In Awe of His Strength and Resilience

Jim Copen, wearing slacks and a sports coat, looking healthy as he leans against a tree in a park setting

When Jim Copen went to pick up his six-year-old granddaughter, she pointed out something unusual about him that she hadn’t noticed before.

“She told me, ‘Grandpa, your belly is sticking out’,” Jim recalls. “She had noticed my entire stomach was bulging and that’s when we decided to get it checked out.”

In May of 2019, after a biopsy of the foreign mass, Jim was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the fatty tissue. This type of tumor can grow anywhere in the body and is malignant, meaning it can spread to other nearby vital organs. For Jim, the tumor was growing in his abdomen outside his peritoneal cavity, a closed sac that contains the digestive organs: intestines, stomach, spleen, and liver. After receiving surgery in August of 2019 to remove the tumor, Jim was told the chance the cancer would return was high. Unfortunately, in January 2021, it returned.

Following his second diagnosis, Jim was referred to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) to consult with a team of specialists on liposarcoma. SCCA is now Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

After consultation, Jim knew he would still have to receive a second surgery to remove the tumor but was encouraged to consider radiation therapy to improve our ability to cure Jim and keep his tumor from coming back locally. Jim’s oncologist, Dr. Stephanie Schaub, favored proton radiation therapy for Jim’s specific case because protons have a physical advantage of no “exit radiation dose” that would allow us to best treat his tumor while minimizing risk to his surrounding critical organs, such as his only remaining kidney, bowels, stomach, and liver.

Jim is a scientist with a keen interest in better understanding how protons work. We arranged for Jim to consult with one of the medical physicists at Fred Hutch. The physicist sat down with Jim and reviewed his treatment plan to provide a deeper understanding of the complexity, quality assurance, and thoughtful planning that is required to deliver this sophisticated form of radiation therapy.

When deciding if proton therapy treatment was the right choice, it was a family decision. He consulted with his wife, Sally, and their two children, specifically his son who has a background in nursing. After discussing with his family, Jim felt confident following the recommendation of his care team.

Jim commuted daily from Bainbridge Island to receive his treatment. He always felt welcomed and cared for by the staff and care team, especially his oncologist, Dr. Schaub. Jim was consistently impressed by the whole staff’s attention to detail and professionalism — he was always greeted by name at the concierge desk with information on his visit. Following his successful treatment there, Jim’s sarcoma was small enough to be safely surgically removed. To date, there has been no further evidence of cancer and Jim is recovering from surgery.

Jim’s advice to those considering proton radiation therapy is to not be afraid of it. He said proton therapy was the easiest aspect of his cancer treatment and experienced minimal side effects.

Throughout his cancer treatment, and now on the road to recovery, Jim says maintaining a positive attitude is the best advice he can give to anyone in a similar situation. He is grateful for his family support system. Jim became emotional recalling how important it was to his mental health to be able to openly discuss his feelings on his diagnosis and treatment with his wife and children.

Sally, Jim’s wife of 50 years “is completely in awe of his strength and resilience.” She believes his positive mindset is what helped them through as a family.

Jim and Sally picked up the hobby of doing jigsaw puzzles together to stay mentally stimulated and go on walks together regularly to stay active. Sally notes that Jim also does yard work and maintenance to the house in his free time. As he recovers, Jim is most excited to return to the golf course, having visited the course for the first time in six months in February after his second surgery to remove the tumor.

Jim is a retired geologist and is looking forward to getting back to his home improvement projects at their family home on Bainbridge Island. He and Sally have two children and three grandchildren that he is eager to spend more time with as he continues to rebuild his strength post-surgery.

Story and photos courtesy of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (formerly SCCA Proton Therapy Center). Jim’s full survivor story can be found here.

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of AgeWise King County.