Roger Caplinger had been expecting good news, but nearly 11 months to the day after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the words still left him in tears.
“You are cancer free.”
That was the news delivered on Oct. 30 by Dr. Doug Evans of the Medical College of Wisconsin. Caplinger, the Milwaukee Brewers’ medical director, and wife Jackie hugged each other, their smiles beaming and tears running down their faces.
“In one of our very first meetings last December, Dr. Evans held my hand and said, ‘Roger, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be cured,’ ” Caplinger recalled. “I still said, ‘I want you to say it.’ He said, ‘Roger, I’m happy to report you are cured.’
“That’s what I needed to hear. You want that affirmation. That’s the outcome they want for every patient. But we know we are in the teens of percentages of people who have that outcome.”
Roger Caplinger, longtime medical director for the Milwaukee Brewers, talks about his battle with pancreatic cancer and the message of early diagnosis and treatment.
Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Which is why Caplinger is not done with pancreatic cancer. Beyond his work directing the health of players and off-field personnel with the Brewers, he has a new mission in life: promoting awareness of the disease, and better yet, finding a cure.
“We’re not going to stop trying to promote awareness of this,” he said. “We’re not going to stop trying to find a cure. We are going to keep finding people to help invest in our research. We want everybody to have this outcome.
“It’s not about me anymore. It’s about pancreatic cancer. We need to help our community and this country facilitate finding a cure.”
The entire month of November is dedicated to awareness of the disease with a specific day, Nov. 15, designated as World Pancreatic Cancer Day. On that day, more than 70 organizations from 30 countries will unite to raise awareness and raise funds for research.
One of those organizations is the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, otherwise known as PANCAN. Steve Lipshetz is the November Awareness and media chairman for the Milwaukee affiliate of PANCAN, which has several events scheduled throughout the month, including an event on Nov. 18 at the Mitchell Park Domes at which Caplinger is the keynote speaker.
That day, the Domes will be bathed in purple light, the color designated for pancreatic cancer awareness.
“Throughout the month, many prominent buildings across the area will be lighted in purple, including the Pfister (Hotel), U.S. Bank (Center), the Wisconsin Gas Building and many others,” said Lipshetz, whose wife Jeanne lost her mother and sister to pancreatic cancer.
“We are trying to do everything we can to promote awareness of this disease. Three people are diagnosed every day in Wisconsin with pancreatic cancer and two will die (within five years). Of the 55,000 diagnosed across the country each year, 44,000 will die (within five years).
“We want those who have the disease to know they are not alone. The color purple is a symbol of that support.”
Caplinger, 51 and a part of the Brewers organization for 30 years, certainly wasn’t alone during his 11-month fight with the disease, which included chemotherapy and radiation for six weeks, a complicated, intrusive surgery known as the “Whipple procedure,” followed by six more months of chemo. During that time, he had the full support of family and friends, the entire Brewers organization, the brilliant folks at the Medical College of Wisconsin and new acquaintances with PANCAN.
“There was not one day I felt alone,” Caplinger said. “I had my wife, my children, our doctors, our nurses, everybody was there checking in on me. That’s the way it is for everybody. I talked to many people who got the same support. And the credit goes to the Medical College of Wisconsin. Those people are unbelievable. They are the best in the world.
“They are so disciplined in their approach. Do you know how great it was to have that right here in Milwaukee? We didn’t have to go anywhere. I could look out the window while undergoing chemo and see Miller Park. MCW is literally in our backyard. That was my goal every day – to be cured and be back there in the same routine I was accustomed to, but with a different perspective.
“I’m still in several clinical trials and I have to adhere to the guidelines. I’ll be getting another CT scan in four months. They’ll keep tabs on me as far as how I’m doing and how I feel. So, it’s not over. It’s another step in the journey. But we are very fortunate to have the outcome we have.
“God has ‘blessed’ me with this disease for a reason. It’s to pay it forward and create awareness of pancreatic cancer and how this community and the Medical College can eradicate this disease.”
From diagnosis to cure, it was 11 months for Caplinger. In many ways it was 11 months of hell, including losing 25 percent of his body weight. But he is not complaining. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Instead, he is grateful to have survived with a clean prognosis, getting news that too few patients get to hear.
“It has been an unbelievable journey,” said Caplinger, who benefited immensely from early diagnosis. “But I’m a better person for it. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned a lot about everyone around me. There are people I didn’t know cared that much about me.
“When we got this diagnosis, we said, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to attack this?’ Jackie said, ‘Roger, you’ve been part of a team for the last 30 years. Why would this be any different? You cannot do this yourself. We cannot do this ourselves. We need a team behind us.’
“My colleagues here with the Brewers did whatever I needed. Everyone pulled together as an organization to help me fight this disease. That became my other full-time job. I am eternally grateful to them.
“It was the hardest year of my life but also the most rewarding year of my life because I learned so much about myself. I learned so much about my family, not to take them for granted. Baseball is a game. Your No. 1 goal is to win. Guess what? We won. We won this fight.”
Shortly after Caplinger’s diagnosis, Brewers director of integrative sports performance Bryson Nakamura came up with the slogans “We’ve Got This” and “Battle Ready,” which were printed on purple rubber wristbands distributed to close friends, fellow employees and others to show their support. Upon getting the news he is cancer-free, Caplinger did not take off his wristband and put it in a drawer.
“We’re not done,” he said. “My battle was won. Now, we’re going to battle for everybody else. We’re still wearing our bracelets for them.”