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Josh Russell spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. But he says his toughest battle took place years after he left the military.
In early 2011, Josh noticed a bump in his stomach around his navel. He thought the bump was a hernia, and his doctor initially agreed. Josh was scheduled for surgery, but pre-op blood work revealed surprising news. Russell’s “hernia” was actually a tumor. He had testicular cancer.
“I was in shock,” says the Benton, Wisconsin, resident. But he didn’t have time to dwell on that. “I got the news on a Friday and started chemotherapy on Monday.”
Four months of treatment did little to slow the cancer. In fact, it was spreading.
“I had tumors from my groin to the lower part of my throat,” says Josh, whose prognosis looked grim. “After I finished chemo, they gave me six months to live. They wanted me to go home and start hospice.”
But that wasn’t a prognosis that Josh, then just 30 years old, or his family were willing to accept.
Looking for an answer at Mayo
“We all started scouring the Internet for top hospitals,” he says. “My sister contacted Mayo. Within a week, they were looking me over.”
While Mayo physicians agreed with the diagnosis Josh had received, they didn’t agree that he’d exhausted all treatment options. Josh had been told that surgery was his only hope for a cure. But the doctors he'd met with felt surgery was too risky.
“But at Mayo, they were willing to try surgery," says Josh "They didn’t promise anything, but they were going to give me a chance.”
And suddenly, Josh began to feel something he hadn’t since his diagnosis: Hope.
“When I was first diagnosed, I thought I was going to die,” he says. “After I got to Mayo Clinic, that changed. Mayo didn’t want to accept the six-month prognosis. They gave me hope.”
That hope centered around a series of surgeries to remove the tumors in Josh’s body. Those tumors were removed in nine operations over three years, some of those operations lasting as long as 14 or 16 hours. Bradley Leibovich, M.D., a urologist and chair of the Department of Urology, and Claude Deschamps, M.D., then a thoracic and cardiac surgeon at Mayo Clinic, were Russell’s surgeons.
“They are two of the greatest guys I’ve ever met,” Josh says. “If not for those two, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Back to thinking about the future
Nearly four years after his initial diagnosis, Josh is still here — and planning for the future. That future includes marrying his fiancé, Ashley, whom Russell proposed to back in 2011. The couple postponed setting a wedding date until Russell completed treatment, and are looking forward to getting married in the fall of 2016.
There have been other milestones as well.
“I’ve finally been able to go back to work, which feels great,” says Josh, who works in residential construction. This summer he was able to ride his horses again, and plans to hunt this fall after having to sit out the past several hunting seasons.
Before having cancer, Russell didn’t think too much about working, riding and hunting. But now, the lens through which he views life has changed. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he says. “I live in the moment. I’m overjoyed that I’m still here.”
He’s grateful to the staff at Mayo Clinic for their role in his care.
“Everyone at Mayo has been great to me,” Josh says. “It’s like a second home there. Mayo Clinic means everything to us.”
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