EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series of stories leading up to the Relay for Life of South Washington County, which will be held June 4-5 at East Ridge High School.
Last March, Bill Stradtman's family was preparing for his funeral.
The then-69-year-old's Burkitt's lymphoma had become resistant to the chemotherapy drugs that were once curing him. His doctor said more rounds of chemotherapy using different drugs were probably futile, and he could be dead in weeks.
"We are faced with the grim reality that we are very likely going to lose our hero," his son David Stradtman, of Cottage Grove, wrote in an online journal. "I still want to say, 'pray for miracles!' ... but a large part of me also thinks that it is time to pray for peace."
Three months later, David was pushing his dad around the track in a wheelchair during the "survivors' lap" at the Woodbury Relay for Life. This year, Bill will walk on his own. Two rounds of chemotherapy after his terminal diagnosis, his scans say he is free of the rare cancer.
"The general comment that I have heard more than once is that, 'you're our miracle man,'" Bill said. "Why am I still here? I think the guy up above is the biggest reason."
Aside from having diabetes, which he managed with a daily pill, the retired Stillwater teacher was the portrait of health. For years he'd walked 2 to 3 miles per day during all seasons, and kept active around the house woodworking and doing yard work.
"He was not your typical 68-year-old," David said.
Over the summer of 2008, Bill started having night sweats, and losing stamina and weight. His doctor scheduled a biopsy. They were able to initially confirm it was lymphoma, but in the few days they waited for more test results, his condition declined rapidly. He ended up in the Lakeview Hospital emergency room, and then United Hospital in St. Paul.
Doctors had hoped to improve Bill's kidney function before giving him chemotherapy so that his liver and kidneys would be able to withstand the strain of the toxins that would be released when the tumors began exploding in his body. But with the tumors doubling in size daily, after three days the doctors said they had to start chemotherapy to give him a chance of survival, David said.
Bill's body was barely able to bear the strain. The day after the chemotherapy started, he was moved to the intensive care unit due to multiple organ failure.
"People that have this, they don't come back from it," regardless of whether they have cancer, David said, "and he came back from it."
He had been on a respirator and dialysis, but within two days his kidney function had improved, and on the third day he was off the respirator and breathing on his own.
Bill remembers nothing from the initial six weeks he was hospitalized. He was incoherent for much of it.
By December, about three months after his initial diagnosis, he seemed to be getting better. His cancer indicator numbers were near normal.
A sign? Or not
Before Bill got cancer, when the family was participating in Relay for Life in honor of David, who had survived lymphoma in his 20s, Bill joked that he wanted a purple shirt like David's. In the Relay, cancer survivors get purple T-shirts, and other participants wear white.
So, when Bill's own cancer battle started, David's wife, Jen, asked a Relay organizer if she happened to have a purple shirt. The organizer had one shirt left, folded in the back corner of a closet, and it just happened to be Bill's size.
At the time, shortly after Bill's diagnosis, the family took that as a sign that he would survive. But after getting the news they feared in March, five months later, they believed the oncologist when he said they were out of good options, David said.
"I can tell you, we were preparing for it, had it gone the other way," David said.
Despite the chance he might suffer in vain, Bill decided he'd try chemotherapy again, because he's, "not a quitter," Bill said.
It was an easy decision, he said.
"What's the alternative?" Bill said. "Do you want to try and stay alive or do you want to accept the fact you're going to be dead in a couple of weeks? Once I start something, I guess I'd like to see it through to the end one way or the other."
After two more rounds of chemotherapy, Bill's scans came up clean. His biggest complaint now is that he struggles with lack of stamina.
"When he tells me he's frustrated, I always say, 'Look, it's like you got hit by a bus for seven months, it's going to take a long time for it to come back,'" David said.
Now, Bill laughs about how close to death he was.
"The first time I went down to (David's) church, the minister comes down and says, 'Now what are we going to do, we have all this food planned for your funeral?'" Bill said.
On a visit back to the oncology department to visit the nurses, he said two of the four didn't recognize him. While Bill hopes that eventually the cancer will leave no physical trace, it has left an emotional one.
"One of the results of the whole situation, you do have a tendency to look a little closer at some of the things that you kind of took for granted," Bill said.
David echoes those sentiments, he said.
"Everybody moves so fast and takes everything for granted," David said. "Life has a way of, every once in awhile, kind of reaching up and thunking you in the head and saying, 'OK, better re-assess,' and makes you look inward a little bit and reminds you of what's really important -- family and faith."