Cherish the Ride. . . Bumps and All

Yes it was scary, but cancer could not dim this couple's positive outlook on life.

 

To hear Chuck and Carla Offenburger describe it, having a double diagnosis of cancer, well, maybe isn’t exactly fun, but then it’s not exactly half bad either.

Certainly, a cancer diagnosis is some of the grimmest news a person can hear. And when both a husband and a wife have cancer almost simultaneously, it could make an already difficult situation seem impossible.

But Carla and Chuck, of rural Jefferson, are the kind of people who not only see the glass half full; they’re the kind of people who would also note how attractive and well-designed the glass is. They are gregarious, positive, energetic and curious about everything and everyone.

It’s a set of characteristics that served Chuck well in his long career as “The Iowa Boy” columnist for The Des Moines Register and a long-time RAGBRAIer. Today he’s a freelance writer living just outside of tiny Cooper, Iowa, in a rehabbed farmhouse on an acreage near a bike trail. This relentless optimism is also useful to Carla, who is the director of Community Relations for the Greene County Medical Center.

Chuck, 64, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins follicular lymphoma in July 2009. It’s a fairly non-aggressive form of cancer, and Chuck beat it through surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. Then in spring of 2010, Carla, 52, was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma—a rare cancer growing along her jawline. Two days after her radiation ended, the Offenburgers got another jolt: A pain in Chuck’s tailbone was actually large-cell lymphoma, a more aggressive form than what he’d had a year earlier. It took months of grueling treatments, including more chemotherapy, more radiation, and also stem cell transplants.

Pedaling Through

Both Offenburgers—at least for now—have defeated cancer and have received a clean bill of health from their physicians at McFarland Clinic and the William R. Bliss Cancer Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center. (They also use medical services at the University of Iowa.) They know they need to follow up scrupulously with various tests but are cautiously optimistic.

Meanwhile, when they talk about their experience with cancer, they make it sound like an unexpected gift: It drew them closer together as a couple. It deepened their faiths. They were touched by gifts of food and gas cards. People they didn’t know were praying for them. “At one point Carla and I counted up and we had people praying for us in all the major religions of the world,” Chuck says. They met lots of great people. Heck, they even lost weight.

Through it all, their optimism has been remarkable. As they checked Chuck into University Hospitals for a particularly grueling three-week round of treatments, Carla writes in her blog, they found a way to stay emotionally afloat. They pretended instead that they were checking into the Maui Hilton.

Another time, Chuck, a relentless cyclist, put a stationary bike outside his room so he could enjoy one of his favorite activities.

Granted, they’re also quick to point out the fear, stress and anger that accompanies a cancer experience. Carla admits that at first she didn’t take the news well. “I had a little pity party.” The costs of their illnesses, even after insurance, have seriously damaged their savings. Treatments were long, exhausting, and sometimes painful.  

Connecting

The care they received at Mary Greeley and McFarland made the whole experience much easier. “There is a very, very caring community there,” says Chuck. “They quickly put us at ease.”

The couple became so much a part of the community of medical staff that “We really enjoy going over there,” Chuck says with a laugh. “We go in and say hi to everyone in radiology. We didn’t know anybody over there at the outset and now we both know a lot of people there.”

“You don’t become good friends with your oncology doctor, but Dr. Michael Guffy and I got a long really well. Dr. Joseph Rhoades and Dr. Stephen Griffith were skilled and also friendly. We just really hit it off with all of them.”

The medical staff was there not just with medical advice, but also with practical and emotional advice. An Ames nurse advised Carla to think through in a very detailed way everything she’d need once she got out of the hospital, weakened from her treatments.

“I really hate to do dishes and I hate it when we run out of dish soap, and we just had run out of dish soap,” Carla says. “So I went out and bought so much dish soap—we still are trying to use up all the dish soap that I bought! But I didn’t have to worry about it, and that was a help.” 

Today, the couple is as active as ever, organizing bike rides and volunteering non-stop in their communities and churches. They’ve moved on to normal activities once again, Chuck says. “Carla is spending a lot of time in her gardens, I’m spending a lot of time following baseball, and we’re both getting on our bicycles as much as we can. Life is good!”

Check out www.offenburger.com for blogs of Chuck and Carla's opinions, activities and lives.