Middle TN Resident, Senior Olympic Medalist, Running to Beat Cancer

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 Story by Katie Hock 

The word “cancer” had barely rolled off the doctor’s tongue when Mike Hoppel, Thompson’s Station resident, began plotting its defeat. After nearly 73 years with no health concerns, the Senior Olympic medalist used his affinity for physical fitness to condition his body to triumph over the disease.

“It took me a full 24 hours to process the news,” he shared, “you know, after nearly a lifetime of being healthy and active, I started to believe I would outlive the normal things that come with age…disease, illness, and chronic conditions.” Mike spent the first half of his life in the world of professional roller skating, first as a competitive skating instructor and later as a skating rink virtuoso, taking struggling rinks from the brink of closure and transforming them into thriving hot spots for locals and tourists. His active lifestyle didn’t come without costs, however. The strenuous aerobics involved with roller skating and overall wear and tear resulting from strict training regimens finally caught up with him. In 2019, Mike represented Tennessee in six events and won two bronze medals, one fourth-place, two fifth-place, and an eighth-place completion at the Senior Olympic National Games. Soon after returning home from nationals, the pain in his hip worsened, requiring the athlete to sit out a season to recover from hip replacement surgery.

Mike was just getting acquainted with his new hip when his track record of perfect health came to a screeching halt. “My numbers weren’t adding up; the doctors couldn’t figure out why my PSA was so elevated (12.63 ng/mL) and why my prostate was so enlarged,” he explained. “A couple of ER visits and some big scares caught the attention of my doctors, and we decided to dig in and get answers.” An unrelated issue that began once he was discharged from the hospital following surgery led the doctors to discover that Mike had prostate cancer. Intermediately aggressive. Without treatment, he was looking at a survival rate of five years.

“It’s not too often that you’re given the option to choose life over death, but at that moment, I only saw one option: fight as I’ve never fought before,” he shared, sitting taller in his chair as though he was gearing up for battle. Mike soon found himself caught in a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, oncology consultations, and, the day before Thanksgiving, in the operating room for a Radical Prostatectomy. After the surgery and his oncologist’s hopeful prognosis that they were able to remove all of the cancer cells, life returned to a more normal pace. When the time came for follow-up tests, there was the usual amount of anxiety, but everyone felt optimistic that the cancer was gone. Following a Radical Prostatectomy, the ideal PSA level would be undetectable and, at the very most, .05, which would also fall within reasonable limits. Mike’s PSA level was .16, and with each re-check, the numbers rose. This could only mean one thing: his battle wasn’t over yet.

With tears in his eyes, he thought back to the magnitude of those test results: “hearing the news the second time was probably even harder than the first. I was disappointed, frustrated, and worried about what was to come. There was so much joy that my family experienced following my prostatectomy, anticipating all of the wonderful memories I would get to experience, and it felt like my second chance at life was taken away just as soon as it was placed in my arms.” In the middle of his darkest moments, Mike had a thought: he was going to run. “I had two goals when I found out I would be going through additional cancer treatments: 1) to not become a couch potato because the drugs used would deplete my muscle tone and bone density and 2) to use my very first run at the start of treatment as a control group of sorts, so I could track how the radiation and hormones were impacting my body,” said Mike. Sitting in the exam room, Mike was met with skepticism as he shared his goal of completing 100+ runs and 400 miles by the time he completed his radiation treatments. The oncologist in charge of Mike’s treatment assured him that he would “crash” at some point during treatment and that this beneficial (but aggressive) running schedule may have to be paused when the inevitable symptoms arrived and overpowered his drive and energy. His eyes twinkling, Mike chuckled: “he didn’t know who he was dealing with!”

Visibly cringing, Mike remembered that on his first run, “within 30 seconds, I said to myself out loud; ‘what were you thinking, Mike?!’ because it was so terrible. I felt awful!” Performance metrics were a big deal for the former Senior games athlete, “I tracked my weight and body fat, the distance of the run, the time I left the house, average pace and time to complete,” he shared. That first run lasted for two miles, and with each subsequent run, Mike’s distance grew, and the time to complete decreased.

