Sterling Randolph: Military Man, Family Man and Now Stage 3 Colon Cancer Survivor

I felt my spirits lifting as we conquered the challenge in front of us.
‐Sterling Randolph

Sitting in my car on the side of the road, it was like time had stopped. All I could think about was my family. What would they do without me?

My diagnosis of colon cancer came with little notice. I was recovering from knee surgery in 2010 when my doctor asked how everything was going and I thought to mention that I had noticed a little blood in my stool.

My primary care physician immediately suggested that I get a colonoscopy. While I didn’t have a family history of colon cancer and was only 43 years old, blood in my stool was a symptom that needed to be addressed. It was six months before I could get an appointment. I didn’t realize there were so many people having colonoscopies. When I finally went in for the procedure, the doctors discovered a larger than normal polyp, and sent it for testing.

Four days later, I was driving when my doctor called me and told me I should pull over. As I listened to him explain that the pathology results were abnormal and that I would need surgery right away, my mind flashed to my wife, Bridgette, and young daughter, Jasmine.

Sterling Randolf in his military uniform
Sterling Randolf in his military uniform

What would they do without me?

Finding a second opinion

A month later, I underwent a colon resection at a local hospital. Surgeons removed nine inches of my colon. I found out that my colon cancer was Stage 3, meaning the tumor had spread to nearby tissue, possibly including my lymph nodes. I would need chemotherapy. Realizing I had never sought a second opinion, I started doing some research and found Fox Chase Cancer Center.

At Fox Chase, I met with Crystal Denlinger, my medical oncologist, who oversaw my six-month course of chemotherapy.

 At just 43 years old, and in active duty in the Air Force, Sterling Randolph was shocked when he was told he had Stage 3 colon cancer.

One of the side effects of the medication was that I couldn’t tolerate anything that was cold. While my doctors had explained the side effects to me, I had forgotten that particular one until I ordered a root beer at a restaurant. As soon as I took a swig from the straw, I grabbed my throat. It was like swallowing glass. After that, I learned my lesson and made sure to heat up my drinks before I took a sip. The microwave became my best friend during those months of treatment.

After concluding my treatment, I was declared cancer-free and I was able to resume my life. While my family and I live in Quakertown, as part of my career in the military, I was enrolled in school down in Mississippi. It was important to me that I continued my care at Fox Chase, so I flew home when I needed my quarterly scans and check-up. The travel proved to be worth it when at the end of 2011, a routine scan revealed there was a spot on my liver.

An unexpected set back

Despite feeling a little beat up from the chemotherapy, I was feeling healthy, so the news of a recurrence took me by surprise. I was only two months from graduation and wanted to push through but after talking to my doctors, I decided to come home and have surgery once more. Though I had to leave school, I was able to finish through waivers and testing.

After surgery, I needed another six months of chemotherapy. This time, in addition to not being able to tolerate the cold, my hands felt like I was squeezing a pin cushion. After speaking with my team about the side effects I was experiencing, we decided that we could switch medications. That came with another set of side effects, nausea in particular. My medical team was able to adjust and offset it with an anti-emetic. We worked together through my treatment to make sure I remained as comfortable as possible. There was never a time when I didn’t feel supported.

Aside from the side effects, my greatest challenge was not being able to channel my frustrations and energy into physical activity. In addition to having a passion for singing, I love being physically active. I love to ride my bike, and not being able to be physically active was so hard for me. So, I made it a goal to get strong enough to get back to enjoying those activities.

Riding to give back

After I finished treatment, I joined up with the Ride to Conquer Cancer and biked in the 150-mile ride. As I was riding, I was struck by how similar the ride was to my cancer journey. I had my support team and lots of people around me, but during some stretches of time, it was just me. It brought me back to those moments when it was just me in my basement, trying to get through certain moments and picking myself back up.

On the third leg of the ride, I came across two fellow cyclists and discovered one was also a cancer survivor. We became a team. It was an inspiring moment because we were able to lean on each other and build off each other’s energy. I felt my spirits lifting as we conquered the challenge in front of us.

I’ve also had the opportunity to follow another passion of mine: singing. I’ve been singing since junior high, when I learned I could get out of class to join the choir. I sing with a chamber choir called Singing City, and our goal is to bring the world together through music rather than violence. In 2014, I was invited to sing the national anthem at Lincoln Financial Field at a Philadelphia Eagles training day. It was my first time singing in an arena that large and it was the longest few minutes of my life.

As I began to regain the life I had before cancer, I found myself at a crossroads. Cancer had interrupted my military career. At one of my follow-up appointments, I mentioned to Dr. Denlinger that I might be at a career-ending point in my life because of the disease. I was on active duty at the time of my second diagnosis and needed to pass a medical evaluation to determine if I was physically fit enough to fight.

Dr. Denlinger said to me “cancer is not a career-ending thing” and reminded me that the surgeries and chemotherapy treatments had removed the cancer. When she found out I might be medically discharged, she went to bat for me, so I could continue my military career. Having that support from my doctor was tremendous.

Now, at the age of 50, I’ve been cancer-free for almost five years and have continued to serve in the military. I will deploy later this year to an area of the world I haven’t been stationed in before and I will be there for six months. I will miss my daughter and wife fiercely but being able to do my job and protect my country means everything to me. Thanks to my team at Fox Chase, I have that opportunity.

Learn more about the Colorectal Cancer Program at Fox Chase.