Daily Herald American Cancer Society
Teacher finds more than artistic talent inspires students

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Al Ochsner, Geneva High School art teacher, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2007.

Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner says he hopes his commitment to doodling, sketching and drawing inspires his students to explore their own creative instincts.

But students and fellow teachers say it's more than simply his artistic talents that they find inspiring about the man himself.

The single father of two who began substitute teaching at the far west suburban high school in 1999 also is a cancer survivor with a harrowing story of survival and determination.

After working for years as a successful illustrator and graphic designer, Ochsner says he discovered a passion for sharing his love of art with students.

"Art is still a huge part of my day,” Ochsner explains. "I enjoy ceramics, do lots of computer work, animation, sketches in PhotoShop, constantly draw and sketch. I guess you could say I'm the consummate sketcher."

'I felt swollen glands'

While substitute teaching, the 47-year-old designer, who occasionally does freelance work for The Daily Herald, returned to earn his degree from Northern Illinois University. He joined the Geneva High staff as a permanent art instructor in 2006. A year later, the unthinkable happened.

"I felt swollen glands last summer and they simply didn't go away," he recalls. "There was a lump on the left side of my neck, but no other problems and I didn't think too much of it initially."

Ochsner did become concerned later that fall after seeing pictures of himself at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for his parents, Lorraine and Al Ochsner of Geneva.

"I could clearly see the lump and started to wonder about occasional swallowing difficulties like food going down the wrong pipe," he says. "By July 2007, I made an appointment with my doctor and was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist."

Ochsner, who years ago did volunteer design work for the American Cancer Society, says his worries dissipated when his doctor suggested the lump could be due to goiter. He wasn't worried, but understood the need to have the growth removed.

Thyroid cancer facts

According to the American Cancer Society, MTC accounts for only about five percent of all cases of thyroid cancer. It develops in the C cells of the thyroid gland, sometimes spreading to the lymph nodes, lungs or liver before a thyroid nodule is discovered.

Of the 37,340 new cases of thyroid cancer expected to be diagnosed this year, 8,930 will be men. Chances of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer have increased slightly in recent years, with increased use of the thyroid ultrasound exam detecting smaller thyroid nodules that previously might not have been found. Most are smaller papillary cancers that are rarely fatal.

Ochsner says teaching colleague Louise Grissinger, another Geneva High art instructor, was instrumental in guiding him to the right medical help. She put Ochsner in touch with thyroid expert Dr. Cord Sturgeon, a surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

His opinion, following an ultrasound exam, was more alarming. Dr. Sturgeon saw a blood flow concern and biopsied the lump in office on Friday. On Monday, Ochsner was in his own doctor's office awaiting testing when he received the fateful news. He had cancer.

"I remember hearing I had something called medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) and that I didn't need radiation or chemotherapy," he recalls. "I did need major surgery. My doctor was very professional, but it didn't lessen the seriousness of the situation."

Vowing to bounce back

Ochsner say he remembers leaving the doctor's office and not wanting to call his mom and dad with the news. So he stopped in for a surprise visit.

"I made them laugh and told them I had cancer all in one breath," he says. "I also told my sons and later shared the news with my students."

Ochsner says he was upfront with his class, telling them that he was indeed frightened, but vowing to bounce back.

"I admitted I wasn't cool with the diagnosis, but shared my determination to take care of it," he says. "My dad, who was at the time facing a liver cancer battle, became an important role model and I was touched by all the well wishes and support."

What was predicted to be a six-hour procedure turned into a 12-hour saga as Northwestern surgeons worked to remove the cancer that had spread to Ochsner's laryngeal nerve, controlling his voice box. Three centimeters of the laryngeal nerve were removed and a microsurgeon was called to relocate a nerve from his right ankle to his neck. Major lymph nodes also were removed.

Two additional surgical procedures during the holiday season were required, and Ochsner was able to return to school with his students after the New Year.

"My quick recovery wasn't simple, but can be attributed to the surgeons' incredible skills and total support from friends and family members," he says. "School colleagues, students, neighbors, friends from St. Peter's Catholic Church where I'm a member and others sent food, gift cards and donations. Even students and teachers throughout School District 304 sent well wishes. Everyone was so supportive. It was humbling."

Passion for yoga sped recovery

Ochsner says it was a passion for yoga that came in handy and helped speed recovery. After eight years of teaching yoga three times a week at nearby Delnor-Community Health & Wellness Center, he found himself in a unique position to best understand the need for strength, endurance and empowerment. Exercise had always been important to the enthusiast who previously earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

"Yoga breathing techniques helped me to relax and maximize the input of oxygen into my system," he explains. "Because cancer can't survive in an oxygen-rich environment, I was determined to bring oxygen into my body and envisioned getting stronger each day."

Ochsner practices a form of yoga known as Hatha, one of four main traditions of the Indian tantra yoga best known to Western culture. The ancient 5,000-year-old art of yoga involves a series of steady pose "asanas," emphasizing deep breathing, relaxed movements and mental concentration. All he says were especially helpful during recovery.

While his laryngeal nerve still isn't working at 100 percent, Ochsner says his voice is still loud enough to get his students' attention.

Ochsner says one thing he has learned during his medical journey to health is that "you are never alone in this fight."

He credits medical research and technology as well as his doctors' skill for his success and says his recovery is nothing short of miraculous.

"I must have been in the right place at the right time," he speculates. "Ten to 20 years ago, this wouldn't have been possible."


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