, his voice catching. “I kept thinking, ‘I don’t belong here.’ ”
Lidija’s lowest point was the night the children stayed with a relative and she returned alone from the hospital to a dark empty house — and was afraid to enter. “The immensity of it all and where it might be heading suddenly hit me,” she says. She asked a neighbour to enter with her, and then she sat alone and wept.
In the album, a post liver surgery photo shows a skinny — he’d lost 30 pounds — bare-chested Dom, revealing the scar with 40 staples extending halfway around his torso. “It’s my Nike swoosh,” he jokes.
In January 2006, he began eight months of chemotherapy every other week. His hair didn’t fall out, but he lost energy and appetite. “It’s like walking around with a very big hangover all the time. Nothing gets rid of that feeling.”
During the illness, Dom sought hope wherever he could find it. He tried numerous alternative therapies, including acupuncture and shiatsu.
“Western medicine gives you a low percentage to survive, the alternative practitioners all give you a chance. I needed to hear positive messages.”
He switched to a vegetarian diet and, against doctors’ recommendations, he played in his weekly hockey games throughout his chemo treatment. “The disease is taking your life away,” explains Dom. “I associated hockey with being normal.”
Lidija adds: “It was the only time he could get away from his cancer.”
After chemotherapy, Dom had scans every six months, then annually. The last page of the album is the all-clear report from this summer’s five-year scan.
“We talk about five-year survival as a sense of a cure,” explains Dr. Malcolm Moore, head of medical oncology and hematology at Princess Margaret Hospital. “If someone is free after five years, most of the time they’re free the rest of their lives.”
Why did he make it? Why him?
Sometimes Lidija wonders about all the praying. Every night the family prayed together, and the children would ask that Tata (Dad) get better. Family and friends in Canada, Ireland, and Croatia, where Dom and Lidija were both born, were asking the heavenly Father for Dom’s survival.
“I think it was definitely a miracle,” announces Anthony. “Not many people survive that.”
Dom and Lidija and the three children are sitting on the large sofa in the family room. A nearby table displays framed black–and-white pictures from that photo shoot after Dom’s diagnosis, the potential last family photos.
But there they all are on the sofa, a jumble of vibrant living colour, the dog jumping, the kids playing and Lidija and Dom laughing.