Round Two: The Author Laces Up the Gloves When Cancer Demands a Rematch

By on November 22, 2012 in Current Events with 27 Comments

Editor’s note: Steve Oppermann is a retired federal employee and author for FedSmith.com. He has chosen to share this personal story in the hope that it will both inspire and help others who may be facing their own battles with serious medical issues.

Somewhere during a recent stretch in which I was on business travel for five straight weeks, my aging body broke down.  The most likely culprit was accumulated wear-and-tear from 10 airline flights, eight hotel rooms, schlepping luggage and an overstuffed computer briefcase from place to place and standing up all day while conducting training.  But whatever the cause, damage was done.  If my body had been a car, I’d have put the hood up, turned on the emergency flashers, and walked away.

The symptoms were three-fold:  a) one of the worst head colds of my life; b) pain in both shoulders, and 3) pain running from my gluteus maximus through both legs and down to my oversized feet.  I could have handled one at a time, or even two, but the three health hits together took a toll on me both physically and mentally.  In my first 24 hours at a Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland, I used an entire box of Kleenex in a futile effort to keep up with my runny nose.

On my last flight home from Dulles to Denver, my sciatic nerve was screaming, and I wasn’t far from doing so myself.  I hoisted my posterior off the seat with my knuckles as often as possible just to take the pressure off for a few minutes, but that caused my shoulders to hurt.  Tylenol, which usually works for me, and Motrin, which I only take when I have reason to believe there is inflammation involved, had no effect on the pain.

I was never so glad to have an airplane touch down on the runway.  The walk through the airport took about three times longer than normal, but walking was far easier on me than the ride home from DIA.  As fast as I could arrange it, I went to see both a “manipulative osteopath” (I think of him as a chiropractor with a medical degree) and two orthopedic surgeons, one a shoulder specialist and one who specializes in spine problems.

The spine surgeon and the osteopath both agreed with my amateur diagnosis that my sciatic nerve had run amok, but couldn’t pinpoint the cause.  After x-rays were taken, the doctors were using terms that had never before been applied to me, such as stenosis, arthritis, and herniated disk.  I started a course of physical therapy, going four days a week, with the prospect of an MRI if the problem didn’t at least start to get better soon.  While I had initially been seen for the sciatic nerve issue, the pain in my shoulders, particularly the right one, quickly overtook it.

All of the symptoms improved greatly when I was given a “burst” of oral steroids.  The morning after  I swallowed my first 6 pills (the regimen goes 6,5,4,3,2, 1, then none), I felt great, running freely at our Sunday morning touch football game and pronouncing myself healed.  Well, not quite.  As one doctor had predicted, by the time I got to the 2, 1 and none stage, the pain had come back with a vengeance, and my right shoulder pain could reasonably be described as excruciating late at night.  It was like the pain was waiting to pounce on me between 10:30 and 11 at night, and for a two-week period I never slept more than an hour at a time, roaming the house in an unsuccessful effort to find a more comfortable venue.

The shoulder surgeon who looked at my x-ray saw a bone spur in my right shoulder and after putting me through some range of motion movements, speculated that I could have a rotator cuff tear as well.  Both he and the spine surgeon wanted MRIs to gain more specific information.  The shoulder surgeon offered me steroid injections, but I turned them down, saying that I’d like to see if my first-ever prescription for vicodin would suffice.  The first pill put my lights out in the afternoon but had no effect on the late-night pain.  The next morning I called the doctor’s office and begged for the cortisone shots, which were administered in both shoulders that afternoon.  That night, I was able to conk out for several blessed hours at a time, having learned the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation.

The MRI of my right shoulder showed that there was no rotator cuff tear, for which I was deeply grateful, only some tendon damage and some other wear-and-tear stuff.  The surgeon concluded that I would probably have to have arthroscopic surgery on that should in the not too distant future, which was a far better scenario than rotator cuff repair.

To my surprise, and that of two different doctors, the spinal MRI didn’t show any pinched nerve or other impingement of the sciatic nerve; there were also no spine tumors, and just mild disk deterioration, so the source of the pain in my legs and feet remained a mystery.  But the MRI did disclose a swelling about where my cancerous left kidney formerly resided, so the spine surgeon ordered a CT scan.  The scan showed that the swelling was a mass of some kind.  So, the films were sent to the surgeon who had removed my kidney in February 2008, and he ordered a CT scan-directed needle biopsy of that area.

That was on a Thursday, and the doctor said I should not take any more Motrin until after the biopsy.  My body rebelled against the restriction, as I got stiffer and achier on a daily basis.  By the time of my appointment at the hospital early Monday morning, I could barely walk from the parking lot to the door, and could not take my socks off or put the hospital socks on by myself.  And when I had to move literally inches from the gurney to the table where the biopsy would be performed, instead of the usual two seconds it took me closer to five minutes.

