Ten years ago Joel Stetler would have never imagined standing in front of an assembly room full of elementary school students and faculty with tears running down his face, but it happened.
Stetler, 36, teaches 3rd grade at Lincoln Elementary. He’s not your typical teacher.
The Colorado native and father of three is a drummer and a marathon runner. He also has stage four cancer.
He was diagnosed with Sarcoma, a rare cancer that makes up less than one percent of all cancers, in 2015. He was 32.
“That was the age I decided I was going to start running my age in miles,” Stetler said. “I ran a 50K that year.”
Life as he knew it changed a few months later. It was the day before Thanksgiving when he got a call from his doctor saying that he better come in to discuss the results of some tests he had done.
Stetler got the news with his wife Amanda and young children by his side. The cancer was in his lungs and liver. It wasn’t good.
“I had never heard of this kind of cancer,” he said. “All I could think about was all the things we hadn’t done with our kids yet.”
The Stetler’s were living in Colorado when Joel was diagnosed. His oncologist recommended they move back to California, where the couple first met, because that’s where the most advanced Sarcoma research was taking place.
Back in 2011 Stetler had earned his California teaching credential, now was the time to put it to use. He attended a Clovis Unified job fair, interviewed and was hired at Lincoln.
“It was a dream come true, getting to move out here and have a classroom,” Stetler said. “I’m surrounded by people who are really great at their job.”
From the start, Stetler says the school district has been supportive of his cancer battle. “I feel so lucky to be aligned with Clovis Unified. I know a lot of cancer patients who struggle with their employment. My principal is always asking how things are going. That feels good.”
Stetler doesn’t know how much time he has left and he doesn’t ask. His goal is to live life, make memories and fight hard.
He works with a specialist at UCLA, along with doctors at Clovis Community and back in Denver. While his cancer isn’t in remission, it is stable and he doesn’t really have any symptoms.
The pill form medication Stetler takes has turned his hair white. “I get to be pretty normal,” he said. “I feel like we’re right on the cusp when it comes to a cure. It really gives us hope that we’ll find something that works.”
When you have stage four cancer, things you do in your old life, like running marathons, go out the window. That’s hard to swallow when it’s such a big part of you.
Amanda has always been a runner. She teaches kinesiology, yoga and helps people train for marathons. Joel says he naturally got into running when the couple met.
They ran their first full marathon together in 2009. “It’s always been a cool way for me to get even with everyone who called me fat as a kid,” Stetler said. “I love the way it makes me feel physically.”
Ten years after that first marathon together, the couple did something they could have never imagined just a few months ago. They ran in the New York City Marathon. They were part of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation Team.
“Brave Like Gabe” started as a hashtag to support professional runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald. She died this summer at the age of 32 after a 10 year battle with a rare salivary gland cancer.
“Being able to do this marathon the same month of my diagnoses seems so appropriate,” Stetler said. “We haven’t beat cancer yet, but at least we reclaimed November.”
The New York City Marathon took place November 3rd and featured 53 thousand runners. You run through all five New York City boroughs, across famed bridges and through a sea of cheerleaders.
“Every mile was just covered with people,” Stetler said. “I’d never been to an endurance event of that scale. It was like the Olympics.”
Prior to the start of the race, runners are sectioned off into different corrals. Right behind the Stetlers happened to be a familiar face, Karen Hahesy. She teaches third grade at Fort Washington.
“Of all the things to happen 30 seconds before the race you run into someone else from Clovis Unified, it was nuts,” Stetler said. The teachers snapped a selfie together.
It was fitting that they run into each other, because Clovis Unified played a big role in Stetler’s participation in the race. His Lincoln family got behind him. Over a thousand dollars was raised by students to support the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. ABC30 even came to the school to do a story.
“I was getting letters from students parents who weren’t even in my class,” Stetler said. “My whole class signed a Lincoln shirt to wear at the finish line.”
When it was time to stand up and speak to the crowd of students, faculty and supporters that packed the Lincoln assembly room, Stetler couldn’t help but cry. The support he received from people he barely knows will be a memory he says he’ll hold with him the rest of his life. And it helps him keep up the fight.