Mike didn’t skip a single day in July and August, and some days warranted two separate runs. When the side effects of the hormone therapy became unbearable and sleep evaded him, Mike would lace up his shoes and hit the pavement in the middle of the night. When the skin burns from radiation made resting nearly impossible, the middle-of-the-night movement saved his sanity. Always grateful to be an inspiration to others, Mike recalls one moment, in particular, that gave him the motivation he needed to finish a challenging run: “I was running around the lake in my neighborhood at 2:00 AM when a car slowly drove past me. Ten minutes later, that same car pulled beside me, and a young gentleman rolled down his window and explained that he had seen me running previously and wanted me to know that I motivated him to go home, get dressed and go to his 24-hour gym for a workout.” On another early-morning run, Mike was pulled over by the Sheriff in his neighborhood during a 4:00 AM run, “I asked him if I was getting a ticket and his response was ‘no, I’ve been tracking your time, you’re doing great!’” Mike laughed, remembering his close run-in with the law.

As a longtime member of the Lowe’s team, both in the Lebanon and Spring Hill stores, many of Mike’s customers and coworkers have followed his journey and cheered him on every step of the way. Throughout his diagnosis and treatments, kind gestures, understanding leaders, and empathetic customers made all the difference in lifting his spirits and keeping Mike on track. “I regularly interact with customers while on the sales floor, but I also had to ensure I was taking care of my daily water intake before leaving for my radiation treatments. I would set my phone alarm for all the things I needed to do each day: drink water, leave for radiation, etc., and when I greeted new customers, I would let them know about the various alarms that may go off during our conversation so they would understand why I had to pause a moment to take a drink of water.” Mike’s treatments were done over his lunch hour, and he would need four full bottles of water in his system before leaving for radiation. “Customers would hear my alarm go off and jokingly say, ‘Mike! Drink your water!’” he laughed, clearly touched by the care and concern of the people rallying around him.

One particularly special moment, Mike recalls, is the day that a “customer came into the store and approached me with tears in her eyes. I asked if everything was alright, and she said, ‘yes, I came in to ask how you were doing and to let you know that your story encouraged me to get off the couch. I am on my way to the gym to quit complaining about my situation, be more active, and take control of my life.’” While his journey to beat cancer hasn’t been an easy one, with every stride, Mike envisioned himself outrunning the cancer and now, he shares, that “each step is used to inspire others to get active and live life to the fullest – while you still have a chance.”

On September 10th, Mike will be lacing up his sneakers to once again participate in Sherry’s Run, a 5k Run/Walk in Lebanon, TN, that provides hope and support to families battling cancer in Wilson County and surrounding communities. In previous years, Mike and his family showed their support by walking, running, and cheering on the participants from the sidelines. “This year, everything looks different,” Mike’s wife, Debbie, shared. “This year, we’re celebrating the grit, strength, tenacity, and bravery of this husband, father, and grandfather who looked cancer square in the eye and told it he wasn’t going anywhere. This year, we’re celebrating our survivor.” When his toes cross that finish line, Mike’s goal of completing 100 runs will be met, and he can’t wait to tell his oncologist: “I told you so!”

His advice to other cancer warriors? “I believe you beat cancer by how you show up to the battle. You beat it by how you press on, even when the days are challenging and the nights are unbearable. You beat cancer by how you live in victory, even if you aren’t yet victorious.” Only time will tell if the radiation and therapies fully cured Mike Hoppel’s cancer, but today and every day following, he is choosing to lean on his faith, his love for his family, and his passion for inspiring others.

“How do I do it? My desire to LIVE…to live a life that inspires others, to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up, to live out my golden years that I have worked so tirelessly to reach…these deeply held desires fuel every step of my runs.”

It turns out that Mike Hoppel was never really running FOR his life. No…he was actually running TO his life.

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