Offutt civilian refuses to let cancer stop his fun

OMAHA, Neb. --

Bunny ears, everywhere you looked, cancer patients, caregivers and staff were wearing bunny ears. Not a typical sight for 10 a.m. on a Thursday inside the Peggy D. Cowdery Patient Care Center at Nebraska Medicine – Nebraska Medical Center.

“I never thought I’d put the words ‘fun’ and ‘chemo’ together in the same sentence,” laughs 53-year-old Ken Bauer, 55th Wing Plans, Program and Requirements office international program officer and senior technical advisor with the 55th Wing Plans, Program and Requirements office. “The folks in here see us at our worst, so my girlfriend and I decided to make them smile.”

Last October, Bauer was diagnosed with stage three colon and kidney cancer. The former U.S. Air Force pilot lost his father to stage four colon cancer, and knew the importance of routine colonoscopies.

“I started having severe stomach pain,” explains Bauer. “They found one tumor on the right side of my colon and another on my left kidney.”

After receiving care at another hospital, Bauer made a phone call to Nebraska Medicine and told the operator, “I’m dying of cancer. Can someone please save my life?” He was referred to medical oncologist Kelsey Klute, MD, who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers. Bauer’s treatment plan called for 12 chemotherapy sessions.

“Ken is a great patient,” says Dr. Klute. “Fortunately, he’s an otherwise healthy man and has tolerated chemotherapy quite well. He has such a positive attitude.”

The idea for wearing costumes to chemotherapy started with staff nurse Hillary Stevenson.

“I came in for chemo and asked Hillary if she would wear a propeller beanie hat,” says Bauer. “Patients were laughing and smiling.”

In February, Bauer and his girlfriend, Judy Barton, surprised staff, patients and caregivers with heart-shaped sunglasses and treats. Mardi Gras was extra special as Bauer and Barton passed out beads, shipped directly from a friend in New Orleans. More green beads and leprechaun hats followed for St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter was celebrated with bunny ears, candy-filled eggs and small toys for the kids. Bauer’s family and friends even donated money to help purchase the gifts. 

“Some people may never remember anything I say, but they’ll remember that I made them smile,” says Bauer. 

“I bring my mother up here for chemo every other Thursday and we really enjoy it,” said Montoya Johnson. “Ken makes us happy during a really difficult time in our lives.”

“Each patient copes with a cancer diagnosis and treatment in their own way,” explains Dr. Klute. “Ken’s ability to have such compassion and empathy for the other patients he sees, despite the fact that he’s battling his own disease, is amazing – and his attitude is contagious!”

Bauer’s last chemotherapy treatment is scheduled for May 18. He and Barton already have big plans in mind for their friends at the cancer center.  

“I’ll give you a hint,” smiles Bauer. “We’re going to say ‘aloha to cancer.’”