LITTLETON, Colo. — To spend a morning with the Stahlman family is to spend a morning in a place you immediately feel at home. For a family that is no stranger to grief, they’ve made sure to keep hope above all.
Kelly and Bruce Stahlman had three sons. Their twins, Mark and Eric, both lived with physical and mental challenges.
“We had two kids in power chairs. Two with feeding tubes. One trach vent, one with the speech computer,” said Kelly Stahlman.
The twins passed just one year apart. Mark passed in 2014, and Eric passed in 2015.
“No parent should bury their kids,” said Bruce Stahlman. “I mean, having and losing children is….I don't think anything's tougher than that.”
As their grieving hearts began to heal, along came another hurdle in 2018.
“You kept falling asleep at weird places,” Kelly Stahlman said, recalling Bruce’s symptoms.
“They weren't weird. They were comfortable!” joked Bruce Stahlman.
Bruce was tired and had bad headaches and balance issues. When the symptoms wouldn’t stop, they went to the hospital for an MRI.
“An hour afterwards, the attending physician comes in and says, 'You have a large mass in your head. We're admitting into the ICU,'” recalled Bruce Stahlman.
Bruce Stahlman was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma.
“This is one of the most aggressive cancers on the planet; it's very fast and very wicked,” said Kelly Stahlman.
“It is nearly uniformly fatal,” said Doug Ney, the professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who is handling Bruce’s treatment. “The average survival tends to be about 16 to 20 months.”
Bruce Stahlman was given months to live, but that was four years ago.
“I made the decision myself to move forward and do the best I could to extend the diagnosis,” said Bruce Stahlman.
He’s been through radiation and surgery, and with help from a device called the Optune, Bruce is defying his diagnosis.
The device works by sending microwaves into his brain to break up the cancer cells before they can form a new tumor. Bruce Stahlman wears the Optune almost 24/7.
Ney said this device is a great option more patients should know about.
“On average, the device adds about five months on average to life span. We also know that it does that without a reduction of quality of life. But, we also know that five-year survival is about 13% to 14% in patients who use this device, compared to 3% in folks that don't,” said Ney.
“It is…I don't want to sugarcoat it. Living with brain cancer is hard,” said Kelly Stahlman. “Living with kids that have passed away, it is hard.”
“It's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity,” said Bruce Stahlman. “And the trick is to try to determine what can you do with what you're given.”
This technology is now being tested to treat more kinds of cancers all over the body, and while it may not work for every patient, it’s helped this patient see more birthdays and Christmases than he thought possible.
“It’s 100% about gratitude, and I'm grateful for every extra day,” said Bruce Stahlman.
“We'd always said to Eric after Mark passed, ‘live life fully until you don't.’ And he flipped a switch to say, ‘I'm going to live life fully until I don't,’” said Kelly Stahlman.
As we all approach a new season of life with a new year, Bruce Stahlman hopes we’ll take a page from his playbook—one he’s choosing to keep writing.
“You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” said Bruce Stahlman.
“What I would offer is that no matter where you are in the world, there's somebody better off and there's a whole lot of people worse off. So, you hope for the best, you prepare for the worst, and you are thankful in the moment every day,” said Kelly Stahlman. “Is the glass half empty or half full? The glass has water. Have a sip!”
“Stop focusing on what you don't have, and focus and center on who you are and what you do have,” said Bruce Stahlman.
Choosing the good will look different for us all, but in this house, it’s a Christmas carol, and it’s one more day to be silly, to hug, and to live.