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Run For Your Life

A Cancer Patient’s Race to a Cure

April 26, 2023 | Katie Hock

Mike Hoppel. Photo by Donn Jones.

The word “cancer” had barely rolled off the doctor’s tongue when my dad, Mike Hoppel, began plotting its defeat. After nearly 73 years with no health concerns, our Senior Olympic medalist used his affinity for physical fitness to condition his body to triumph over the disease. 

It took our family a full 24 hours to process the news. After nearly a lifetime of being healthy and active, we started to believe that he would outlive the usual things that come with age: disease, illness and chronic conditions. My dad spent the first half of his life in the world of professional roller skating, first as a competitive skating instructor and later as a skating rink virtuoso, taking struggling rinks from the brink of closure and transforming them into thriving hot spots for locals and tourists. His active lifestyle didn’t come without costs, however. The strenuous aerobics involved with roller skating and overall wear and tear resulting from strict training regimens finally caught up with him. In 2019, he represented Tennessee in six events and won two bronze medals, one fourth place, two fifth places and an eighth-place completion at the Senior Olympic National Games. Soon after returning home from nationals, the pain in his hip worsened, requiring the man I once thought impenetrable to sit out a season to recover from hip replacement surgery.

Dad was just getting acquainted with his new hip when his track record of perfect health came to a screeching halt. The numbers weren’t adding up, and my dad’s team of doctors couldn’t figure out why his PSA was so elevated (12.63 ng/mL), and his prostate so enlarged. We had a couple of ER visits and some big scares that caught the attention of his care team, and they decided to dig in and get answers. An unrelated issue that began once he was discharged from the hospital following surgery led the doctors to discover that my rock, my precious daddy, had prostate cancer. It was classified as intermediately aggressive. Without treatment, he was looking at a survival rate

of five years.

“It’s not too often that you’re given the option to choose life over death, but at that moment, I only saw one option: fight as I’ve never fought before,” my dad shared, sitting taller in his chair as though he was gearing up for battle. Soon, we found ourselves in a blur of doctor’s appointments, oncology consultations, and, the day before Thanksgiving, in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center waiting room as my dad was wheeled into the operating room for a radical prostatectomy. After the surgery and his oncologist’s hopeful prognosis that they were able to remove all the cancer cells, life returned to a more normal pace. When the time came for follow-up tests, there was the usual amount of anxiety, but we all felt optimistic that the cancer was gone. Following a radical prostatectomy, the ideal PSA level would be undetectable and, at the very most, .05, which would also fall within reasonable limits. My dad’s PSA level was .16, and with each recheck, the numbers rose. This could only mean one thing: His battle wasn’t over yet.

The second time hearing the “c” word was possibly even harder than the first. A wave of disappointment, frustration and worry crept into the spot that once held my family’s hope for happier days, calmer waters and countless years left together. We felt so much joy and relief following the prostatectomy, anticipating the beautiful memories we would experience together. It felt like my dad’s second chance at life was taken away just as soon as it was placed in his arms. In the middle of his darkest moments, my dad had a thought: He was going to run. As any serious athlete knows, clear goals are crucial to understanding your progress and areas for improvement. The moment he found out he would be going through additional cancer treatments, my dad identified two main goals: 1) to not become a couch potato, because the drugs used would deplete his muscle tone and bone density and 2) to use his very first run at the start of treatment as a control group of sorts, to track how the radiation and hormones were impacting his body. While sitting in the exam room, my dad shared his goal of completing 100-plus runs and 400 miles by the time he completed his radiation treatments. The oncologist in charge of treatment was understandably skeptical, assuring him that he would “crash” at some point during treatment and that this beneficial (but aggressive) running schedule might have to be paused when the inevitable symptoms arrived and overpowered his drive and energy. My dad’s eyes twinkled as he chuckled in response: “You don’t know who you’re dealing with!”

Looking back on that first run still brings back unpleasant memories for my dad. He was barely 30 seconds into the run when the discomfort and exhaustion hit, leaving him asking himself, “What were you thinking, Mike?!” Performance metrics were a big deal for our Senior Games’ athlete, and he tracked his weight and body fat, the run distance, the time he left the house, his average pace, and time to complete. That first run lasted for 2 miles, and with each subsequent run, my dad’s distance grew, and the time to complete decreased. 

