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How he heals: Hastings man inspires healing while fighting cancer

Riley has been spending some of his time building guitars for disabled veterans and cancer patients because music has been an inspiration for him to keep going. Photo by David McLain1 / 2
The symbolism of creating a target that says "cancer" and shooting it with an airsoft gun is one way Tomo Riley shows his cancer that it will not win. Photo by David McLain2 / 2

Walking down the aisle at the grocery store, a child looked up at Thomas "Tomo" Riley and said, "Look mommy, it's a pirate."

With his best voice, Riley responded with an "aaargh" and the child's face lit up. He said he was worried kids would be afraid of him at first, but time and time again he hears from them it's actually kind of cool. Riley lost his right eye to cancer and he now wears an eye patch. He continues to fight his cancer, but he has found ways to heal.

Riley shares part of his story in a new CaringBridge campaign called "How We Heal." The Eagan-based nonprofit allows people to keep their family and friends updated during difficult times.

Liwanag Ojala, CEO of Caring Bridge, said the goal of the CaringBridge campaign is to open a national conversation about the science of healing and how to support each other to find peace in times of personal tragedy.

The campaign features 20 people going through their own healing journey. The individuals were selected to be featured after CaringBridge sent out a notice asking for people who would be interested in telling their story.

One thing that made Riley stand out was his confidence that he was going to fight cancer, Ojala said.

"The attitude he had coupled with how he's found healing," she said.

Cancer behind eye

Riley was diagnosed in 2016 with melanoma. He woke up one morning and his eye was almost out of his head, he said. He went to the emergency room and doctors located the cancer behind his eye.

One year later, Riley had surgery to remove the cancer. Doctors were able to get 95 percent of it, but some of it was too close to the chewing muscles. Now, doctors are monitoring the cancer to see if there is accelerated growth.

In addition to dealing with cancer, Riley said he has Gulf War Illness as a result of his service in the military. It's been difficult for him to deal with everything going on, but he has his own ways of healing.

Music has been a major outlet for Riley on his healing journey. Any time he felt depressed or angry, he would sit down and play music.

"Music is better than any pill or any shot, it releases endorphins, it makes you feel high on life," Riley said.

Riley is a bass player and loves to play classic rock. He recently joined a local group called Broken Glass.

In addition to playing music, Riley said he has just started building his own guitars. So far he has built 19 guitars and he's given many of them to disabled veterans and cancer patients. With music being such as inspiration to him as far as being able to keep him going, he wanted to share that with others.

Another way Riley is able to physically fight his cancer is with shooting practice in his garage. He makes a target on a piece of paper and writes "cancer" in the middle of it. He'll pin it up and shoot at it with his airsoft AR-15 rifle. To him, it symbolizes killing cancer.

Healing in many forms

Ojala said healing comes in many forms and they hope the documentary and conversation about healing will help others.

"We want the people who see this content to feel like they learn something about the healing journey so they can make their own choice about how they can heal," Ojala said.

Riley still uses a CaringBridge site to document his journey as he continues to fight cancer. According to Riley, he doesn't plan to let cancer win. He hopes his story can help inspire others going through difficult times too. He said if he could tell something to anyone who matters, it would be that an illness is not a death sentence.

"You can go on and live your life and just do your best," he said.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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