Nothing can stop St. Joseph resident Sean Aebersold — not even a life-threatening disease.
Diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in June 2018, Aebersold spends part of his week doing what was once thought impossible, as he lifts weights and exercises.
“With this last year, you just wake up and thank God that you’re moving ... To be able to do this is great,’” he said.
As he goes through his strength-training circuit, Aebersold reflects on the event that changed his life. He recalls preparing for work at Kansas City Power and Light and as he tried to talk, the words that came out were garbled and incoherent.
“He was healthy. He worked lots of overtime. He worked out. He had no prior symptoms,” Shelly Aebersold, his wife, said. “Within 20 of minutes of being in the emergency room, they told us he had a mass on his brain.”
Tests concluded he had glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The diagnosis came as a reality check. About 30 percent of people survive one year after being diagnosed, and the numbers decline from there. It was the cause of death for the late Sen. John McCain.
Sean has beat the odds and lived past that one-year mark. Shelly and he remain optimistic that he’ll continue to surpass all expectations.
Next week, the St. Joseph residents will do what they’ve done on a regular basis for the past year: go see their doctor for an MRI to check on the status of the tumor and make sure there are no new ones forming. Shelly said they’ve been hopeful, as the original tumor has been stable since her husband underwent chemotherapy.
“That’s always hard whenever you come up, we always remain very hopeful. But still, whenever you go in for that scan, (we have) the anxiety that we call ‘scan-xiety,’” she said.
Shelly and Sean are used to leaning on each other for support. In 2018, they celebrated their 30th anniversary.
Both long-time St. Joseph residents, their paths didn’t cross until they met in the Missouri Air Guard. Sharing a mutual love of God and a passion for traveling, they spent a lot of time growing deeper in faith and taking in cultures around the world.
The other big presence is Sean’s life was his job as a lineman for KCP&L. Raised with an attitude to help others and always be hard at work, he spent much of his time helping restore power during storms and blizzards in the area and in the aftermath of natural disasters in other places.
“We went out to dinner and I said ‘You know, you would be working right now.’ You know, that was just life. When it got hot, he would be working. When it stormed, he would be working,” Shelly said.
Prior to the cancer diagnosis, the couple talked about future vacations, including one for their anniversary.
“We had a trip for 30th anniversary plan to go to Costa Rica. Then he got diagnosed June 28,” Shelly said.
They were also planning for retirement.
“We always talked about retirement all the time. Probably too much, didn’t we?” Shelly said to Sean, who laughed. “So when he got diagnosed, it was like, ‘We’re just going to act like we’re retired.’”
This type of retirement for both of them includes many doctor visits, daily rounds of medications and supplements, the application of a special electronic cap to help kill potentially cancerous cells and daily battles with the disease’s effect on his balance and short-term memory. In the past year, he’s lost about 40 pounds due to the chemotherapy.
Both admit that it’s often exhausting and frustrating. But in all of those tiring days, there’s love, clarity and deeper sense of vulnerability than they’d previously experienced.
“For me, it’s one of the most honorable things in life, to take care of your spouse. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in six months. But it’s still going to be my honor to take of him,” Shelly said.
During Sean’s rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he became close with the doctors and nurses at the Mosaic Life Care Cancer Center. They shared tears and laughs and when it came to ring the bell, which signifies the conclusion of chemotherapy, he went out the door smiling.
“I had so much fun with them. I joked and said, ‘Who knew cancer could be so much fun?’” Sean said laughing.
That sunny demeanor, mixed with a hard-working attitude stood out to Sean’s personal trainer, Bob Boyles. When he comes to the gym, Boyles said he enters with no complaints.
“I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and I’ll have people that are young and healthy, they whine about little, insignificant things,” he said. “I’ve seen so many people like (Sean Aebersold) that are so driven and (he has) to do it under such dire conditions. And (he) just (does) it. That just impresses the hell out of me.”
In this fight, the Aebersolds have clung to their friends, family and faith. As Sean performs a series of row exercises, the quote from Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen on the back of his shirt stands out: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Sean said he lives by that quote.
“We don’t hold this against anybody. We don’t blame anybody. This isn’t from God. He’s not that kind of God. He cares for us,” Sean said.
When talking with friends and family about Sean’s battle, the Aebersolds discuss the possibility of death openly, but don’t dwell on it.
“When God calls me, I’m going,” Sean said.
Thinking about the hours he’s spent with children diagnosed with cancer, Sean said that’s what angers him most. By his calculation, he’s lived a long, fulfilled life. He hates to see kids who haven’t had that chance.
“There’s kids that are suffering worse than I am every day. Whenever you get people that says ‘Well that’s just not fair.’ Well what is fair? Be careful what you think is fair because fair can be a whole lot worse,” he said.
In June, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill designating July 17 as Glioblastoma Awareness Day. The resolution highlights the need for a cure for the disease and honors those diagnosed with it, as well as survivors and caregivers. The Aebersolds said they were touched personally by the measure and hope it will lead to people becoming more aware of it.
A year since Sean’s diagnosis, he’s been able to get back into doing some of the things he loves. He recently ran a 5K, was able to get back to biking and is able to travel. He said he’d love to return one day to KCP&L in some type of advisory position so he can put his extensive knowledge to work.
For now, Shelly and he are living in the moment. There’s no blessing that gets taken for granted or day that’s wasted.
“It’s beautiful because I’ve been given a second chance,” Sean said through tears. “Each morning is different, way different. I yearn to get out in the morning and hear the birds. It’s a reminder of God’s grace.”