When Tony Beemer talks about his fight with cancer, he has to stop at times to collect himself. Yet, if he sheds tears, they are most often tears of gratitude: for his doctors, nurses, neighbors, friends and family.
“If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be here,” he said of each in turn.
And then there is his fiancée, Bonnie Followell. When he talks about her, the emotions are mostly smiles.
“She has been my mainstay,” he said.
Story continues below gallery
Beemer spent last Thanksgiving with Followell’s family. At the time, he was still going every three weeks for “maintenance” chemotherapy.
“We were getting ready to say the prayer, and one of Bonnie’s nieces, Jennifer, she starts to talk,” Beemer said.
She brought up “hope,” then talked about the various struggles members of the family had been through, from surgery to cancer; Followell’s sister-in-law is dealing with cancer as well, Beemer said.
“She said, ‘Now, let’s get back to hope,’ and she looks over at me, and she said, ‘I’m gonna introduce you to hope,’ and she points at me,” Beemer said.
“She said, ‘He should not be here, but with his attitude, and the people that we have behind him, he’s still here,’” he said.
‘A long struggle’
In 2010, Beemer was diagnosed with prostate cancer.“It was a very scary situation at that point, ’cause I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “And I beat it. I did 52 radiation treatments; and since the last of December of 2010, I’ve been clean with prostate cancer.”
Then, in July 2013, Family Nurse Practitioner Dr. Tania Frederick sent him for a CT scan due to digestion problems. The scan found a small spot on the back of his left lung, which Frederick decided to keep an eye on.
In February 2014, Beemer went back for the follow-up scan.
“There was three spots on the back of my left lung; the one was the size of about a nickel, so it had really grown quite a bit,” Beemer said.
In March, Frederick sent him to pulmonologist Dr. Eric Trueblood with Internal Medicine Associates in Bloomington. He ordered a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
“He said, ‘Tony, you lit the scan up pretty good,’” Beemer said.
The next week, he was sitting in front of a surgeon, Dr. Ulfur T. Gudjonsson, at the Olcott Center at Indiana University Health, Bloomington.
“He said, ‘I can’t make any promises.’ I said, ‘I don’t want any promises; I just want the best that you can do,’” Beemer said.
A smoker for 53 years, Beemer already was dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. Gudjonsson told him removing a lobe of his lung could make breathing difficult.
Gudjonsson scheduled Beemer for surgery March 21, a week after their first meeting, and instructed him to not smoke the day before.
On March 19, he had his last cigarette and hasn’t touched one since, Beemer said.
The surgery went well.
“They were able to remove the three spots off the back of the lung and got into good tissue,” he said.
Yet, a tissue sample from the pleural lining showed Stage 4 cancer.
“It is controllable,” Beemer said. “It’s not curable.”
After surgery, Beemer was back at Internal Medicine Associates, where oncologist Dr. David Joyce oversaw his treatment.
The first two sessions of chemotherapy lasted four hours each. The next seven lasted 5½ hours each.
“I was down probably 10, 15 days after I had my chemo,” he said. “I laid here in this recliner. I would sleep probably 18 hours out of the day, get up, go to the bathroom, eat.”
That was a difficult change for a man who had worked six days a week at the flooring business he owned — often from 7 a.m. to midnight — for 45 years.
After the initial chemotherapy, Joyce put him on “maintenance” chemotherapy. Those sessions every three weeks, with blood work, lasted 60 to 90 minutes each.
This past summer, his doctors ordered another scan after he began to have stomach problems, Beemer said. They were concerned it could be related to the chemotherapy.
It turned out he had diverticulitis, but there was also good news.
Two years after he was sent for the first CT scan that showed a spot on his lung, there was no sign of cancer.
In October, he will go back for another scan. He will see Joyce on Nov. 4.
“And hopefully — well, I don’t say hopefully — I’m just gonna say, when he tells me I’m clean, then I’ll go another four months before I’ll have to have another type of scan done,” Beemer said.
From there, he will go every four months, then every six. “And then maybe we’ll get to a year,” he said.
“It’s been a long struggle. But you know what? It’s worth it. And people need to stand up and fight this cancer,” Beemer said.
With a little help
Beemer can count his blessings name by name.“My daughter (Sunne Richards) was there the first time we saw Dr. Joyce, and he spent almost two hours with us,” Beemer said.
He was grateful for the time taken to explain everything.
“He answers questions in terms that you and I can understand, not medical terms. He breaks it all down for you,” Beemer said.
For each of his doctors, and even his nurses who administered the chemotherapy in the infusion area at Internal Medicine Associates, Beemer has a word of gratitude.
“My girls — I called them my girls, in the infusion room — are — they kept me alive,” Beemer said. “They always had a smile on their face; they always had a good word for you.”
His neighbor, Ramona Davis, a fellow cancer survivor, gave him an ear when he needed it most.
