Losing not an option

Jon Strodtman’s fight against cancer
inspires the Hickman soccer team
Thursday, October 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:31 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jon Strodtman’s joy for life is on display in everything he does.

He shows it with the smile while he describes the generosity shown him. It can be seen in the humor he uses to tell the story of his ongoing three-year battle with carcinoid tumors, a rare form of cancer.

Strodtman, the Hickman boys’ soccer coach for five years and shop instructor at Jefferson Junior High, began experiencing nausea and stomach pains three years ago. For six months, doctors treated Strodtman for bowel obstruction, but they didn’t know what was causing the obstruction until surgery showed the tumors on his small intestines.

Fighting the culprit

Unlike normal cancer cells, carcinoid tumors do not kill healthy living cells. The tumors slowly grow, taking up space and eventually blocking off blood supply.

In May 2001, Strodtman underwent surgery at Columbia Regional Hospital in which he lost 3 1/2 feet of his small intestines and 6 inches of his large intestines. The surgery appeared to be a success; the doctors thought his body was clear of the cancerous tumors.

In May, Strodtman again experienced the nausea and stomach pains.

“That was devastating,” Strodtman said. “We thought I was clear and they were gone, but then they were back.”

The tumors had moved through his blood supply and sent Strodtman back into surgery, this time at Boone Hospital Center.

In his second major surgery in two years, Strodtman had his gall bladder and 6 more inches of his large intestines removed. Still, he was not clear of the tumors.

“They can’t take everything; pretty soon I’ll run out of parts,” Strodtman said.

Kay Strodtman, Strodtman’s wife, said it was overwhelming to learn that the tumors had returned. The Strodtmans have four children: Grayson, 16, Levi, 14, Chelsea 13, and Garrett, 10.

He has tumors in his abdomen and two on his liver. If they continue to grow, they will block the blood supply to the liver, making it useless.

Dr. Bruce Brown performed both surgeries and said Strodtman was a wonderful patient.

“He was willing to do whatever he was asked,” Brown said. “He has great perspective on life; he knows what’s important and what’s not. He is a great man, very tender and compassionate.”

Doctors couldn’t remove the remaining tumors, for Strodtman had lost more than 4 feet of small bowel in the two surgeries and needs the rest for his digestive system.

“I need some bowel for absorbing nutrients,” Strodtman said.

An experimental study

With more surgery not an option, Strodtman’s doctors realized he needed more help than they could provide, so Strodtman joined an experimental study at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Dr. James Yao is in charge of the study. Through this study, Strodtman takes two drugs, with a third being added in December.

After his first treatment at MD Anderson, Strodtman experienced a case of the shakes.

“I was in the hot tub,” Strodtman said. “It was set over 100 and I couldn’t stop shivering. I’m from Denver and I have never been that cold in my life. That shook the kids up.”

This experimental study at MD Anderson is the only treatment for the tumors, previously the only solution was surgery, an option Strodtman might try again.

“The doctors are seeing positive results,” Strodtman said.

He returned to Houston for new scans Sept. 30 and the tumors are stabilized, meaning they have not grown and Strodtman will continue with the treatment.

Strodtman will head back to Houston on Oct. 28.

If the treatment fails to stop the tumors from growing, Strodtman realizes he will again have surgery, although that is probably two years away.

Regardless of whether the treatment works, Strodtman will continue to fight, a fight that comes from the generosity others have shown.

“People are so good, the staff at Jeff Junior, the kids here at Hickman and at church,” Strodtman said. “The staff brings food, kids will hand me $100, that’s gas money. The people of Columbia are just so great. There’s a whole lot of good in this world that you don’t normally notice.”

The cost of cancer

In addition to students giving Strodtman money they earned from working, the Hallsville Baptist Church has a night of gospel singing planned Oct. 25 to raise money to help with his travel expenses. The program will take place at Hallsville Elementary School, where Kay Strodtman works.

“We have an awesome support group,” Kay Strodtman said. “With family, work and school, people help out in any way that they can.”

Insurance covers the cost of the medicine, but the Strodtmans face the costs of airlines, rental cars and motel rooms for his visits to Houston.

Kay Strodtman said that the soccer parents at Hickman recently sold Krispy Kreme doughnuts to help with the travel expenses to Houston.

It’s become hard for Strodtman to understand those that don’t take advantage of what is available to them.

“My tolerance for kids that don’t care is very low,” Strodtman said. “Kids, coaches and teachers have so much to offer. I want to tell them to soak it up, to take it all in.”

The greatest inspiration

Strodtman credits the people of Columbia with inspiring him, but Jay Ward, assistant coach at Hickman, knows that Strodtman inspires others as well.

“His outlook on life and the fight to keep on going is inspiring,” Ward said.

Ward, a retired gastroenterologist, keeps watch over Strodtman and is taking on more of the coaching load.

Ward had been the assistant under past Kewpies coach Jeff Wallace and Strodtman had been the freshman coach. When Wallace left, Strodtman applied for the head coaching job, and the rest of the staff, including Ward, stayed.

When Strodtman started experiencing health problems, he approached Ward, who told him to come by his office.

“He retired from doctoring in August,” Strodtman said., “but he still keeps tabs on me.”

The players gain inspiration from Strodtman as well.

“We realize that our struggle in just trying to win games is nothing compared to what he’s doing and going through,” senior striker Daniel Weagley said. “The way he battles is encouraging for all of us.”

Senior midfielder Cole Riley said the team doesn’t want to lose because of the dedication Strodtman shows by continuing to coach despite his ordeal.

While the team gains inspiration from his fight, Strodtman doesn’t use it to motivate it.

“He doesn’t really say it, but we just know what is going on, that he’s dying,” Weagley said. “But still he’s out here every day at practice coaching.”

Wanting to win

Riley said that Strodtman will give lessons to the players.

“Before games he’ll say ‘You can’t lose; once you lose you’re done,’” Riley said. “As a team if we lose one game, that sends our motivation down so far and you have to build it back up.”

The players try to help Strodtman by playing every game for him.

“We try to play every game as if it’s the last game that he can see,” Riley said. “Hopefully that helps him and it helps us a lot. Who knows if he will be around next week, but if he is we’re going to want to win.”

Weagley said that the team will say in huddles that they have to win the game for Strodtman.

Even with the treatment at MD Anderson appearing to work, the uncertainty of the future worries Kay Strodtman.

“It is an overwhelming idea that you may lose someone that you love,” she said. “And I don’t want to lose him. Plus, you don’t know what tomorrow may bring; the treatment looks to be working, but you never know.”

With the support of family, friends, players and students, Strodtman will continue to fight much like he approaches a soccer game.

“Losing is not an option,” Strodtman said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you will win; sometimes the opponent is better than you. But you don’t quit.

“Even if you lose, you hold your head high. You are disappointed you lost, but you are proud.”

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