Relay torchbearer living with rare cancer
On the surface, Steve Baukol appears to be a normal, healthy middle-aged man approaching his 50th birthday (it’s in October).
No one would guess from looking at him that he has been living with cancer for nearly two years now. But the Detroit Lakes man received that dreaded diagnosis on Sept. 9, 2011.
It was on that day that Baukol was told he had multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer that is treatable, but not curable — at least not at the present time.
“They did an x-ray on the 5th of September, an MRI on the 6th, and I got the results on Sept. 9,” Baukol said.
He was alerted to the fact that there might be something wrong a few weeks earlier, when he started experiencing some back pain.
“By Labor Day weekend, it had gotten to the point where I struggled to even bend over,” Baukol said.
His doctors in Fargo told him that the x-ray had shown a black spot on his spine, and the MRI verified the diagnosis.
“My sixth thoracic vertebrae was consumed by a tumor,” he said.
Baukol thought at that point that he would start radiation and/or chemotherapy, and eventually would have to have surgery to remove the tumor.
“The surgeon told us that he felt he needed to operate right away,” Baukol said. “He said I’d be a paraplegic in four weeks if we didn’t cut it (the tumor) out — so we cut it out the next morning.”
On Sept. 10, 2011, the tumor was removed, and in place of the destroyed vertebrae, a portion of one of his ribs was inserted as “a spacer.”
Unfortunately, the radiation and chemotherapy he was forced to undergo to counteract the cancer prevented the bones from fusing properly, so Baukol now has a 3½-inch titanium rod and four screws holding his spine together.
What Baukol’s doctors hadn’t told him at the time of the surgery was that “they didn’t expect me to walk away from it.”
In other words, they thought he’d be paralyzed — but Baukol did, indeed, walk out of that hospital on Sept. 17, wearing a back brace.
Since then, he has been living with cancer — emphasis on “living” — and taking each day’s challenges as they come.
“Living with cancer — that’s the plan. I said from the get go I wasn’t going to let it beat me,” Baukol said. “Every time they line up the hoops in front of me, I have to find a way to jump or crawl through them —my family, friends and faith are obviously very important, as well as having a positive attitude.”
After the initial surgery, and 14 rounds of radiation therapy, Baukol went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Dec. 20, 2011. It was then that he learned that he was a good candidate for stem cell therapy. Baukol assumed that would be a year or two down the road — instead, the doctors told him the stem cell transplant was scheduled for March.
“So we started the chemotherapy regimen right away, on Dec. 28,” he said. “I had 12 weeks of chemotherapy, then I was moved to Rochester for the transplant.”
Baukol’s own stem cells were harvested, then he was given two doses of intensive chemotherapy — “to kill my immune system, essentially” — and the stem cells were injected back into his system.
“They inject them just like a (blood) transfusion,” he said. “Then I had a lovely wait of 3½ weeks to get everything back up and running again. I was fortunate that I didn’t have any major complications from the process.”
But that didn’t mean he was cancer free. In December 2012, a second tumor was discovered, and Baukol had to undergo another cycle of 18 radiation treatments that ended in February. In March, he was placed on a 21-day chemotherapy treatment cycle.
“I will be on that (chemotherapy) the rest of my life,” he says, “or at least for as long as I can handle the side effects, and my body will tolerate the drugs.”
So far, so good.
“It’s doing wonders at this point,” Baukol said. “My blood numbers are good.”
He’s even back to working full time, as a properties manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“I deal with utility permits,” he said.
The complications from the chemotherapy are fairly minor at this point — “I get tired more than anything, so I try to have the shots done on Fridays now,” he says, so that he feels well enough by Monday to go back to work.
Ultimately, Baukol noted, “I have no complaints about my life. A lot of people have it worse than I do.”
Staying positive and not dwelling on the negatives is a big part of the coping process, he admitted.
“You never think you’re going to end up having cancer,” he says. “When it hits you, it’s pretty stunning. But I don’t want to dwell on it either.”
If Baukol hadn’t been diagnosed and treated promptly, his life expectancy would have been 6-9 months.
“I’m at 22 months right now,” he said, and aside from the tiredness, he feels pretty good most of the time.
His family’s support is a big part of the reason. That family includes wife DeAnna, a third grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary; daughter Amy, her husband and two children, who live in Fargo; daughter Sarah, a school psychologist who recently moved to Willmar; and son Tyler, who just graduated from Detroit Lakes High School this spring.
Baukol also admits he has a particularly soft spot for his grandson Beau, who was born in October 2011, in the midst of all of his grandfather’s health issues.
“He’s been very good medicine,” Baukol said. “He’s pretty special.”
His siblings have also played an important part in his recovery, as they helped care for him during the stem cell transplant process, and recovery.
“My brother Peder, sister Suzan and my wife all took turns as care providers for me,” he said. “It’s important to have that kind of support.”
And his family will also be there to support him when Baukol takes his turn as the Becker County Relay for Life torchbearer on Saturday, July 12, at the Detroit Lakes High School track.
His wife, kids, grandkids, siblings and friends will all be a part of “Steven’s Strength,” the team that signed up with Baukol to participate in the Relay.
Beginning with the “survivor’s walk” at 7:30 p.m., and continuing throughout the night, the Relay will raise money and support for the American Cancer Society, which Baukol says is “a wonderful organization.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have a good crowd, and decent weather,” he added.
The Relay actually begins with a short ceremony at 7 p.m., followed by the survivor’s and caregiver’s walk at 7:30, and the lighting of the luminaries at 10 p.m. Earlier in the evening, a meal and silent auction are also scheduled to help raise funds for the cause.
For more information about the Becker County Relay for Life, and how to participate, please call chair Marjorie Berg at 218-841-5173.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.