By Susan Skog
From sci-fi-stalking, sulfur-reeking demons to hit men, mobsters, murderers and pickpockets, internationally acclaimed, award-winning author Tom Piccirilli has written some ghoulish stuff. The New York Times described one of his crime novels as “beautiful and perversely funny…a hard-boiled hallucination.”
This four-time Bram Stoker Award winner is used to peering into other people’s shadows and fictionalizing the horrors he finds there. But Piccirilli’s own horror story came to life in 2012 when he began to see disturbing shadows, blurred images and bright hallucinations — “pulsating, burning lights like flares in the rain surrounding five-car pile-ups.”
In the fall of 2012, Drs. Lars Widdel, Ann Stroh and Joshua Petit diagnosed Piccirilli with terminal brain cancer. He would have died in a month without treatment, said Widdel, a University of Colorado Health neurosurgeon.
“In his right frontal lobe, Tom had a very large tumor, the size of a tennis ball, if not slightly larger, extending very deep into the brain,” he said. “He was unfortunately diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma tumor associated with very low survival rates and very short life expectancy rates after diagnosis.”
Many doctors shy away from treating such daunting brain cancers because patients may not have long to live or they may experience problems with mobility, vision, memory and cognitive function once the tumor is removed, Widdel said.
“In Tom’s case, at risk was his ability to write,” he said.
That prospect was terrifying beyond words, said Piccirilli, who lives in Loveland with his wife, Michelle Scalise-Piccirilli, also a writer.
In a starkly realistic essay about his diagnosis, “Meeting the Black” Piccirilli wrote “when everything else runs out on me, I can always count on the writing. It’s always there. And now, it’s slipping through my fingers, too. Jesus, not that, take the rest of it, but not that. What am I if I can’t write? I’m not me. I’m not the person I’m supposed to be.”
But, amazingly, Piccirilli’s writing days haven’t gone dark. And, thanks in large part to the excellent care at Medical Center of the Rockies, he’s in remission and defying the odds.
Only three days after Piccirilli’s diagnosis in September 2012, in a five hour procedure, Widdel was able to successfully remove the massive tumor. Stroh, a UCHealth medical oncologist, then managed Piccirilli’s chemotherapy.
“At this time, Tom is in remission with no evidence of any disease recurrence,” said Stroh. “From a medical oncology standpoint, these tumors require trimodality treatment with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for the best outcome. All three of us needed to work together to determine the best treatment for Tom.”
With his passion and career on the line, Piccirilli said he wouldn’t have gone anywhere else for treatment.
“No one could have done better,” he said.
Some of that peace of mind comes as patients and their families witness the tightly woven, multidisciplinary collaboration among the neurosurgery, medical oncology and radiation oncology team members, said Petit, UCHealth’s director of radiation oncology.
Patients are informed about the hospital’s advanced radiation technology and treatment platforms, and state-of-the-art operating suites.
“But what’s especially unique about our program is the uncommonly close collaboration we have from the outset of a patient’s treatment,” Petit said. “We all made a dedicated choice to organize ourselves as a team in a manner similar to what we saw in our training at the most exceptional cancer centers in the country, and that gives patients and their families great confidence and comfort.”
And by providing this high-quality care locally, patients spend more time with their family, which is important during such a vulnerable and uncertain time, Widdel said.
Piccirilli and his wife are grateful they could be near their home, writing havens and cherished dogs. And they also are thankful for the smiles, and even humor, they’ve shared with their doctors during follow-up visits.
“I can joke with Dr. Widdel now and say things like, ‘Lars, you realize now that we’re like brothers. No one’s had their fingers in my brain before.’ That got a chuckle out of him,” Piccirilli said.
Likewise, Widdel has enjoyed reading several of Piccirilli’s books, and added, “I really enjoy seeing Tom every time, and it’s really uplifting to see how well he’s done.”
He’s done so well, Piccirilli just submitted his latest book to his publisher. It’s satisfying knowing the Piccirillis are writing rich, new chapters in their lives, Widdel said. “Guiding patients through these stages and making sure they can enjoy whatever time they have on Earth and be happiest, that is a great satisfaction to me.”
This article was written by Susan Skog, a Fort Collins writer and author.