When the procedure had been completed, I was allowed to take Motrin and was soon feeling better from head to toe.  The biopsy confirmed the doctors’ suspicions that the mass constituted a recurrence of renal cell carcinoma, with the cancer cells having affected the lymph nodes in the immediate area of the former kidney.  My family and I were not pleased to hear the news, and when we saw an oncologist, he used such scary terms as stage IV and “systemic.”

He immediately ordered a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an imaging test which required that a small amount of radioactive material be injected via an IV.  Areas of disease, such as cancer cells, show up as bright spots on the PET scan.  The doctor also ordered an MRI of my brain.  The PET scan showed no evidence of any cancer cells beyond those which had been detected via the CT scan-guided needle biopsy, which was great news, and the brain scan was negative.  I told the doctor that for what I was paying, I demanded that they keep searching until they found clinical evidence of a brain.

In the narrative report of my abdominal/pelvic CT scan, the radiologist stated that the mass was “worrisome” for recurrence of renal cell carcinoma.  Having read that, I did a lot of Internet research and learned that the Cleveland Clinic was the nation’s number one hospital for nephrology and urology, so I made appointments with an oncology department head there and a department chair for surgery.

I won’t know until we have completed the medical visits at Cleveland Clinic what my action plan will consist of, but the results of the PET scan, which showed that the cancer cells had not spread to any other organ, and the brain MRI, along with the blood tests – all of which came out normal – and the fact that the x-rays, MRIs and CT scans showed no other abnormalities anywhere in my body, have left me feeling very optimistic about my chances of a full recovery.

And I am very, very fortunate to have an extremely strong network of support among family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.  My wife, Lynda, has been a rock, always looking and sounding confident and only letting tears form when she didn’t think I could see her.  And our daughter Kris and her husband Jon, have gone beyond moral support to active enlistment of specific, incredibly well-qualified, medical professionals.

Dr. David Agus, head of a cancer clinic at the University of Southern California and the author of The End of Illness, a #1 New York Times best-seller, is an old friend of Jon’s family and will be monitoring my progress and getting all of the reports from the various attending physicians.  Dr. Agus, a rock star in the medical world, is a close friend of the oncologist we’ll be seeing at the Cleveland Clinic and has another good friend who is a department head at the University of Colorado Medical Center.  The latter has agreed to coordinate my Denver-based treatment.

While I have by no means enjoyed the ongoing pain in my shoulders and lower body – and have resented the fact that it has forced me to miss six straight Sunday morning touch football games – if I hadn’t experienced that pain I would probably not have gotten another CT scan any time soon.  I had been tested regularly for three years by the urologist, starting with quarterly CT scans the first year after the surgery, and had then been referred to a pulmonologist due to small nodules in both lungs.  That doctor had me tested via x-rays and CT scans for another three years (with one overlapping year between the two doctors), after which he declared the nodules benign and set me free.

So it’s on to Cleveland.  We’ll try to check out the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and to visit Lake Erie.  I understand that at this time of year when the cold wind blows off the lake it’s almost like being in Buffalo.

I’ll develop at least one more article once we have a game plan in place and I have started receiving treatment.  I will make observations about the medical processes I have been and will be going through, and about how well I have done (or not done) in asking the right questions and in taking responsibility for my own health and well-being.  I hope some of that information will be useful to readers who have to deal with serious medical issues of their own.

© 2016 Steve Oppermann. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Steve Oppermann.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.

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  1. Jwhite038 says:

    Mr Oppermann, I  have read your column for years and enjoy them very much.  I am sorry that the cancer has reoccurred and will pray that it will be put back in recession.  I have a sister, who had her kidney removed a year ago and just went through the radiation and chemo and is awaiting the results of her PET scan.  I am praying that she too, will experience victory over this terrible disease.  God bless you and your family.
    Jerry

  2. Alice says:

    I just now read this. I will keep you in my prayers. It struck home with me because I had part of my kidney removed last February because of cancer. I hope you can publish updates. I know that we would all like to know how you are doing.

  3. Tofman says:

    Steve, best wishes for a quick and final victory in the second round!  Hope you are enjoying that well deserved vacation in Maui and seeing those breaching Humpbacks up close.

  4. Autumn2353 says:

    Good luck and God bless you!

