When Tanner Randall and his family were camping in the mountains last summer, the only giveaway he was battling Stage IV colon cancer was the nutrition bag hanging from the ladder on his camper connected to a port in his chest delivering his daily meal and fluids.
Come to think of it, you wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss while he skied with his 10-year-old twin boys this winter, coached them during their flag-football season, carried out his duties as the Water Utilities Manager for the City of Loveland, or chatted with employees at the UCHealth Harmony Campus in Fort Collins where he has won over everyone he encounters with his resilience, optimism and kindness.
“Tanner would be the same guy, cancer or not,” said Dr. Michael Nosler, a gastroenterology specialist and member of his care team. “He’s such a special human – that’s just who he is. The disease notwithstanding, we’ve all been so lucky to have the chance to get to know him.”
Tanner recounts his staggering number of operations and surgical procedures without self-pity: three life-threatening events, five major surgeries, 30 additional surgical procedures, scores of chemotherapy and radiation sessions, both of which he is currently enduring, and over a year without eating solid food.
“I feel good,” said the 41-year-old Fort Collins native, who was born at the same Poudre Valley Hospital where he has spent so much time these past couple of years. “If you saw me on the street, you wouldn’t know I was sick. We’ve been through an awful lot, but even when I have tubes sticking out of my stomach, I just try to manage my expectations and enjoy the moment. It’s not the same as it was before, but I’m active and doing well, and the hospital and staff here have become like family to us.”
The “before” part of his life was prior to fall 2020, when he was 38 and enjoying life with his wife, Nikki, and their young twin boys, Hobie and Torin.
One day after coaching the boys’ flag football team, he noticed he felt bloated – a sensation that continued for weeks, along with just feeling lousy and not having much of an appetite. Physicians zeroed in on his gallbladder being the culprit, and it was removed, but serious complications, including sepsis, led to weeks in the hospital, the first of many longtime stays.
In the following months, he convalesced, but sensed something was wrong.
“Call it intuition, call it the Lord telling us something, but we knew something was going on – we had to get to the source of what was making him so sick,” Nikki said. “Tanner was young … We just never suspected cancer at that point.”
The couple, both Colorado State University civil engineering graduates, met in 2003 at work where they were young engineers. They married three years later while Tanner got his master’s degree, and their boys were born in 2012. They settled into the foothills near Fort Collins, where Tanner got a job with the city, making sure “people have safe, clean drinking water: It’s not something we should ever take for granted,” he said.
Fast forward to January 2021, several months after his gallbladder operation, when they found themselves navigating new and frightening terrain: With Tanner not getting any better, weak, unable to eat and down 50 pounds, he underwent more diagnostic tests and two back-to-back surgeries.
Then came the grim news.
A surreal moment: A cancer battle ahead
“It’s like what you see in the movies,” he said. “It’s just a surreal scene. You’re sitting there, and the doctor comes in and says, ‘We’ve found cancer.’ It was a lot to take in, even though we’d been through the previous surgeries and my illness, life just turned on its ear.”
Nikki concurs: “We thought at that point he would be on the mend…but it was just the beginning.”
Tanner was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage IV colon cancer, and during the next six months, underwent more surgery and began high-dose chemotherapy. Subsequent tests and operations showed the cancer had spread to his peritoneum and intestines, with his treatment being particularly tricky as cancer particles were “hiding” in his abdominal cavity.
Though he continued to work, coach his boys, camp in the summer and ski in the winter, by early 2022 he was unable to digest food. Tests showed the cancer had moved to his duodenum, creating an ulcer (the duodenum is the first part of the small intestine that food reaches after leaving the stomach). The ulcer caused food not to pass from his stomach to his small intestine and obstructed his liver’s bile ducts, giving him jaundice and sapping him of energy.
While his boys celebrated their 10th birthday, and shortly after he turned 40, he gave up solid foods, or as he says, “pleasure eating,” and began TPN, total parenteral nutrition, which delivers nutrients intravenously. Every evening for the past year, Tanner hooks a nutrient bag to one of the double-tap ports on his chest, the other one is for chemotherapy treatments. A drainage g-tube in his stomach allows him to drain stomach juices and other fluids from the occasional water he drinks or from treats like a popsicle that he allows himself.
“I would love to eat a cheeseburger or pizza,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen yet.”
You could call it an unfortunate twist of fate, but Tanner is no stranger to Stage IV cancer. When he was a toddler, he was diagnosed with Wilms tumor, a type of childhood cancer originating in the kidneys that his mother, who was a nurse, discovered when she was changing his diaper.
“I was not immune to doctor visits,” he noted wryly.
He lost a kidney and went through chemotherapy and radiation, which caused some long-term spinal damage showing up during his teen years. While scoliosis forced him to give up sports, he continued to work, ski, fish, camp, mountain bike and enjoy the outdoors as much as possible – activities he shares with Nikki and the boys, now 11.
His doctors theorize that Tanner’s current tumor is likely related to his childhood cancer, and his team of oncologists, radiologists, surgeons and specialists continually collaborate, pivoting and pinpointing his clinical care each time they see him.
Fighting back with a strong medical team
“We’re trying to figure out how to adapt what we can do to make him feel better,” said Nosler, his gastroenterologist. “We just respond to whatever his tumor is doing, and the good news is that it’s doing it in slow motion.”
A members of Tanner’s UCHealth oncology team agreed, and said she is pleased he is still responding well to the same chemotherapy drug.
“He’s been able to use just one chemo regimen for two years, which isn’t always the case,” said Caroline Young, oncology physician assistant. “We have other regimens available to us when the cancer finds a way around this one.
“Meanwhile, he is just the nicest person,” she said. “So grateful, so kind, so very real. He has such a great attitude, and he just is intent on living and enjoying life. He just does not let it get him down. He’s very clearly living with cancer, but he’s not letting it be the main thing. A big thing, yes, but not THE defining thing.”
Tanner is currently undergoing simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the tumor on his duodenum. He’s hoping to take a break from his nonstop doctor appointments and arduous medical regime, akin to a second job, he jokes, by the summer to give his body some “downtime.”
His wish list is not long or extravagant: eating a meal, hanging out with family and friends, and tossing around a football with his boys.
It is only when he talks about them that he allows himself to become emotional, knowing they, too, have been affected by his diagnosis.
“We try to keep things as normal as we can, though they know the big picture, that dad has cancer. They’ve been incredibly resilient and very supportive,” he said.
Looking past his cancer diagnosis
Nikki said the boys recently got their dad a present: a dry suit they hope he can wear when they take their boat out on nearby Horsetooth Reservoir. Tanner hasn’t been able to join them in the water the past few summers because of his ports, drains and tubes; instead, watching them from the deck while they jump in and swim around. But “maybe,” he says with hope in his voice.
Though he tends to be a guy who worries about the future, he is balanced by Nikki’s outlook, which is more of a “let’s think of today and take care of the business at hand” type of person.
“Overall, we’ve been really blessed,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish any of this on anyone, but God has been faithful to us. It’s caused us to have meaningful conversations with family and friends, and so many people have been there for us. Part of this is trying to find the silver lining every day … that’s just part of my journey.”