A Promise Without an Asterisk: Tom Brennan’s Battle Against Cancer

Jack Coakley

October 24, 2019

Back in 2008, Tom Brennan felt like he had it all. A career at Skylight as the district manager, a great home, and a loving family—little did he know, an unimaginable diagnosis was just around the corner. Tom’s life is much different now than he expected, receiving weekly chemotherapy as a “full-time cancer patient.” It may be surprising to hear, but even though Tom has not worked since 2014, he continues to live on his own terms and be the provider for his family. How is this possible? “Through insurance policies and proper planning for my legacy” is what Tom would tell you.

A Plan for the Future

At the age of 20, Tom Brennan made the decision to go from the army into the insurance business. He started at the family company, the Toledo based Brennan Financial Group, in 1993 and decided he couldn’t sell what he did not own, so he had an insurance policy created for him. “There were some insurance services in the army, but my first true underwritten life insurance policy I had was a $100,000 variable policy and I made my father the beneficiary. I picked that amount because it was a premium I could afford and at my age that seemed like a lot of money” said Tom.

Tom met his future wife, Whitney, in 2005. She had a great job as the Art Director for the Ohio State Alumni Magazine, and the two of them hit it off immediately. “My only regret in life is that I didn’t meet her just 5 years before I did—any earlier and I definitely would’ve blown my chance, but I think five more years of fun and excitement would have put me right on par for the perfect life.” Within 8 months of knowing each other, Tom and Whitney knew they were going to get married. After many discussions, the couple decided that Tom’s job was the one to stick with, so Whitney quit her job and moved from Columbus to Toledo to start building a life together.

Tom had three thoughts when this happened. The first was simply pure joy. The second, he quipped, was “Damn, I have to completely redesign this beautiful bachelor pad!” The third, much more serious, thought was “Wow, this woman just quit a good paying job and I made a promise to her that she would be okay, it’s time to reevaluate my disability income and life insurance policies.” Tom and Whitney got married shortly after moving in together and Tom was convinced that he had the world at his feet. He had a great job, the love of his life, a nice home, and in 2008—his daughter Reese. “When Reese was born, I bought my last insurance policy ever. As a family we were comfortable financially, but from a planning perspective I was thinking about things as if I could die tomorrow—and thank goodness, because within six months I would become forever uninsurable” said Tom.

A Bump in the Road

Tom had always been a larger man but was strong as a bull and healthy as an ox. He went several years without a trip to the doctor, but with the newly added responsibility of being a dad, Whitney urged him to make an appointment—which he did. Tom’s check up with his primary care physician was nothing out of the ordinary, he told Tom to lose some weight and wrote a script for some general lab work. Tom completed the lab work and went on with his day thinking nothing of it.

Weeks later, Tom decides to send Whitney and Reese down to Florida to see grandma and grandpa for a two-week vacation. He drives his family to the airport, gets them through security, gets back in his car, and immediately receives a phone call from his doctor. “I was immediately confused; we were close but not direct call close. He tells me he received my lab results and my white blood cells are through the roof, but I didn’t appear sick during my check-up.” The next few hours would be pandemonium: frantic phone calls from the doctor’s office, scheduling and re-scheduling appointments with a specialist, and Tom attempting to diagnose himself with his “YouTube medical degree,” as he would call it.

The following day, Tom had an appointment with a hematologist, and his heart skipped a beat when he pulled up to the building. “I pull into the parking lot and see ‘Taussig Cancer Center’ and thought to myself I must have the wrong address.” Unfortunately, he didn’t—the doctor informed Tom that he believed he was suffering from multiple myeloma, a relatively rare form of cancer that spreads through plasma cells. After some more rigorous testing and a full week of waiting for the dreaded phone call, the tests came back positive and the doctor gave Tom 2 to 3 years to live.

A Vow Unbroken

Tom waited until his wife came back from Florida before telling her the news. Whitney came home and Tom told her everything that had transpired in the last week and half.  As their conversation progressed, Tom said they shared a moment he will never forget. “Knowing I had the right policies in place to protect my family from incidents like this, I felt my back stiffen and I looked Whitney in the eyes and said, ‘No matter what happens, I promise that you and Reese will be okay.’” For Tom, these were more than just words. “I took on the responsibility of father, husband, and provider, and when I told my wife she would be okay it was the first time that the insurance policies I owned became the fulfillment of my obligation—a promise without an asterisk.”

Tom alongside his two children, Reese and Max

More than a decade later, Tom is still the breadwinner of his household and has beaten the odds through 4 different expiration dates. Even in the face of his illness, Tom prides himself on the ability to live life on his own terms. In 2010, Tom and Whitney decided they wanted another child. This was no small feat—Tom would have to come off chemotherapy for 3 months while keeping the cancer at bay and undergo the IVF process with his wife to even have a chance at another child. Luckily, everything went according to plan and the couple had their second child, Max, the following year. “If we hadn’t been prepared for an illness of this magnitude, there would be no way to justify having another kid. But against all odds we had Max and he is a happy and healthy little genius just like his sister.”

Tom’s story is undeniably inspiring, but he believes if it doesn’t encourage action it is falling on deaf ears. “When I first got diagnosed, I wrote 13 personal letters to friends and former colleagues. I told them my story and offered myself as a resource on insurance policies—out of the 13 people I wrote, only one did anything about it.”

Tom went on to say “It was no secret that without insurance my family would have been devastated by the emotional and financial costs of my illness. If you really want to protect the ones you love, I urge you to have those tough conversations with your spouse and financial planner. Trust me, the day will come when you’ll be glad you did.”

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Tom!