‘Still in the fight, but I’m winning’

When he started last school year, teacher Steve Imel was sleeping two hours a night, getting sick between classes and barely able to make it through the day without feeling exhausted.

Now, Imel is making his triumphant return to school after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

During Labor Day weekend last year, Imel’s wife, Santina, found him in pain on the floor of their bathroom. Little did she know that Imel had been feeling pain for about a month or two before he collapsed.

Imel, a physical education teacher at SS. Francis & Clare Catholic School, would vomit between class periods, feel zapped of energy after mowing the lawn and couldn’t sleep more than a few hours each night. He would dread driving home at the end of the school day because his body was so exhausted. He thought he had the flu or maybe sleep apnea, but his collapse led to a diagnosis of cancer.

“At this point last year, I would have been vomiting in the trash can right here,” he said.

Imel was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last fall, went through chemotherapy during the winter months and followed with radiation treatments in the spring.

When he was first going through chemotherapy, the oncology nurses suggested he walk three laps around the hospital floor three times a day.

“I remember the first time I tried to do it, I couldn’t even do one lap,” Imel said. “I thought, ‘This is awful. I’m a P.E. teacher.’”

About six months ago, before Imel’s radiation treatments, he had set a goal to be back in school by the time the 2014-15 school year let out. His doctors told him that wouldn’t happen, but Imel kept his promise to himself. He returned to school to work half-days in May, after he was declared in remission May 18. The students could see him, know that he was OK and not be so shocked when he returned to school this fall, he said.

Imel will have checkups with his doctors every three months until he’s been in remission for five years. Then, he’ll be considered cancer-free. Although the cancer could come back at anytime, Imel feels confident that he has beaten it.

“I just look at it like I’m winning,” he said. “I’m still kind of in the fight, but I’m winning.”

Slowly, he regained his strength following radiation. Imel did have one setback in June, when he caught fifth disease, a virus that is typically found in young children. He was attending a school conference in late June when he broke out in a fever and had a red rash all over his body. His immune system was so weak after going through chemotherapy and radiation, he couldn’t fight off the virus, Imel said.

Imel kept colleagues up-to-date with his cancer battle and set a meeting with staff for the same day when his last doctor’s appointment would be. The doctor’s appointment would either say the cancer was in remission or not. Regardless of the outcome, he wanted to keep his colleagues in the loop, he said. Thankfully, the staff received good news May 18 when he was given the go-ahead to return to work since his cancer was in remission.

During meet-the-teacher night at the school, Principal Betty Popp made a special announcement of Imel’s return. When she announced that Imel now has a clean bill of health and his cancer is in remission, parents jumped to their feet to clap and cheer.

“The church was past capacity with parents, and they gave me a really nice ovation. That was really touching,” Imel said. “It’s been a lot of little things like that from the school and the parish that mean so much, not just for me, but for my family.”

Imel feels that he can be an advocate to friends and family and provide insight to what treatment is like. Just last week, a co-worker asked him for suggestions on what to put in a care basket to give to a cancer patient, he said. His suggestion: lemon drops. The candy removes the metallic taste that patients taste after chemo, Imel said.

With a week of the school year behind him, Imel is trying to get back to a normal routine — organizing his storage closet and his desk, getting used to the length of a regular school day and writing lesson plans. He is also happy to be able to drive his 4-year-old daughter to school with him again. Those small tasks used to bother him but are now what keep him going through the school day, he said.