Navigating the familiar strokes of college years, Tom focused on being active, training for a triathlon. What he didn’t expect was a "shin splint" turned fever turned diagnosis. But, through adversity, Tom prevailed—and he’s only getting stronger.
I first met Tom (Thomas) Santos in a RUNNR store. In the 6-foot-tall region, Tom has a towering presence (then again, I’m pretty short) but has a warm demeanor—an engaging smile, a gentle voice with a slight rasp, and, as I’d learn, an incredible story to tell. At 21 years of age, Tom is by most metrics a young man figuring out his place under the sun, a self-professed geek for films, anime, and comic books, as well as a student currently focused on development studies.
Juggling his interests and studies, Tom also finds the time to train—as anyone following his Instagram account (@thomas.the.santos) would know. Followers are used to seeing pictures, reels, and clips of runs, swims, and bikes; shots of new gear; and uplifting messages that focus on gradual but constant improvement. With his signature blend of well-angled shots and white digital doodles, Tom has created a daily inspiration fix for his online community.
But behind all the editing and online storytelling, lies an individual struggling through adversity.
His trial began on March 29, 2022.
"[That] was the day that they said that I [had] acute myeloid leukemia," says Tom.
This was the conclusion reached after a week of intense lab work. "[The testing] ranged from blood tests, urine tests, MRIs, CT scans, and then the penultimate test: a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy," recalls Tom.
While Tom gets into the thick of it in his debut Youtube post, we learn that prior to his diagnosis, he was already training to compete in a triathlon. Out of the blue, he felt a sudden jolt of shin splits—or so it seems—in his left leg. Remembering the pain, Tom recalls, "[it was a] throbbing and sometimes sharp pain that would spread to my calves and then later my femur."
Taking a few days off to rest, Tom relaxed with what he thought was just overtraining—probably a strain. But then came a fever. It was a 2-3-week on-and-off sort of thing, frightening in any case but frustrating too when you have a schedule as busy as Tom’s. "I remember doing oral exams while having a 38-degree fever," says Tom. "I couldn't even think properly, and I looked so sick."
Treatment began right off the bat.
"March 31 was the day I got into the hospital, and [I] immediately started chemotherapy on April 1." So began Tom’s 22-day stay in the hospital—shorter than his doctor’s estimate of a month and a half. "Looking back," Tom reflects, "it feels like a blip in my life filled with pain and suffering." He describes the feeling of being under chemo treatment as a perpetual hangover. "All I could feel was nauseous, and all I could do was puke," he says.
Behind the medical struggle and immense discomfort, Tom’s support system was hard at work too. "My mother was the best," says Tom. "She stood by me from start to finish. My dad picked up blood for transfusion and then medication." He also handled all sorts of logistics. Tom’s grandmother and girlfriend would cook and bring him nutritious food.
Looking back on his time in the hospital, Tom finds a well of gratitude for his uncle, the medical team, and the nurses, who, he recalls, "were always smiling and enthusiastic about their hard jobs, working for so many hours." They mentally helped him push through.
Following his hospital stay, Tom took a 21-day break from the world. "I was just stuck in my room because my immune system was compromised, and I couldn't risk getting an infection." After this home quarantine period, Tom would head back to the hospital for another 5 to 7 days for rounds of chemotherapy, followed by the occasional blood transfusion.
And while this entire experience sounds incredibly stressful and difficult, Tom approaches the situation with the same positivity that shines through his online presence. He reflects on his treatment: "I think it was the best thing that happened to me, for I learned a really important lesson: that you don't have to be close to death in order to live."
And now Tom is back to training.
As you’d expect, getting back into sports was uncomfortable. "It felt weird," says Tom. "I knew that it would be sh**ty because I lost every ounce of hardship that I built up over the years before. I already knew that I should take it slow." He learned to trust the process and to focus on gradually but constantly improving. "[I started with] a simple 1 minute on and 1 minute off [run] 10 times, and that was it. That slowly turned into a 3K, then a 5K, then a 10K, then a pursuit for a half marathon." Last time I arrived at 1C Coffee for an EZRC run, Tom was already running around the block, getting extra kilometers in—and I believe he biked there from Marikina.
He’s the sort of character that’s easy to root for—and challenge. "I love the feeling of running under 5 minutes per km," says Tom, "and I really want to be able to sustain that for longer periods of time." Aware of this, EZRC co-founder Dean Ellison challenged Tom to a sub-50-minute 10K run, while fellow EZRC co-founder Miguel Aldeguer functions as Tom’s coach. On this community aspect of running, Tom says, "I am really thankful that I was introduced to the RUNNR community and [that I’m] now part of EZ Run Club, because that is a place where I feel cared for."
Recently, Tom’s doctor asked that he refrain from pushing himself as there remains a chance of recurrence in the next two years. "I was supposed to push myself to the limit and train for an Ironman 70.3, which is actually a bucket list race of mine," says Tom, "but I was highly advised not to until further notice."
"For the next two to three years, I would really be wanting to focus on not getting my cancer back first and foremost, but also making my body and mind strong enough to withstand any adversity that may come my way."
As I said, he’s a man who’s willing to fight.
On people that inspire him, Tom mentions Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie. As a 10-year fan, he’s seen PewDiePie mature, going from goofy and controversial to healthy and wise—"a person of principle," in Tom’s words.
But one could argue that Tom himself, after all he's been through, is an inspiration. A person of principle.
Even as an external force has come into his life—a what-if turned reality—and derailed his plans, he has held himself accountable for picking himself up and dusting himself off. "No matter who you cling to and who you ask [for] help, it is you and only you who take responsibility [for] the adversity that life gives you," he says. "It is [effed] up. It is unfair. It is hard as hell, and it seems impossible to truly know what you want and how to get out of the adversity you are facing."
But Tom chooses to fight right through it.
He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: "I know no better life purpose, than to perish in the pursuit of greatness and the impossible."
He’s getting stronger every day and inspiring all of us as he does. "You have to do it because you want it and through any adversity," he says.
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