3/27/2017 3:54:00 PM Hopeful for a recovery Palmer being treated for rare, aggressive form of cancer
Eric and Stephanie Palmer, along with their children – (from left) Emma, Keagan, Sophia and Madalyn – milk 150 cows near Waukon, Iowa. Eric is currently undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of brain cancer. PHOTO SUBMITTED
By Kelli Boylen
WAUKON, Iowa - Eric Palmer has always been the type of person to keep pushing through when he didn't feel well. In the last 25 years, he has only been sick enough to go to the doctor a handful of times. But when he started having headaches every day during a week late last fall, he knew something wasn't right. The headaches were severe enough that he would get nauseous and sick from the bouncing of the skid loader on his family's dairy farm. Eric milks 150 cows with his wife, Stephanie, and several part-time milkers in a step up parlor near Waukon, Iowa. In addition to the cows, the Palmers farm about 700 acres. His headaches were caused by an uncommon and very aggressive form of brain cancer. On Nov. 21, he went to the clinic in Waukon to have his headaches checked. His appointment was at 1:30, and by 2 p.m. a CAT scan showed a possible tumor. By 3 p.m., an MRI showed a mass in the right temporal area of his brain. Stephanie quickly made phone calls to find someone to take care of feeding and the 4 p.m. milking of their dairy cows that first night. By 5 p.m., they were headed for a larger hospital in La Crosse, Wis., where he was admitted to Mayo, and surgery was scheduled for two days later. What Eric and Stephanie thought was just going to be a doctor's appointment turned into Eric not coming home for over two weeks. Their children, Madalyn, 14, Emma, 12, Keagan, 9, and Sophia, 6, stayed with Eric's parents, Greg and Marlene Palmer, who also live on the family farmstead. Many people offered assistance on the farm. Greg ran the farm's day-to-day operations. Their regular milking employees were a big help by filling in the milking schedule in Stephanie's absence. They hired neighbor Lyle Stock to work full time on the farm during the winter. Stock helped the Palmers while maintaining his own operation. Jim Thesing also helped out as needed. The first surgery seemed to go well, but the next day (Thanksgiving Day), Eric could not move the left side of his body. Another round of CAT scans and MRIs determined he had suffered a stroke. He was in intensive care for two days; Stephanie said he doesn't remember the worst of it. They started physical therapy the first day. "It was amazing how fast he progressed," Stephanie said. "Every 12 to 24 hours, we could actually see some type of improvement." Within a week, he could walk with a walker, and as a left-handed person, he had to relearn some life skills for his hands. "It was very humbling to watch him struggle to walk," Stephanie said. "He was a healthy 43-year-old man." Having recovered enough on, Nov. 29, he was transferred to the local swing bed care center in Waukon. Eric remained there for another week, continuing intense therapy; finally returning home on Dec. 5. Stephanie stayed with the kids as much as she could during this time so things remained as normal as possible for them. She also resumed her usual duties on the farm; juggling her time between Eric's needs and appointments, the kids, and the farm. While at the hospital with her husband, Stephanie was able to manage the herd using her smart phone and tablet, which is tied into their cow manager system to monitor activity and health. "I leaned heavily on that and was able to keep an eye on things, even though we were an hour away. That way I didn't stress so much about that," she said. During week five of the chemo and radiation, Eric had an adverse reaction to the treatment. What started as a simple rash erupted into huge red hives head to toe. He had severe edema, to the point that his ankles swelled so quickly that the skin blistered. The most severe symptoms lasted more than two weeks; everything itched, and then everything peeled. They were never able to determine what caused the reaction, either the antibiotics he was taking to prevent pneumonia or the chemo drug. There is only one chemotherapy drug believed to treat this type of cancer, so options are limited. He recently started another round of oral chemo, which he can take at home. This round of treatments will last for six months. Just before they started the chemo, they tried to desensitize him to the chemo drug, and thus far things are going well. It is still unknown if Eric will be able to return full-time to their family dairy farm, how much he will physically be able to do, or how the cancer and the treatments will affect him into the future. "The side effects of the treatments can show up for years, it is a big unknown," Stephanie said. Eric agreed. "We just don't know what is going to happen," Eric said. "We are praying and planning for a full recovery, and to stand on our own two feet again, but we just really don't know." The Palmers are hopeful about the future. "The most recent brain scans looked promising," Stephanie said. "But we are dealing with cancer and there are no guarantees." The Palmers stressed they are so appreciative of all that has been done for them thus far; Stephanie didn't have to cook for more than a month. "The community support has been phenomenal, and it has helped us to maintain some normalcy for the kids. Nothing rallies like a small town," she said. In addition to the medical costs, there is the cost of extra hired help on the farm. They also have been putting a lot of miles on their vehicles, traveling back and forth to La Crosse and then Rochester.