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Not All Cancer Wears Pink

By: Magie Lacambra, MEd, ATC, Gatorade Team Sports Manager

They say that life only gives you as much as you can handle. Well, Roger Caplinger was given the biggest challenge of his life, and he rose to the occasion.

A Denver, Colorado native, Roger always knew he wanted to be an athletic trainer. Following his freshman year, when football was dropped at Southern Colorado State as a result of Title IX equity, Roger transferred to Metropolitan State University to complete his bachelor’s degree (1989). This same year, Roger secured a position as an intern for the Denver Zephyrs, the Triple A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, which eventually turned into positions with the club’s Rookie Ball team and Pioneer League team. In 1992, Roger took a year off from baseball to earn a master’s degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder, before returning to the Brewers organization as the athletic trainer for the club’s Arizona Rookie League team. Roger realized that the club needed a Minor League coordinator, a position that did not exist with the Brewers, and only a couple of other clubs had, and convinced the club’s then farm coordinator, Fred Stanley, to let him serve in that role, which was quickly adopted by all 30 Major League clubs.

In 1998, Roger was promoted to assistant athletic trainer with the Milwaukee Brewers, working with Head Athletic Trainer John Adam, while continuing to serve as Minor League coordinator for the club. Four years later, changes in the organization made Roger head athletic trainer with the Brewers.

During the 2011 season, Roger realized that, although he loved his job as head athletic trainer, he was getting burned out with the schedule and wanted to spend more time at home with his family. Roger pitched a new position, director of medical operations, to Doug Melvin, senior advisor baseball operations, and Gord Ash, vice president Baseball Projects, at the Brewers. He explained how he would ensure continuity of care by overseeing psychology, rehab, strength and conditioning, sports performance, and athletic training, as well as handle workers’ compensation, budgeting and all other administrative tasks. Melvin and Ash understood the burnout that Roger was experiencing, while acknowledging the value he could add to their club and moved forward with the new position. After the season in 2011, Roger transitioned to this new role.

Fast forward to November 2017; Roger began experiencing low-grade stomach aches, which at first he assumed to be food poisoning. When they didn’t subside after three days, Roger decided to call his personal doctor, who also happened to be the Brewers’ team physician, Dr. Mark Niedfeldt. Dr. Niedfeldt saw Roger in his office that same day, and after multiple tests and scans, confirmed Roger had stage 1 pancreatic cancer. “I remember immediately thinking to myself, ‘Roger you better get your act together because you are way stronger than this. You cannot let this beat you. You have way too much to live for and you are a fighter.’” That was the first and last time Roger thought about himself during this journey.

Right away, the Brewers organization responded with support, even offering transportation via the team plane to cancer centers across the country. After researching the various options and talking to Bob Uecker, a pancreatic pathology survivor, Roger decided to stay in Milwaukee for his treatment. He wanted to show the city of Milwaukee that they have the best medical care for pancreatic cancer in the country.

Roger chose Dr. Douglas Evans, professor of surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery at The Medical College of Wisconsin, to lead the treatment as he had specific interest in research in the biology of pancreatic cancer. His treatment would consist of six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, six weeks of clinical trials with Doxycycline, a clinical trial for Linac Elekta MRI, and Whipple procedure, followed by extensive chemotherapy.

Roger agreed to participate in clinical trials that the Medical College of Wisconsin is known for, as this would not only help him, but it could help others diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after him. One of the trials focused on T cells. Imaging cannot pick up microscopic T cells that could manifest and cause cancer to return. A clinical trial using Doxycycline, a traditional acne medication, is helping mitigate the T cells from returning, and is showing huge success. As part of this trial, Roger donated his tumor to MIT for continued research on pancreatic cancer tumors.

Another very promising clinical trial that Roger participated in involves the use of Linac Elekta MRI. This technology provides real-time imaging with unparalleled clarity, allowing the clinician to deliver radiation directly to the tumor, while visualizing surrounding healthy tissues and improving the outcome of radiation therapy. The Medical College of Wisconsin has one of only two of these units in the country.

Following chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Roger would undergo the Whipple procedure. Otherwise known as pancreaticoduodenectomy, this is a surgery to remove tumors of the pancreas, offering the best chance for long-term control of all pancreatic cancers. This surgery is very difficult and complex as it removes and reconstructs a large portion of the gastrointestinal tract. On the date of surgery, in the pre-op room, Dr. Evans asked Roger if he was ready. “Dr. Evans I am more than ready. I am more than ready for me, but I am more than ready for everyone else but me. I want to be an advocate for this disease. The organization is going to give me a platform to promote this disease. You held my hand in your exam room and you are holding my hand right now and you told me, ‘You are going to be fine,’” he said.

