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Brent Hopp: The face of cancer defeated

By Staff | May 30, 2014

Brent and Phyllis Hopp worked together to get Brent through his bout with cancer. Photo by Michael Tidemann

Both of this year’s Emmet County Relay For Life Honorary Survivors fought cancer and won.

And, like fellow survivor Shari Bisgaard, Brent Hopp had his own success story to tell.

A lifelong farmer, Brent is used to taking his share of knocks. After all, farming is by nature a relatively dangerous occupation. Working with livestock. Handling pesticides and herbicides. Working around machinery. Any of those things can pose a hazard.

That’s why when Brent learned he had cancer in August 1993, it was something of a left hook.

Brent had cut a tendon on his knuckle and came in to have the doctor sew it up. Between the time he had stitches and had a cast put on, he noticed a lump in his neck. He didn’t think much of it, and when he returned to the doctor four days later for the cast, the nurses looked at the lump and told him he should get it checked out right away. He made an appointment for a Thursday, then the nurses moved it up to Tuesday.

They knew something was up.

Brent’s doctor examined him, then sent him to Rochester where it was determined the Grade 4 carcinoma in his left testicle has metastasized to his neck. Interestingly, no cancer cells were found in his blood.

Dr. Sandra Taler told Brent, “Mr. Hopp, you have cancer.” He didn’t have as much of a reaction as his wife Phyllis.

Brent’s reaction was to go right to work to fight it.

“What do we have to do,” was his reaction. He asked what if he didn’t do anything and was told there was a 100 percent chance of being dead in a year. If he underwent treatment, his chances were 90 percent.

A person wouldn’t have to even be a betting man to take those odds.

Brent underwent surgery and four IV chemo treatments – five days each for four months.

“I never got sick one day,” Brent said. “I never got sick once. They had great anti-nausea drugs.”

At no point did Brent ever feel hopeless. Phyllis read everything she could get her hands on about cancer and started feeding him so much high-calorie food one of his doctors said Brent was the first patient he’d ever had that had gained weight on chemotherapy.

Brent takes his battle with cancer in stride.

“There’s people with way worse stories with me. Mine was more of a skirmish than a battle.”

“I knew he’d be strong through it. That’s just how Brent is. I wasn’t surprised a bit the way he handled it,” said Phyllis.

Probably the hardest part for Brent was when he made a new friend, Bob Zagar from Michigan, who had the same kind of cancer. Brent made it. Bob didn’t.

Their daughters Kesley and Tiffany were quite young when Brent’s cancer was diagnosed. When Phyllis was setting up his appointments, she was torn. Tiffany was supposed to go for her first day in kindergarten. Understanding, the doctors let her schedule around that.

A quick look at his family history would have shown that Brent was in for a skirmish. His father, aunt and uncle all died of cancer.

Brent asked his doctor how he could have gotten his cancer, and his doctor showed him a map of the US where similar cases had occurred.

“We are right in the middle of what they call cancer alley,” said Brent, indicating cancer cases from the Canadian border to Texas.

Brent asked his doctor whether herbicides or pesticides could have caused his cancer, but was told they were not the cause.

It just happened.

Like other survivors, Brent has advice for people suspecting they might have cancer.

“Be aware. If something’s different get it checked,” said Brent.

He also advises that patients should take someone with them to take note of what the doctor says. Once the person hears the “C” word, it’s like a deer looking straight into headlights.

“You just need somebody there to write stuff down and surround yourself with positive people,” Brent said.

And moral support helps a lot too. Phyllis said family support helped a lot.

“It’s takes a lot of people to get through cancer,” Brent agreed. “Without family, friends and neighbors it would have been very difficult. That was a relief to know that there were people willing to help.”

Neighbors pitched in to bale hay and put it up in the barn.

“I couldn’t have done this without our hired kid (Jeff Lundgren),” Phyllis said.

“A good church family doesn’t hurt any either,” Brent said.

And having good health insurance doesn’t hurt a bit either.

“We’s still be paying for it if we didn’t have it,” Brent said.

Looking back, Brent doesn’t remember the low points of his cancer journey. It’s the high points he remembers.

He’s grateful for all the help he had from his doctors, Dr. Ronald Richardson and Dr. Taler.

He also recalls the lighter moments, when the nurses would bring him food from the barbecue shack or burger joint. The Hopps returned the favor, bringing one of the nurses her favorite meal – direct from Okoboji.

“When I think of it, all I remember is the good stuff that happened. I don’t really remember any of the bad stuff,” Brent said.