Wife unites the community with t-shirts to surprise husband battling Liposarcoma before his surgery

Pictured: Erin and her four children

Simply put, the word “tribe” can be described as a group of people that share a common quality, whether it’s a belief, custom, or interest. This group can be a large family, adopted strangers, or a community that unites to give back to their neighbor. That’s exactly where the idea for #TomsTribe sparked — out of pure love and endless support shown by those close to Tom, near and far.

You might be wondering how Tom got so lucky. How did he weasel his way into getting hundreds of people to wear #TomsTribe t-shirts? Well, thanks to his dedicated and incredible wife, Erin, hundreds rallied together in support of his upcoming operation. Although the word luck is a far stretch, the undeniable amount of support is alive and well.

It all started after Tom and Erin made a life-changing trip to the emergency room in March of 2017. Tom was in Madison to take his eldest son to his high school basketball tournament. Shortly after the trip, he experienced some stomach cramping but assumed he caught something from one of the other children, who felt ill as well. After agonizing pain that lasted nearly a week, the pair was convinced it was either a bug or appendicitis. They were stunned when they heard Tom’s diagnosis…

Retroperitoneal liposarcoma.

After a series of tests, a CT scan revealed that his pain was due to a large tumor in his abdomen. Retroperitoneal liposarcoma is a rare type of Sarcoma and affects merely 1% of all adults that are diagnosed with cancer. Surprisingly, it is more prevalent in children — ranging up to 20% of all childhood cancers. Sarcoma develops in connective tissues, like bone, muscle, and soft tissue. This tissue includes fat, blood vessels, and deep skin tissues. That being said, these Sarcoma tumors can arise anywhere. Tom and Erin are thankful to the doctors who took the time to give Tom a thorough investigation of his symptoms.

“After Tom’s diagnosis, we were faced with the reality that Tom’s cancer is very rare,” Erin shared, “there aren’t the resources, funding, treatment options or facilities readily available compared to other more common cancers or diseases.” Erin spent countless hours on the internet attempting to find information, experts, and support. That’s when she stumbled upon two foundations — the Sarcoma Alliance and the Sarcoma Foundation of America. These two incredible nonprofits specialize in the uncommon disease, so they became essential in determining treatment for Tom and overall patient care advice. In addition to the new and advanced medical opportunities they provide, they also offer more suitable financial reimbursement options.

Between Erin’s curiosity in these organizations and enthusiasm to advocate for Tom, she wanted to raise awareness and give back to both of them. Her ability to take on this unexpected obstacle and her eagerness to do something more is what drove her to seek out Ink to the People.

“Organizing a fundraiser to raise awareness about the disease that had just flipped our world upside down gave me some control back.” — Erin Hoffman

That’s when Erin created a t-shirt fundraising campaign. All of the products displayed “Tom’s Tribe” in bold lettering with #StrongerThanSarcoma just below that. The 12 items in the campaign were a variety of grey apparel suitable for anyone — ladies, men, and children. Erin relaunched the campaign three times based off of popular demand. As a result, she was able to raise over $3,500 for both of the organizations that helped her and her family through this process. But that’s not all — she was able to uplift Tom’s spirit prior to his intensive surgery.

“When our community learned of Tom’s illness, our friends and family sprang into action,” Erin said. The amount of compassion and eagerness their community offered was not only appreciated but came as no surprise. The duo are both prominent members and parents of their community. The father of four served on the school board for the past three years, coaches for his kids sports teams, and volunteers to go on field trips. When he’s not actively with his children, he’s busy co-owning his family business. Meanwhile, Erin is a full-time mom. Prior to raising her four children, she was a first-grade teacher. Like Tom, she is active in her kids’ school and volunteers regularly in the community. So to say the least…the dynamic pair are superhero parents.

In an effort to show Tom how the community is supporting him, Erin used her outreach to unite neighbors and loved ones from near and far to purchase a t-shirt. The best part? It was a secret. She planned for everyone to send photos and post on social media the day before his surgery in order to show Tom how hard they were rooting for him.

This was a fraction of the result.

Photos were taken via Facebook from the hashtag #TomsTribe

We reached out to Erin to ask a few questions following Tom’s surgery. Here’s what she had to say…

What does the t-shirt message, #TomsTribe, mean to you?

We are so, so fortunate to have an enormous support network. Tom’s Tribe is “our people” — friends and family who are selfless, generous, kind, and compassionate humans. (See my #TomsTribe Facebook or Instagram post describing our tribe in more detail). The hashtag use was two-fold. I wanted people to be able to search all of the posts done in Tom’s honor as well as raise awareness with #StrongerThanSarcoma. Also, Tom thinks hashtags are really annoying so it was done as a little inside joke.

What did you like most about this t-shirt fundraising campaign?

First off, what an amazingly supportive, honest company! Ink to the People made the entire campaign a piece of cake from start to finish. I am thoroughly impressed with the genuine concern shown for Tom by the people at Ink. Also, love that this is a local company for us.

Second, I love that there is a practical, tangible product involved. Every person who made a purchase receives something in return — a cool shirt that keeps the message current each time it is worn.

What are the next steps in Tom’s treatment process?

Here is the update that I sent out to friends and family about his surgery outcome and what we can expect in the future:

Tom’s surgery went well and without complications, but there were a few unexpected finds. Some additional smaller tumors were found beyond the big tumor that couldn’t be seen from the scans. These lesions were found in the same general area and were removed. They were able to get out everything they could see. Additionally, they had to remove part of his small intestine and his gall bladder. Gall bladder was removed because potential future treatments can cause stones (no cancer found there).

They now categorize this as a “multi-focal” disease due to the additional lesions. Because of this, the surgeon thinks the chance of a recurrence is high. Although not the ideal statistics we were hoping for, Tom was prepared for this. But the idea is that he can live a really normal life and hopefully go a long time in between treatments. He will be monitored so closely that they can stay ahead of it. We won’t know pathology of the new found lesions for about a week. Definitely Liposarcoma — just don’t know grade/stage of it. To the naked eye, his organs look clear though!

Update: Tom’s pathology report came back today. The additional lesions found are NOT cancerous. Great news as this reduces the risk of the cancer recurrence!

What drove Erin to create this fundraiser is her devotion to her husband and commitment to the community. She successfully raised over $3,500 and her giving spirit does not go unnoticed by all of us here at Ink. We’re honored to have been a small part of #TomsTribe and are thrilled to hear his post surgery report went well.

For more information about where the funds were donated to, please visit the Sarcoma Alliance and the Sarcoma Foundation of America.