Man wasn't sure he'd live for 2nd Polar Plunge
ROCKVILLE — When Jim Roush jumps through a hole in the ice and lands in the frigid waters of Pleasant Lake on Saturday afternoon, it's going to be a shock.
He knows that. It was a shock when Roush did it last year, too.
"I'll get in and out as quick as I can," said the 45-year-old Clear Lake resident, who's participating in the St. Cloud Polar Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics. "You get tingly."
But Saturday's icy plunge also constitutes something of a celebration for Roush.
After the jarring news he received following the 2015 Polar Plunge, there were no guarantees he would even be around for this one.
"That'd definitely be it — celebrating life, making good memories for the rest of my family, showing people that even if you have a bad disease, it's attitude (that matters)," said Roush, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer shortly after last year's plunge.
"When we found out about it, his first comment was he wanted me and my sister to jump in (this year) because he wasn't going to be able to," said Tim Jackson, 42, Roush's brother. "He kinda figured he'd be gone by now."
Roush began coughing up blood eight hours after last year's plunge, and was rushed to the hospital the following day.
His ensuing diagnosis — lung cancer that had spread to his liver and vertebrae — began a year-long, ongoing medical battle against a disease with a grim prognosis.
And yet, Roush looks back positively on last year's plunge. At the very least, jumping into those icy waters probably extended his life.
"If I hadn't done it," he said, "this thing would have snuck up on me and would have blindsided me."
"It was the Polar Plunge that gave him the sign," said Angie Wilkerson, 48, Roush's sister. "In Jim's eyes, it saved his life."
"Absolutely," Jackson added. "If he hadn't jumped in, it wouldn't have caused the irritation. It wouldn't have caused him to go to the hospital. It probably would have been (noticed) when he started choking.
"This year of quality of life is probably totally attributed to it."
Roush's life has been filled with challenges. He has cognitive disabilities, and he's legally blind in his left eye.
He has struggled with depression, and to find a career path.
"He's just a very cool person, and he's never had a moment to shine because of some of his handicaps," said Wilkerson, who commutes from her home in New Richmond, Wisconsin, to help with most of Roush's medical appointments. "But he's never let it beat him."
"I think people underestimate him," said Juli Sanner, Roush's cancer care coordinator at the Coborn Cancer Center. "He's very knowledgeable about things."
The biggest challenge surfaced Feb. 14, 2015, after Roush jumped into Pleasant Lake as part of an event that raised about $82,000 for Special Olympics.
"I did it because it's a good cause," said Roush, who took the plunge on a day when the thermometer barely made it above zero.
"I took a deep breath … jumped in … blew it all out … stood up, took an extra-deep breath in, and something popped," he said.
"I knew there would be consequences, being out in the cold and stuff. I thought it was like a frost-bit lung."
The reality proved to be much worse.
Not curable, but treatable
The following day, Jackson drove Roush to St. Cloud Hospital. X-rays and a CAT scan revealed a mass on his lower left lung.
"They said, 'You might have something going on,' " Roush recalled. "So they sent it to the Mayo (Clinic), and I had to wait around an extra two weeks.
The results came back on March 4. Roush — a lifelong nonsmoker — had lung cancer. He also had two spots on his liver, and one on his C-4 vertebrae.
"When cancer spreads outside of the area where it originates, we call that an advanced-stage cancer," Sanner said. "We know that's not curable, but it is treatable."
Not easily, though. Roush's lung tumor is large, roughly 2 inches by 4 inches by 5 inches.
"Kinda like a piece of a 2-by-4 cut down," Jackson said.
"It was the size of a softball," Wilkerson said, "and he's just going along like it's no big thing."
The tumor is also in a complicated location.
"The biggest problem with Jim's tumor in his lung is it's behind his heart, and in front of his spine," Jackson said. "If it had been over in his other lung, there's a lot more that could have been done."
Roush started radiation treatments almost immediately following the official diagnosis, and began chemotherapy not long after that.
"I had my birthday March 22nd," Roush said. "March 23rd, I got chemo for my birthday."
He's been treated with a smorgasbord of chemotherapy medications — Taxol, Carboplatin, Avastin, Optivo — as doctors search for the combination with optimal results.
"We certainly don't want people to give up hope," Sanner said. "What we try to do is keep the cancer at a more minimal level, not let it get out of control."
'While he's got time'
All things considered, Roush has done amazingly well. He lost his hair, but it grew back. His nausea has been minimal, and his energy level has remained fairly steady.
"When the doctors looked at it and heard about me biking in the summertime, they were amazed that I wasn't holding onto a cane with an air tank," said Roush, who recently went ice fishing with his brother. He moved from St. Cloud into Jackson's Clear Lake home in August.
"We're trying to get him out to do some things he's never done before," Jackson said, "while he's got time to do it."
There is no sugar-coating Roush's long-term prognosis.
"It is a terminal cancer. There's no coming back from it," Jackson said. "I think the statistics are like 80 percent of Stage 4 lung cancers die within a year of diagnosis."
"After one of our last chemo treatments before Christmas," Wilkerson said, "we went and picked out his tombstone.
"Jimmy's going to die. Just not today."
That's partly why Roush spent much of the past year talking about an encore dive at the Polar Plunge. The discussion started early.
"Pretty much right afterward," Roush said. "I figured it was a good way to show resiliency and such."
"We really do want people to live their life, not sit around all day," said Sanner, who confirmed that Roush's oncologist (Dr. Girum Lemma) had approved Saturday's plunge. "We really try to have them enjoy every day they have. It's a gift."
It's a good cause. It's also a celebration of life — even for somebody who is cognizant of death.
"He's dealt with the inevitable," Jackson said. "We've talked with every doctor, and they've told us what it is and what the end result is going to be."
Roush's medical team is staving off that eventuality with the latest cocktail of cancer medications.
"His radiation did a little bit," Jackson said. "His chemo held it off — it really didn't gain any ground on it."
"(Chemotherapy) never even touched the cancer," Wilkerson said. "It just stagnated it."
But for now, that's good enough. Roush is entirely focused on something else.
When Roush jumps into Pleasant Lake again on Saturday afternoon, he'll be taking a new nickname with him.
"My sign-up name is going to be the 'Sick Polar Bear,' " said Roush, who has convinced his brother and several friends from the Atlas Staffing Agency in St. Cloud to also take the plunge. "My friends are going to be the 'Fan Club of the Sick Polar Bear.' "
He'll be wearing a personally designed black T-shirt. The lettering on the front says, "Keep Calm — And Kick Cancer's Butt." The lettering on the back says, "Saved by Polar Plunge."
It could be Roush's last one. But statistically, he wasn't even supposed to be at this one.
"He's going through it with a very upbeat attitude," Sanner said. "He's always looking at the world as the glass is half-full."
"He gives us hugs now," Wilkerson said. "He says, 'I love you.' That's huge."
In typical fashion, Roush is even talking about the 2017 Plunge.
"If next year I'm in remission, there's the idea of becoming a super-plunger," Roush said. "That would be 24 plunges."
Specifically, one every hour, for 24 hours, into Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.
That's a long way off. There are no guarantees.
But there weren't last year, either, and Roush has no qualms about Saturday's plunge.
"Nope," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. We'll just fix it afterward."
A typical response, from someone who's already dealt with a lot of adversity.
In a life filled with challenges, that's Jim Roush's enduring gift.