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Garner area farmer overcomes stage 4 cancer, named Relay's ambassador

Garner area farmer overcomes stage 4 cancer, named Relay's ambassador

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Dean Stromer

Dean Stromer stands next to some longhorns on his vacation in Texas taken this past week.

A Garner farmer had stage 4 melanoma cancer in his small intestines, his spleen and his lungs and took a trial drug produced from research funded by Relay for Life that saved his life.

Dean Stromer, 66, has been named the honorary ambassador for the Hancock County Relay for Life, which is Cruis’n for a Cure this year on Friday, June 19 in Garner starting at 6 p.m.

Stromer is a farmer who has lived on the same farm between Garner and Klemme all his life, did some carpenter work and started an overhead door business in the 1980s, always self-employed.

He has been married to his wife for 44 years, and together they have three children and six grandchildren.

About 20 years ago, Stromer had several melanoma, usually a skin cancer, tumors removed off his skin and again about 8 years ago. Then it went internal three years ago.

“It was in my spleen and my small intestines and then also in my lungs,” Stromer said. “When they finally found out I was bleeding internally because the tumors were so ingrown in my small intestines that they just said they couldn’t do anything for me.”

It was late summer when they discovered the tumor the size of an orange growing on his abdomen and his spleen that was 10 times larger than normal.

Stromer said they initially thought he had an ulcer and did some scopes on his stomach, but then they moved down over his intestines and got a biopsy of the tumor.

“I just kept getting pain and I was really tired … and I was bleeding, my intestines bleeding,” he said. “It came on quite slowly, and melanoma is slow growing, I guess.”

He was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma, and as the doctor was explaining his diagnosis, Stromer said his first thought was his wife standing with him.

“You know, you can say it’s not going to be cancer but when they found out for sure, it’s a shock,” he said. “It changes your whole life. Obviously, stage 4 at that point, and the way the doctor talked, you thought, wow. It’s a reality check.”

But Stromer said he believes there’s a purpose and place for everything and he felt God has a reason for it, so he strapped himself in for all the changes his life would have, including traveling to Iowa City, where he was being treated, every three weeks.

He was put on an immunotherapy drug trial, in which the drug makes the body’s own immune system recognize and attack the cancer cells.

Stromer was one of 123 participants in the trial and by the end of it, over 50 percent of the participants, including Stromer, were completely cured, he said.

“I am now over a year and a half cancer free,” he said.

As he was going through the trial, Stromer received support from his family, friends and his church, making sure to keep a positive attitude rather than letting it get him down, especially after he read the book “10 Ways not to Waste Your Cancer” by John Piper, given to him by his pastor.

“That was a tremendous help to me to get through cancer,” Stromer said. “Just attitude and how to treat people and how to pray and how to go at things. It just helped me with my attitude towards stuff, and it also gives you how to talk to people who have cancer and how to comfort them.”

After the trial finished, he had to go back to the hospital in Iowa City that was treating him for a CAT scan for his spleen and lungs and to undergo surgery to remove the dead tumor from his small intestines.

When the surgery to unblock his intestines finished and he could eat again, Stromer said he remembers the first thing he got to eat was some red Jell-O.

“I’ll never take red Jell-O for granted ever, ever again,” he said. “That tasted so good when I finally could eat some, because food just didn’t taste good for about three months because my body couldn’t take it.”

Since he was on the trial drug and not undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, Stromer said he was never sick a day from his treatment and the only side effect he’s had was losing all pigmentation in his skin, leaving just his fingers, ankles and toes dark.

“The doctor got real excited when he saw my eyelashes turning white, and when he saw that, he said it’s working,” Stromer said.

The drug he was taking, though, did not get approved, understandable with the nearly 50 percent failure rate, but Stromer said his doctor said they’re taking the results from his trial to make the drugs better.

Stromer gave a big thank you to Relay for Life and all the people who donated to it, saying he is a product of the funds and the research.

“I’m a result of research that was funded by them,” he said. “The reason I’m still here is because of the research that was funded by Relay for Life for the last 20-some years.”

He said he’s honored to be named the honorary ambassador, but he did nothing to get it.

“I’m just the recipient of a lot of research from the dollars raised by the work of a lot of people to cure my cancer, so I’m going to give the message of the positive that research has done. Five, 10 years ago, I’d probably not be here.”

Grace Zaplatynsky covers Hancock and Winnebago counties. You can reach her at Grace.Zaplatynsky@GlobeGazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0534.

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