A new normal
The Luedtke family won’t let cancer stop them from living life to the fullest
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — When Hub City Times sat down with the Luedtke family in December, the shock of Len Luedtke Jr.’s cancer diagnosis was still fresh.
Perhaps worse at the time was his back, which had suffered multiple fractured vertebrae as the result of his multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that forms inside bone marrow and can cause bone destruction. Len wore a back brace 23 hours per day and used a walker to support himself as he moved around.
Fast forward about nine months, and life is going more smoothly, which is a good thing considering Len and his wife Ali have four children at home. Of course it is never easy dealing with a cancer that currently does not have a cure, but it is a disease in which patients can experience several years and up to a decade of remission. Len’s back is on the mend, though he says he has lost two inches of height because of the way his vertebrae compressed, and he is slowly increasing activity.
He has resumed some of his roles as an assistant football coach with the Marshfield Tigers and hopes to continue to volunteer for the season. He was planning on returning to his teaching position at the high school this fall, but with his limits on standing and walking the plan is now for January.
He also no longer wears a back brace much if at all.
The Luedtkes hope that with rapidly improving treatments, discoveries in medical science, and a long remission period, significant advancements could be made between now and the time his cancer recurs. Ali said that a friend’s father with cancer was the first to undergo a stem cell transplant, which Len recently had done, and he is “alive and thriving” 10 years later. The stem cell treatment is designed to help the bone marrow recover from high doses of chemotherapy cancer free. So far the treatment is working.
Still, challenges specifically with Len’s back remain. His doctor has told him that it will be a two-year process to strengthen his bones and rehabilitate his back, and in all likelihood it will be something he deals with for the rest of his life, Len said. His cancer is also currently in remission, and he is now taking a low-dose oral chemotherapy, which aims to keep the disease at bay.
Len has had to learn to accept that he has certain limitations now that he once did not. He fatigues more easily, his back hurts more as the day progresses, and he needs to rest during the day or he will feel depleted. The Luedtke family, however, does not focus on the “can’t do” in life. They are optimists who count their blessings first and focus on what they “can do.”
“You absolutely find a new normal. What we try to strive on is what I and we can do as opposed to what we cannot,” Len said. “I went fishing opening day with my dad like I have for 30-plus years. Did I get my waders on and go in the creek like I wanted to? No, but I was able to sit on the bridge in a comfortable chair and still catch some trout.”
Len now uses a recumbent bicycle to support him while he coaches football because standing for an entire practice would be hard on his back.
“I can ride my bike, and we can go out as a family,” Len said. He can no longer coach football in the same style that he used to, but he still gets to be on the field and apply his skills for the betterment of the team.
“Can I be behind the defense like I’m used to being able to do? No, because I’m in the … way with my bike, but can I be behind the offense and still help coach kids and help — you know we’ve got two new coaches on the staff — and can I help coach them? Sure, I still understand the game. I can still help.”
The Luedtke family also recently took a road trip to California to visit Len’s sister. Driving turned out to be a perfect task for Len because he was able to rest his back and be with his family while seeing the country.
“Family-wise we’ve spent more time together in the last nine months than we ever would have,” Len said.
“It’s been nice to just focus on us,” Ali added.
Many in the community have reached out to offer help and blessings to the Luedtkes during this time, for which they are “extremely grateful.” A friend and cancer survivor told the Luedtkes that it is important to accept help not just for the benefit of the family but also because people want to help, and it is healing for friends and family as well if they are able to lend a hand.
Two pillars to the Luedtkes’ support system through this process have been the Marshfield community and their strong faith.
“When you live and work and worship and buy local, holy smokes. I mean when you need help with things, it’s just been awesome,” Len said. “There’s so many great people out there.”
Len added that his faith helps him face the most difficult aspects of his disease.
“With faith the fear of dying is gone,” he said. “It’s not something that you look forward to, but it doesn’t scare you, and it also is very, very helpful with your children and people left behind.”
As hard as adjusting to his limitations has been, Len is a living example of making the best out of a tough situation.
“Life’s about making changes whether a choice change or just, ‘This is the way it is now,’ so the best lessons in life are the ones you show people,” Len said.
Ali added that it has been difficult at times for them to adjust to their new normal, including Len having to push back his time frame for returning to school and the new approach he must take to coaching.
“It’s just hard battles to get over mentally,” Ali said.
Len realizes that going through this illness is not something he can control, so he focuses on what he can.
“A lot of things in life are out of your control,” Len said. “What in life do you control? I mean I didn’t control whether I have cancer or not, but (what you) do control is how you respond to it and then how you live after.”
If you would like to assist the Luedtke family with medical expenses, you may make a check out to Central City Credit Union, which is located at 222 E. Upham St. in Marshfield. Designate the Len Luedtke Jr. Benefit Fund in the memo line.