Not a single day was skipped in July and August, and some days warranted two separate runs. When the side effects of the hormone therapy became unbearable and sleep evaded him, my dad would lace up his shoes and hit the pavement in the middle of the night. When the skin burns from radiation made resting nearly impossible, the middle-of-the-night movement saved his sanity. Always grateful to be an inspiration to others, my dad was touched to be on the receiving end of the motivation as he attempted to complete a challenging 2 a.m. run through his neighborhood. A car drove slowly past as he was rounding the lake in his neighborhood. Ten minutes later, that same car pulled beside my dad, and a young gentleman rolled down his window and explained that he had seen him running previously and wanted him to know that he had motivated him to go home, get dressed, and go to his 24-hour gym for a workout. On another early-morning run, my dad was pulled over by the sheriff at 4 a.m., triggering my dad to ask if he was getting a ticket. The sheriff responded with a smile: “No, I’ve been tracking your time; You’re doing great!” You should hear my dad laugh as he remembers his close run-in with the law!

As a longtime employee of the Lowe’s team, both in the Lebanon and Spring Hill stores, many of my dad’s customers and co-workers have followed his journey and cheered him along every step of the way. Throughout his diagnosis and treatments, kind gestures, understanding leaders and empathetic customers made all the difference in lifting his spirits and keeping him on track. An essential part of my dad’s job is to interact with customers while on the sales floor regularly, but it was vital that he was taking care of his daily water intake before heading to his radiation treatments. Dad would set his phone alarm for all the things he needed to do each day: Drink water, leave for radiation, etc., and when he greeted new customers, he would let them know about the various alarms that may go off during their conversation so they would understand why he had to pause a moment to take a drink of water. My dad’s treatments occurred over his lunch hour, and he would need four full bottles of water in his system before leaving for radiation. Customers would hear his phone alarm go off and jokingly say, “Mike! Drink your water!” No matter how much time passes, the care and concern of the people rallying around him brings tears to his eyes.

One especially memorable moment occurred when a customer came into the store and approached my dad with tears in her eyes. He asked if everything was all right, to which she responded: “Yes, I came in to ask how you were doing and to let you know that your story encouraged me to get off the couch. I am on my way to the gym to quit complaining about my situation, be more active, and take control of my life.” While his journey to beat cancer hasn’t been easy, with every stride, my dad envisioned himself outrunning the cancer. Now, he uses each step to inspire others to get active and live life to the fullest — while you still have a chance.

On Sept. 10, 2022, my dad laced up his sneakers to once again participate in Sherry’s Run, a 5K Run/Walk in Lebanon, Tennessee, which provides hope and support to families battling cancer in Wilson County and surrounding communities. In previous years, my family showed our support by walking, running and cheering on the participants from the sidelines. This year, everything looked different. My mom, Debbie Hoppel, says it best: “This year, we celebrated the grit, strength, tenacity and bravery of this husband, father and grandfather who looked cancer square in the eye and told it he wasn’t going anywhere. This year, we celebrated our survivor.” When my dad’s toes crossed that finish line, his goal of completing 100 runs was met, and he couldn’t wait to tell his oncologist, “I told you so!” Instead of catching his breath and basking in the glow of his realized dream, however, he turned around and ran the 5K all over again! Dad’s eyes lit up when he explained to onlookers that his 101st run was for “those who can’t.” 

My dad’s advice to other cancer warriors? “I believe you beat cancer by how you show up to the battle. You beat it by how you press on, even when the days are challenging, and the nights are unbearable. You beat cancer by how you live in victory, even if you aren’t yet victorious.” Only time will tell if the radiation and therapies fully cured my dad’s cancer, but today and every day following, he chooses to lean on his faith, his love for his family, and his passion for inspiring others. 

How does he do it? His desire to LIVE…to live a life that inspires others, to live long enough to see his grandchildren grow up, to live out his golden years that he has worked so tirelessly to reach…these deeply held desires fuel every step of his runs.

It turns out that my dad was never really running FOR his life. No. He was actually running TO his life.