  5. Jane Martin says:

    Steve, I, too, have enjoyed your articles over the past years.  You are in my thoughts and prayers.  I hope your treatment passes quickly and you are feeling good and back to enjoying your active life again soon.  Whether the article was an explanation of a “serious” HR topic, or a personal article such as those you wrote about retirement or your recent vacation trips and exploits, you have a real talent for being informative while putting a funny and entertaining spin on it, that we can all enjoy and identify with.  Maybe you should take a break from travelling and write a book while you are recuperating! :)  I’ll be thinking of you and sending lots of positive thoughts your way.
     
    Jane Martin, a fellow HR specialist from your past 🙂

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Jane,

      Thanks much for writing.  Just to show you that my brain hasn’t atrophied completely (although it is getting ever closer), I still remember when you were Jane Anderson and we worked together at the Air Force Academy.

      I greatly appreciate your many (overly) complimentary comments about my articles.  I can almost always find some humor in any situation I encounter, and Ralph and Ian Smith let me write about anything which strikes my fancy.   As you have undoubtedly seen, many things do that. 

      I appreciate your thoughts and prayers even more.  I am looking forward to starting systemic treatment in the immediate future, having traveled to the Cleveland Clinic and consulted with the top specialists in the top hospital in the U.S for nephrology and urology.  They will be kept informed of my progress by the doctor at the CU Medical Center who will be overseeing my treatment.  They are long-time colleagues, and will be part of a team approach.  After I have been on whatever drug(s) they choose early this week, I’ll have a follow-up appointment with the top urologic oncology surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in late February. 

      Thanks again for writing, Jane, and for sending all those positive thoughts – which I can already feel.  I am continuing to do training and next week I will start a new part-time, temporary assignment as a labor relations consultant with the Bureau of Reclamation here in Denver.

      Take care.

      Steve

  6. Robbie Kunreuther says:

    I imagine it was difficult, yet possibly cathartic, to put these thoughts and events into a written narrative.  Good on you!  I hope the pain is in the past and the future is long, wide and open up ahead.  My best–

    Robbie

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Robbie,

      Thanks much for writing and for your great, wise, supportive comments.  I am feeling fine, ready to get back on the football field as soon as my wife and daughter give me permission, and running and working out at the Y every other day as usual.  I couldn’t describe my intentions any better than your hope that “the future is long, wide and open up ahead.”

      Thanks again, Robbie.  I hope you are doing well.

      Take care.

      Steve

  7. Jim says:

    Keep fighting the good fight! Godbless you.

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Jim,

      Thanks much for taking the time to write, and for your good wishes.

      I still have plenty of books to read, articles to write, work to do, things to accomplish in the area of conservation, family and friends to hang with, and trips to take, so I expect to be around for a long time. 

      Thanks again, Jim.  Take care.

      Steve

  8. retired fed says:

    I’m very sorry you have a recurrence and wish you the best of luck during treatment and recovery.  As a two time cancer survivor, I share the memory of those moments of “Oh, NOT AGAIN!”  when facing a new diagnosis.  The experience of cancer  can teach valuable lessons, perhaps most prized is the ability to feel deep compassion and acceptance for oneself and all sentient beings.  Thanks for your sharing. 

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Dear Retired Fed,

      Thanks so much for writing and for your concern and good wishes.  I think you make a darn fine philosopher!  I was by no means pleased to hear that the cancer had returned, and, in fact, we were stunned by the news, since all of the tests since I had my left kidney removed in February 2008 had shown zero evidence that there were still cancer cells around.  I cannot improve on your statement that “The experience of cancer can teach valuable lessons, perhaps most prized is the ability to feel deep compassion and acceptance for oneself and all sentient beings,” so I won’t even make the attempt.

       We are now awaiting the results of a meeting
      that all of the specialists in this field at the University of Colorado
      Medical Center have each Tuesday morning to review and discuss new cases
      and to make recommendations.  My first appointment was Tuesday
      afternoon, which means we now have to wait until this coming Tuesday, at
      a time when we are very anxious to get started.  Meanwhile, I’m
      continuing to do training work and have just agreed to a part-time,
      temporary consulting assignment in labor relations with the Bureau of
      Reclamation here  in Denver.  They had no problem with me taking two
      weeks off in January so my wife, Lynda, and I can join Denver friends
      who will be vacationing on Maui during humpback whale season.  We figure that with all the stress and uncertainty of the past 6 weeks or so, we really need to kick back, and we just love watching the whales up close, particularly when they breach.

      I
      expect to prevail in this second round as well, and am feeling fine and
      staying in shape.  I have a number of things going for me, to include being physically fit, not taking any prescription drugs, so there will be no chance of a potential problem with drug interaction, and no other maladies of any kind.

      Thanks again, retired Fed.  Best of luck to you, as well.  