Post-surgery, Roger needed drains in his abdomen to manage small leaks in his pancreas. After discharge, Jackie, Roger’s wife, became his primary caregiver. She converted the spare bedroom into his personal retreat, complete with a mechanical bed, pillows, TV, dimming lights and a night stand, which gave Roger a quiet place to recover and rest. He received lots of support from friends across the country. From heating pads and various Gatorade bars from Medco, to many messages of encouragement from colleagues and friends, the response of support was overwhelming and greatly appreciated. “Those are the friends we have. I have a hard time asking for help, but friends helped,” he admitted.

Anyone who knows Roger is familiar with his commitment and determination for everything he does. Roger’s goal was to make it to Opening Day, and on April 2, 2018, with drains still intact, Roger attended Opening Day at Miller Park.

With support from the entire Brewers organization, Roger continued to work as much as he was able while undergoing treatment, but nobody placed any expectations on him other than to take care of himself. The club built Roger an office in his home, identical to his office at Miller Park. “Our organization has been unbelievable in handling my journey. They have given me the latitude to do whatever I need to do to beat this thing. From front office administration to Craig Counsel, the team has been ultra-supportive of me, and I could not have made it through this journey without them,” he said.

Roger’s family has also been instrumental during this journey. Jackie was with him every step of the way. She served as his partner, motivator, enforcer, nurse and advocate. She held his hand on every trip to the cancer center, and she spoke up on his behalf when he was pushed too far. She searched for food that he could eat, and she kept everyone informed of his status. Their sons, Kyle and Brett, and close family friend, Nick, were pillars of support throughout the process, too.

Another support group that has been instrumental to Roger is PBATS. Roger recalls phone calls and texts of support from President Mark O’Neal, advisor Neil Romano and a host of athletic trainers within the brotherhood. PBATS presented Roger with the President’s Most Distinguished Award at the MLB Winter Meetings in December 2018. “This award recognizes Roger’s relentless fight in his personal battle, as well as his direction heading up the EMR program from its inception,” said O’Neal.

Roger wanted to bring this team concept together, so he and Jackie decided they needed a slogan. Two phrases quickly surfaced: “We’ve Got This” and “Battle Ready.” The Brewers decided to make blue bracelets with “WE’VE GOT THIS” and “BATTLE READY” printed in yellow on the outside and MBBC (Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club) and RC (Roger Caplinger) printed on the inside. These bracelets were handed out to just a few people initially, but interest grew with folks who wanted to show support for Roger, and soon many wore the blue bracelets. Roger was also given a bracelet that read “MR HAPPY” – the nickname Samantha, a colleague, gave him for his upbeat personality and just wanting to get things done. Roger wore that bracelet and used it as a reminder every time he went to the clinic or cancer center to be positive and appreciative with everyone.

The national survival rate of pancreatic cancer is 9 percent. Dr. Evans’ survival rate of pancreatic cancer is 22 percent. These numbers scared Roger. This fear fueled his desire to increase the survival rate. Roger never once questioned why he got pancreatic cancer. Instead he thought, “The good Lord gave me this for a reason, and I am not going to focus on myself, but instead focus on helping other people. I want to eradicate this disease.” While fighting this disease, Roger did interviews with local news outlets and he spoke at various events to bring awareness to the disease and encourage people to listen to their bodies and get checked out.

In addition to Dr. Evans, Roger assembled a team of caregivers from the Medical College of Wisconsin, including Dr. Paul Rich (medical oncologist), Dr. Beth Erickson (radiation oncologist), nurses, a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Each member of this team played a special role, and Roger credits all of them for his success. They adjusted the treatment plan as needed during the process, including post-surgery chemotherapy that Roger did not realize would be so extensive, to helping him find the right foods to eat, and keeping his strength and fitness up as much as possible.

As a result, Roger became a major advocate for We Care, the philanthropic entity of the Medical College of Wisconsin for Pancreatic Cancer. One hundred percent of donations to We Care go directly toward research for pancreatic cancer.

On December 1, 2017, Roger received his diagnosis of Stage 1 Pancreatic Cancer. On October 30, 2018, Roger heard the words Dr. Evans had promised he would say, “Roger, you are cured.”

“My diagnosis changed me. It has changed me for the better. It is not about being at the ballpark 15 hours a day. It’s not about being married to your cell phone. It’s about how you live your life. It’s about how you treat other people and how you can make a difference in this world,” he said.

Last December, the Caplingers took a family trip to Hawaii to celebrate Roger’s victory. One morning, on the beach alone, tears running down his face, Roger thought, “We did it! We did this! We beat this! Our entire team, whether they know it or not, we did it!”

Spring training 2019 is underway and Roger is excited to be in Arizona with the team. He is excited about the team’s new facility and to get back to normalcy, while continuing to bring awareness to pancreatic cancer.