“She knew what I was going through,” he said. “We talked, because you can’t explain how you feel to someone that hasn’t gone through it.”
Many of his friends put him on the prayer lists at their churches, he said.
After his recovery, one of them, Tammy Hatchett, asked him to come with her to Nashville Christian Church one Sunday.
“She said, ‘I want people to see what a prayer list will do for you,” he said.
“She introduced me to people, and it was like I’d been there all my life,” Beemer said. “They’d all said prayers for me. And, it helps. It really works.”
Beemer said he doesn’t attend a church of his own but worships in his own way at home.
“You can do it wherever you feel comfortable at, and this is where I feel comfortable at,” he said. “And I talk to him a lot.”
Beemer talks about many friends from around his neighborhood: They brought homemade soup, cut the grass, did chores and cleaned the snow from the driveway after the plow had piled it too high for him and Followell to get out.
Beemer began to tear up as he listed all the things people had done for him.
“You don’t find people like that,” he said.
“I have my bad days. I have more good days than I have bad, but I don’t let the bad days get me down,” Beemer said. “Cancer never leaves your mind once you have it.“It can really get to you, and I’m not gonna let it,” he said. “Down the road, it may get me. But right now, I’m not gonna let it get me.
“I’m gonna keep fighting it. And God willing, and people behind me, and my own attitude, I will whip it, for a good period,” he said.
“A positive attitude is one of your main healing processes, that’s the way I feel about it,” Beemer said. “I’m gonna be above it, because I’m gonna beat it.”
Early in his treatment, Joyce told Beemer that chemotherapy may give him another two years.
“After he got through poking and prodding on me — you know how they push — I come up off the bed and I put my finger right in his nose. I said, ‘I want five,’” Beemer said.
Joyce told him that all he could base his estimates from were the statistics he had at hand.
“He said, ‘But with your attitude, you may get five, you may get 10. I can’t tell you,’” Beemer said.
After his surgery at the Olcott Center, a social worker came to talk to Beemer about cancer.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna beat this one again,’” he said.
The social worker was surprised, and Beemer told her about his bout with prostate cancer.
“‘I’m not gonna give up,’ I said. ‘I wanna live. I wanna see my grandson play football,’” Beemer said. “I told her, ‘I’ve got too many people out there to aggravate. I wanna be there to torment and aggravate some people for a while. I’m not gonna go anywhere.’”
As he got some energy back, Beemer tried to stay busy. He joined Silver Sneakers, an exercise group at the YMCA. Even during the earliest periods of treatment, he would walk around Nashville and visit shop owners he knows.
“You’ve gotta keep your strength, you’ve got to keep your mindset,” he said.
Along with keeping a healthy appetite for life, Beemer said, he kept a healthy appetite in general. With the help of steroids, he kept eating enough that Followell would tease him about not being able to leave the kitchen.
“I would eat, and 30 minutes later, I’m in there looking for something to snack on,” he said.
More than four years ago, Beemer was dancing at the Brown County Inn when he met Followell for the first time.“He got a little snookered and came over and sat on my lap,” Followell said.
They were both divorced — Beemer for 16 years and Followell for nine.
“Neither one of us was really looking,” Beemer said.
“Wasn’t really looking for anybody, and it just happened.”
Four years later, in the midst of his chemotherapy treatment, Beemer and Followell were still dancing.
“I was doing chemo and went dancing at Chateau Thomas Winery — didn’t drink nothing,” he said. “But they had a guy there, Gary Applegate, that Bonnie loves to hear his music, and I love to hear his music.”
“I mean, I’m not gonna sit at home,” he said. “I’m not gonna be a couch potato.”
When Beemer was at the hospital getting chemotherapy or at doctor’s appointments or simply dealing with the everyday struggles, Followell was there, he said.
“If she couldn’t go for some reason, her sister Angie (Followell) always went with me, and if Bonnie couldn’t be there for a doctor’s appointment, Angie was with me,” he said.
Followell’s family also visited him after surgery and supported him throughout his treatments, Beemer said.
“They have stood behind me from day one,” he said.
At the end of Thanksgiving dinner last year, after Followell’s niece had named Beemer as “hope,” and after conversation had settled down, he took a moment for his own thanks, he said.
Beemer thanked them for all they had done. Then — though he tries not to embarrass Followell — he took a moment to turn the spotlight on her.
“I told them all sitting right there at the table, I said, ‘Without this lady right here, I wouldn’t be here,’” he said.
Sitting in his living room, Beemer reiterated that gratitude.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her, I really don’t — and she knows it, and she gets a little, little teary-eyed sometimes if I tell her that,” he said.
“Family and friends can help you get through anything you need to get through as long as you talk to them.”
Name: Tony Beemer
Home: Brown County
Family: Fiancee, Bonnie Followell; daughter, Sunne Richards
Cancer type: Prostate and lung