To be in cancer survivor Tommy Holl “The Real Elf’s” ebullient and downright hilarious presence, you would never suspect he once struggled with the reality of getting his left pinky finger amputated as treatment for epithelioid sarcoma.
Tommy’s experience with cancer compelled him to spread joy and happiness as The Real Elf starting in 2014. He travels around Chicagoland, appearing at events and also performing Random Acts of Christmas. The Real Elf even appeared as a cast member on the family-friendly reality television series, Santas in the Barn, in December, 2015.
But holiday cheer was the furtherst thing from his mind back when Tommy was diagnosed in 2013 at 30 years old, “My doctor told me radiation would burn my finger off and chemo would be too aggressive, so amputation was really the only treatment option. When my doctor gave me the news, it felt like he had punched me in the stomach. You cannot prepare for that,” Tommy says.
For about 12 years, Tommy dismissed the small bump on the end of his left pinky finger as a harmless abnormality. However, when his mother noticed it, she asked his cousin – a physician’s assistant – to look at it. Tommy’s cousin concluded that it had the characteristics of a benign growth, but Tommy still made the decision to get the bump removed.
During his second follow up appointment after the surgery, Tommy’s doctor revealed that a biopsy of the bump determined that it was epithelioid sarcoma – and that while they had removed the malignancy, the finger could still be harboring positive cells.
Epithelioid sarcoma is a rare soft tissue sarcoma most commonly diagnosed in young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 involving the upper extremities about 60 percent of the time. The disease typically metastasizes, but in Tommy’s case, it had not.
A friend of Tommy’s told him about Imerman Angels and Tommy registered for a Mentor Angel the night after the appointment during which he received the amputation news.
“I wanted to be proactive. A Cancer Support Specialist reached out to me the very next morning,” Tommy says.
Tommy had the opportunity to speak with his Mentor Angel, Rynell Cook, prior to his surgery. He even text messaged her on the day of the surgery. She was one of the few people at the time who knew Tommy had cancer.
At the beginning of November, 2013, Tommy had surgery to remove part of his pinky finger as well as a lymph node. He also did occupational therapy for about two months following the surgery.
“Getting part of your pinky finger amputated may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it was to me. I was in mourning for the loss of that part of myself,” Tommy says.
Fortunately, Tommy had his Mentor Angel for support. Since Tommy lives in Illinois and Rynell resides in California, the pair kept in touch via phone calls, text messages and emails.
“It was encouraging for me to see that she was happy, doing well and had even done interviews to spread awareness. There was a positive end to her story. Plus, since she had been through it, she could understand what I was feeling,” Tommy says.
Tommy found out he had no evidence of disease in late November, 2013. However, he still keeps in touch with Rynell.
“Having a Mentor Angel is invaluable. Rynell is happy and thriving after going through the same process 15 years ago, which gave me hope. She was able to guide me away from fear and answer my questions, and she showed me that I was not alone. We could laugh and cry together. It was such a blessing to have a free resource as well, because the financial aspect of cancer can be intimidating,” Tommy says.
He also refers people to Imerman Angels whenever possible. Driven by his passion for the resource offered by Imerman Angels, Tommy has been a steadfast advocate for the organization. He even attended the 2017 Imerman Angels holiday party as The Real Elf, happily taking “elfies” with attendees!
“I feel that I have a real connection with Imerman Angels. I think its services are incredible and I want to tell the world about it. I don’t know of any other organization like this,” Tommy says.