When Zac Casey was diagnosed with cancer at age 36, it started a three-year journey that has included radiation, chemotherapy, and multiple surgeries.

Zac is grateful that he found a team of leading academic oncologists at Regional One Health Cancer Care who helped him through that journey with expertise and humanity.

It has allowed Zac, a professor at Rhodes College, to continue a busy, active life marked by his passion for teaching and the joy of raising his young family.

Zac Casey lives life in the future tense.

As a dad, the future is in the joy and chaos of raising a 4-year-old and 2-year-old. As a professor of education at Rhodes College, it surrounds him every time students fill his classroom. And as a cancer survivor at age 39, it is something to be cherished.

He’s grateful to Regional One Health Cancer Care for the opportunity to do so.

“I’m a teacher – I love young people because they’re future tense,” Zac said. “That’s an ethos of mine that I bring with me even outside of the classroom. I am truly happy to be here…to still be here. Cancer reinforces how precious and precarious life is and to do good while you can.”

Zac started feeling sick in the late spring of 2021.

He noticed blood in his stool, so he called his primary care provider. A stool sample and blood test didn’t raise red flags, so his provider suggested diet modifications.

As a college professor and father two two young kids, Zac Casey likes to live life in the future tense. Regional One Health Cancer Care helped him continue to do so through treatment that combined expertise and humanity.

“By August, it was getting worse,” Zac said. “I was getting more and more tired. I was trying to find excuses to take a nap, which is very out of character for me.”

Zac was only 36 at the time, years away from his first recommended colonoscopy at age 45. But due to his symptoms, his provider recommended the exam.

“I remember being quasi-delirious waking up, and the doctor looking very grim,” Zac said. “He told me I had a tumor about the size of a pint can, and there was almost no way it wasn’t cancer. The biopsy confirmed it was cancer, and that kicked everything into high gear treatment-wise.”

Zac was first referred to surgical oncologist David Shibata, MD, FACS, FASCRS. Dr. Shibata, Executive Director at Regional One Health Cancer Care and Chair of University of Tennessee Health Science Center Department of Surgery, is a renowned leader in treating colorectal cancer.

For Zac, that was comforting: “I’m an academic, so I looked him up on Google Scholar – I’m a nerd that way! He had a great record in terms of scholarship, so I had good confidence going in.”

His sense of being in the right place was quickly confirmed.

Zac endured several surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. After a procedure to remove a spot on his liver this May, he was declared cancer-free.

When CT and PET scans also showed a spot on Zac’s liver, he learned he wouldn’t have to go far to find a liver specialist who shared Dr. Shibata’s level of expertise. Surgical oncologist and UTHSC associate professor of surgery Evan Glazer, MD, PhD, FACS, FSSO, one of the nation’s top experts in liver cancers, was right down the hall.

Dr. Shibata and Dr. Glazer are both fellowship-trained surgical oncologists who specialize in the cancers they treat. They participate in national panels that establish the guidelines for care, which means they can provide the most advanced treatment approaches.

They worked together to lead a multidisciplinary team to provide the care Zac needed, which Dr. Glazer said is essential for patients like Zac who require complex treatment.

“The benefit of having everyone in one place is that as issues come up, we’re prepared. We can anticipate the challenges that can occur, and we’re ready to address them,” Dr. Glazer said.

“Throughout his treatment, different people were the quarterback at different times depending on what he needed. Because we’re all on the same team trying to achieve the best outcome, we were able to handle what was most important at the time and provide care that was safe, efficient, and the best option for improving his health.”

Zac first had radiation and chemotherapy, then underwent a lower anterior resection, with Dr. Shibata performing a rectal resection and Dr. Glazer performing a liver resection.

“For most people, that last bit of intestine is around 8-12 inches. Mine is now half an inch,” Zac said. “It’s the smallest possible amount they could leave so I wouldn’t be on a permanent ostomy bag. That was my line in the sand.”

Surgical oncologist Dr. Evan Glazer said Regional One Health Cancer Care is able to deliver the most effective, advanced treatment based on each patient’s unique needs and goals: “We work with the patient and family to accomplish the goals they want to achieve.”

Unfortunately, scans later showed new tumors between his liver and intestine, on his liver, and on his prostate. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

Dr. Glazer said when cancer metastasizes, or spreads, many people think chemotherapy is the only option. However, an advanced practice like Regional One Health Cancer Care can provide a more detailed, expert review of the patient’s diagnosis and factors including their overall health and personal goals for treatment. That, along with the hospital’s top experts and world-class resources, can lead to additional treatment options that aren’t available everywhere.

“We work with the patient and family to accomplish the goals they want to achieve,” Dr. Glazer said, noting in Zac’s case that includes raising his kids and continuing to teach.

“Even when there is cancer in several places, it can be possible to address the disease surgically. Zac is young and active, so we determined we could safely use surgery to remove disease at the right time in terms of balancing chemotherapy and radiation treatments,” he added. “The expertise our physicians have in the disease sites we treat helps us recognize when benefits of a surgical approach outweigh the risks. That’s where expertise and multidisciplinary care come into play to really benefit the patient. No one can predict the future, but each patient deserves the best strategy we can offer them.”

After Dr. Glazer performed another surgery in May, an ultrasound showed no cancer on Zac’s liver and a lymph node biopsy was negative – meaning Zac has achieved cancer-free status. The whole team’s focus now turns to surveillance, with scans and bloodwork every few months.

And for Zac, the focus turns to getting back to normal.

Zac recently spoke at Regional One Health’s inaugural Cancer Survivors Event, and looks forward to enjoying his young family and continuing to help develop future educators as a professor at Rhodes College.

“My hair is back; it’s growing in with a new texture. My energy is coming back, and I’m not in pain,” Zac said. “I’m feeling good.”

And it’s a good thing: throughout what he calls “a wild few years,” life never slowed down.

Professionally, he maintained his work as a tenured professor. He was published three times, and never stopped teaching: “The classroom is home,” Zac says. “I didn’t want to leave.”

Personally, he worked hard to be a present partner to his wife, and the couple spent time with their daughter and welcomed a son: “It was this joyous thing during this miserable struggle,” Zac said. “And his astrological sign is cancer…of course!”

It seems the future, where Zac likes to exist, keeps right on happening.

Through his journey from diagnosis to treatment to earning the title of cancer survivor, his Regional One Health Cancer Care team was by his side, providing expertise along with something equally important – humanity.

Zac takes comfort in knowing that while each aspect of treatment is new to him, it’s something his physicians do all the time. He thinks about the open, honest conversations he had with his doctors, along with the lighter moments, like Dr. Shibata nicknaming him “professor” and Dr. Glazer always asking about his kids and work.

“It’s been a very human relationship,” Zac said. “So much of this is alienating and dehumanizing with this cacophony of people around you, but they do a good job of helping you stay human.”

Learn more about Regional One Health Cancer Care at regionalonehealth.org/cancer-care/. For appointments, call 901-515-HOPE (4673).