      Steve

  9. RJF says:

    I couldn’t help smiling at your description of the trainer’s life, sciatic pain while on travel, playing football on day 1 of the steroid treatment (the miracle drug that masks the worse pain when taken in great quantities), and begging for shots after having turned them down in scorn. I’ve been there! There’s really nothing funny about it in the moment. But, due to cancer?! Bless your heart! I’ll be praying for you and hoping that all goes well. Take care of yourself – there is no clueless federal manager in need of education who is more important than your own health and your family!

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi RJF,

      Thanks much for writing.  I found it very interesting that you had been through something very similar to my experience with the orthopedics folks.  If there is a positive side, and there is, I would not have been tested again any time soon for cancer, since both the urologist who removed the tumor and my left kidney in February 2008 and the pulmonologist who was tracking small nodules in my lungs, had set me free.

      This time it will be a bit more complicated, since the recurrence is considered systemic, but medical science has come up with an array of very powerful drugs in the years since my surgery, and I’ll be starting on one or more of them in the immediate future.  And the best surgeon at the best hospital in the U.S. for nephrology and urology has scheduled me for a follow-up appointment at the Cleveland Clinic in late February, which tells us that he feels surgery can still be at least part of the treatment plan.

      Thanks again for writing, RJF.  I greatly appreciate your thoughts and prayers on my behalf.  Following your advice, we are going to head back to Maui in January, joining friends for two weeks of R&R on Maui during humpback whale season.  And we are signed up for a 15-day Celebrity cruise from Rome to Miami on the new Reflection starting November 1. 

      Take care.

      Steve

  10. Exuberance43 says:

    Wishing you successful treatment, and better times ahead.

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Dear Exuberance43,

      Thanks much for writing and for your good wishes.  I am feeling fine, keeping in shape, and getting ready for the first round of systemic treatment, which should be identified by Tuesday or so by a brain trust of the top physicians at the University of Colorado Medical Center in these specialties.

      I have a very strong support network of family members, friends, and colleagues, and have some of the top doctors in the field working on my case.  I expect to make a full recovery.

      Thanks again for writing and for your supportive comments.

      Take care.

      Steve

  11. Mark Leheney says:

    Steve, my thoughts and prayers are with you.
    I have always enjoyed reading your work, and am sending best wishes to you and your family.

    Best Regards,
    Mark Leheney/Management Concepts

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Mark,

      Thanks so much for writing, for your complimentary remarks and, most of all, for your thoughts and prayers on my behalf. 

      I fully intend to score a knockout in this second round, too.

      Thanks again, Mark.  Take care.

      Steve

  12. Jerry says:

    I have, over the years, really enjoyed reading your insights, especially on travel. Wishing you the best and God’s
    blessing in your treatments.

  13. grannybunny says:

    Godspeed!

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Grannybunny,

      Thanks much for writing.  I will be fine, thanks, and greatly appreciate your good wishes.

      Take care.

      Steve

  14. Steve_smith says:

    As a rapidly aging, 33 year Federal HR professional in the Denver area, I feel like a kindred spirit to you and wish you the best with your treatment.  Hope you are back on the football field again soon.

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Hi Steve,

      Thanks much for writing and for your supportive comments and good wishes.  I specifically asked the doctor at the CU Medical Center on Tuesday about getting back to touch football.  The intern who works with him clearly sided with my wife and daughter that it wasn’t a good idea, but I’m quite sure the lead physician said he didn’t see any harm in it.  But my wife and daughter seem to have heard something else, so I may still be sidelined for a while, although I feel fine and am raring to go.  If you ever feel like joining a bunch of old guys (I think this is the 25th straight year for the core group), please let me know.  We play every Sunday morning at 9 from Labor Day until people lost interest, which often isn’t until May.  We play at Mamie Doud Eisenhower Park, across from the Wellshire Inn & golf course just north of the intersection of Hampden Avenue/285 and Colorado Boulevard.

      Thanks again for writing, Steve.  Take care.

      Steve

  15. pdl2020 says:

    Mr. Oppermann I hope you will be completely cured. I am catholic and I say this prayer during difficult times. May God Bless you. 
    “Grant, we beseech You, O Lord God, that we Your servants may enjoy perpetual health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, may be delivered from present sorrow and obtain eternal joy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. “

  16. Bluefindb55 says:

    Love your articals. Good luck and Gods Speed to you!

    • Steve Oppermann says:

       Dear Bluefindb55,

      Thanks much for writing and for your complimentary remark.  I greatly appreciate your good wishes. 

      I fully intend and expect to win this round, as well, and have a top-notch medical team in my corner, as well as a very strong support network of family members, friends and colleagues.

      Thanks again for writing.  Take care.

      Steve

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