Jim Luebbe patted his baby’s back and joked about sleepless nights like any new father. Sam, his newborn son, slept soundly as Luebbe talked about the baby’s tendency to sleep all day and cry all night.
Snuggled on the couch of their Crystal Lake home, the pair was relaxed and peaceful. As Luebbe stroked Sam’s head with a finger, he talked about how Sam had brought new focus to his life since his brain cancer diagnosis in 2010.
In July of that year, Luebbe suffered a grand mal seizure, the force of which was so strong that it broke his back. He and his wife, Cathy Luebbe, sought the help of experts to determine the cause of his seizure. Within a few weeks, the Luebbes had received a devastating diagnosis for Jim. He had a grade IV glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor that is difficult to treat because of its penetrating nature. Jim was 38 years old.
“We were with both sets of our parents when the doctor told us I had between six months and two years to live,” Jim said. “I don’t think I reacted right away, but I remember everyone else was crying.” The fast-growing cancer gave the Luebbes little time to absorb the news. They spoke with experts at a leading university medical center in Chicago who said Jim needed to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments as quickly as possible. That was when Cathy contacted the Centegra Sage Cancer Center to learn more about the care that was available close to home.
“Jim likes to be at home and I couldn’t imagine taking him into the city every day for six weeks,” Cathy said. “We would have had to spend at least six hours every day going for treatment or we would have had to find housing in Chicago. When I learned about the Centegra Sage Cancer Center, it was like I could breathe again.”
Cathy spoke to Amy Moerschbaecher, executive director of oncology and cardiac services at Centegra. Moerschbaecher talked about the state-of-the-art treatments Jim could receive at the Centegra Sage Cancer Center, which was less than 10 minutes from the Luebbe home.
“She also told me about the counseling support and nutrition services that are available, and said we could receive that help no matter where we chose to go for treatment,” Cathy said. “We made an appointment to meet the physicians and staff right away.” Jim said he and Cathy felt cared for the moment they arrived at Centegra.
“It didn’t take us very long to realize that the medicine and treatments are the same no matter where you go, but at Centegra we were treated like people who had lives beyond cancer,” Jim said.
In their first appointment with Dr. Terrence Bugno, an independent radiation oncologist with Centegra Sage Cancer Center, the Luebbes felt a deep connection to him and his approach to cancer treatment.
“What’s important to you?”
“Dr. Bugno reviewed my medical information like any other doctor would, but then he asked about what was most important to Cathy and me,” Jim said. “He talked to us about nutrition and about things like meditation and visualization. We wanted to do everything we could to make my treatments effective, and we felt excited when we left our appointment. That’s not something you usually say when you have brain cancer.” As Jim began chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Cathy focused on providing a well-rounded approach to Jim’s care. Jim often quoted Bugno, who had told him, “if you don’t look for side effects, you may not find them.” Aside from losing his hair and being more tired than usual, Jim didn’t suffer severe side effects of chemotherapy.
“I actually enjoyed going in for radiation treatments at the cancer center,” Jim said. “Everyone there knew my name, and they always asked about Cathy or about something that was important to me, like football or our cats. They understood that I’m a person and cancer is just something that happened to me.” Bugno said despite the overwhelming, life-changing diagnosis Jim had received, he and Cathy wanted to live each day to the fullest and to seek the best quality of life possible.”They were inquisitive, proactive yet realistic, very compliant with every aspect of care and of deep faith and conviction,” Bugno said. “They had great family support.”
Dreaming of becoming parents
As Jim completed treatments and began to feel better, he and Cathy started to talk about their longtime dream to become parents. Just a few weeks after a party that celebrated Jim’s first year of cancer survivorship, the couple announced that they were expecting a baby in the first part of 2012.
“It was great to have something positive to focus our energy on. Our family and our friends were so happy for us, and it gave us something new to talk about,” Jim said.
On Jan. 31, 2012, Jim and Cathy celebrated life when they welcomed Sam to their family after his birth at Centegra Hospital-McHenry.”He’s perfect,” Cathy said. “He’s such a blessing and we are so grateful to have him.” During Cathy and Sam’s hospital stay, Jim visited Centegra Hospital-McHenry’s Infusion Center for IV medication treatment. As he walked into the center, he received applause and hugs from the nurses, who begged to see baby pictures on Jim’s cell phone.
“I knew right then and there that I wasn’t the star of the show anymore,” he joked. “All they wanted to talk about was Sam.” After his infusion treatment, a nurse volunteered to walk Jim to Cathy’s hospital room. Instead, she detoured to the Centegra Sage Cancer Center, where more nurses waited to congratulate him about Sam’s arrival.”
Dr. Bugno came out and told me congratulations. He gave me a hug and he bowed to me,” Jim said. “It was really cool to share that with all of them.”
Focus shifts from cancer to smiles
Now that Sam is at home, the Luebbes are focused more on baby smiles than cancer.
“Cancer isn’t something you can ignore, but I do what I need to do every day and then I’m living my normal life. Sam has already changed so much, and I’m enjoying every minute with him and Cathy,” Jim said.He recently took a medical leave from his job as a school psychologist with Community Unit School District 300 so he could focus on his recovery and on his time with family. He receives monthly MRIs and Centegra’s physicians coordinate treatments with physicians at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Jim has had re-radiation of the brain at Centegra and continues to receive drug therapies.
“I have learned a lot about my faith and about life since I got cancer,” Jim said. “The little things just don’t matter anymore. Right now I want to support Cathy and enjoy Sam because I think Cathy has the hardest part with this. She has supported me and done all the research and has taken care of everything. She’s made it easy for me to just concentrate on getting better, and she’s carried the burden of the worry and stress.” Jim said the support of family and friends has overwhelmed Cathy and him, and he believes the prayers that have been said for them have helped during his recovery.
“Everyone reacts differently when you find out you have cancer,” Jim said. “Some people want to make food and others want to clean your house. Other people don’t know what to say. Before cancer I’d heard people say “ËœI’ll pray for you,’ to others and it didn’t mean much to me. It takes on a new meaning when you know so many people are keeping you in their prayers. It’s been so important to Cathy and me.”
Paying it forward
Jim is also enjoying the opportunity to pay it forward. He remembered something Bugno told him at one of his appointments at Centegra.
“I told Dr. Bugno that I didn’t know how to thank everyone for the care I’ve received, and he told me to focus on getting better and then to pay it forward,” Jim said. “I’ve had the chance to support one of our friends who was diagnosed with cancer, and I’m here to talk to other people who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I want people to know about the great care I found at Centegra.” Bugno said it was a privilege to get to know Jim and Cathy and to be a part of their care team.
“This story represents the true healing exchanges that typify cancer care in our community,” Bugno said. “We draw inspiration from the example of love as manifest in Jim, Cathy and their ‘gift,’ Sam. It reminds us at the Centegra Sage Cancer Center that who we are is often as important as what we do.” As excited new parents, Jim and Cathy are happy to take the spotlight off of cancer and to shine it on their new baby. His name, Sam, comes from two things: Jim’s love of Van Halen rocker Sammy Hagar and the meaning of the name Samuel, which is, “God listened.”
”We have been talking to God a lot since all this started. His name just made sense, it just really seemed to fit in with how we approached having a child with everything that’s going on,” Jim said. “I still have cancer, but did we feel like that was worth not trying? We didn’t. We decided it was worth a chance and to see how it went. We were just very fortunate, and we had this baby, and so far he’s been very happy and very healthy and very wonderful.”