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Dedicated mountain runner battles cancer

Posted: August 8, 2013 - 7:36pm
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Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Michael Stangel was recently diagnosed with stage IV synovial cell sarcoma and went through chemotherapy.  The avid runner has continued to compete in local runs and certain mountain races during breaks in his treatment.
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Michael Stangel was recently diagnosed with stage IV synovial cell sarcoma and went through chemotherapy. The avid runner has continued to compete in local runs and certain mountain races during breaks in his treatment.

Eight years ago Michael Stangel decided to make some changes in his life to become healthy. He quit smoking, quit drinking and started running.

After about a year and a half of running to get in shape, he decided to run local 5Ks and 10Ks.

Five years ago he put his name in the lottery to run Mount Marathon in Seward. He was picked and ran the 3.5-miles race up and down the mountain, pushing his physical abilities and hooking him on mountain running.

In January of this year, Stangel, 45, faced with a greater test than a mountain race.

He went to the doctor because he thought he had a hernia. Tests revealed it was a tumor. He was diagnosed with stage IV synovial cell sarcoma.

Stangel said the diagnosis surprised him because he had been living a healthy life, but when he found out the cancer isn’t related to lifestyle he was relieved.

Medscape Reference, an online resource for medical professionals, says the origin of the relatively rare cancer is unclear.

Stangel researched the cancer online, and everything pointed to a bleak outlook. His 17-year-old son, Michael, will be a senior this fall. Stangel asked his doctor if he will make it to his son’s graduation. The doctor said he thought so, and that’s when treatment began.

Surgery is the most effective treatment, Stangel said, and he originally thought would be able to get the operation done. But because the cancer had already progressed to stage IV surgery wasn’t an option.

He began chemotherapy in at the University of Colorado.

“Chemo’s kind of a last resort. It’s not really known to be as effective (as surgery).” Stangel said.

He said because he was healthy, doctors gave him the max doses. After one round of treatment in Colorado, the single dad decided to do the next four rounds in Anchorage to be closer to his sons, Nathan, 20, and Michael, who live North of Kenai with him.

Their house of men had a few emotional breakdowns when he was diagnosed, Stangel said, but the cancer has brought them closer.

“All it’s really done is improve our relationship, and it’s like a blessing in a lot of ways,” Stangel said. “It’s not like you got in a car wreck, you’re getting notice way in advance to plan and do things so it allows for a lot of opportunities.”

Stangel retired after 11 years at Airgas when the cancer was found. His retirement and completion of treatment in May has given him more time to spend with his sons this summer. But Nathan often works remotely and has been in North Dakota for the past few months.

“That’s been kind of hard for him and me, but he’s got to go on with life, too,” Stangel said about Nathan being away.

With a break from treatments, Stangel has competed in some local runs and mountain races. His first on his list for the summer was the June Run for the River in Soldotna with Nathan. The race was about 20 days after his last round of chemo, and Stangel got a fever the afternoon before the race.

“It just crushed me,” Stangel said.

Stangel has done four mountain races this summer. His first two races of the season he finished last and second to last, normally he finished in the middle of the pack. Aug. 3 he ran the Matanuska Peak Challenge. He finished 33 out of 42 for the men’s race with a time of 6:13:16.

“I was never running to win anyway because you’re dong the best you can do and trying to beat your goal. My goal was to finish,” Stangel said.

Stangel doesn’t plan to do anymore mountain runs this summer, but he’ll keep training. His son, Michael is a football player and most of his games are on Saturdays, and Stangel is choosing football over races.

In a few weeks Stangel has a scan to see if the cancer has progressed. He said the chemo was effective and shrunk the sarcoma — originally the size of an orange in is abdominal wall — to the size of a golf ball.

Stangel said his doctors in Anchorage and Denver and don’t plan to do further treatment unless the cancer progresses.

“We’re not trying to beat it. We’re just trying to push it back,” Stengel said.

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at kaylee.osowski@peninsulaclarion.com.

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