Rob Wagner speaks the truth when he says everyone is affected by cancer in some way, shape or form.
Wagner, who lost his grandfather and his stepfather to cancer, found out he had a rare form of childhood bone cancer in 2007.
At the time, he was a college student and football player at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. After six weeks of suffering wrist pain, he asked his then-girlfriend’s father, a doctor, to take a look as it.
"I assumed it was just wear and tear from playing football," says Wagner.
However, his girlfriend’s dad was slightly concerned with that he saw, and suggested Wagner go to the walk-in clinic the next day. Wagner was hesitant, he didn’t have a very good insurance plan at the time, but went anyway.
The walk-in clinic doctor told him almost immediately he needed to see another doctor and made an appointment for him for the same afternoon. On his way out the door, Wagner heard the nurse practitioner tell another doctor that they had found a tumor in a patient’s wrist.
"It was pretty scary," says Wagner.
The next doctor told Wagner he was 95 percent certain he had a rare form of childhood bone and cartilage cancer. At this point, Wagner called his mother.
"She was heartbroken, but she was strong," he says. "I started chemo the following Friday."
Although Wagner was 19, he had a form of childhood cancer, and so he was treated at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. While there, he befriended a number of children who had the illness, too.
"Kids are amazing. They are able to smile and laugh through so much," he says.
Unfortunately, because his form of cancer was so rare, the doctors needed to closely monitor his treatments and he was required to stay in the hospital for 24 to 96 hours following chemo treatments.
Wagner spent 155 nights in the hospital during his nine months of treatment. He lost his hair, shed 35 pounds and suffered from terrible mouth sores.
He also had a surgery to replace the diseased bone with a cadaver bone, but his body rejected it. The doctors decided to perform an experimental surgery during which they transferred his left fibula from his leg into his arm.
"Literally, my right arm is my left fibula," he says.
The surgery was a success, and today, Wagner has almost full use of his right arm. He was even able to start golfing again four years ago.
Because Wagner’s arm and leg look different he sometimes gets unwanted attention from strangers.
"I don’t mind if someone asks what happened, but some people just stare and it hurts a little bit," he says.
However, sometimes Wagner has fun with the appearance of his scarred arm. Once he told his nephew’s friend that he was bit by a shark. The child took a picture of his arm and later, much to his parent’s surprise, showed the photo at his school’s show-and-tell, bragging that he knew someone who was bit by a shark and lived.
Wagner grew up in Brookfield and attended Brookfield Central before attending La Crosse. Both of these institutions were integral in his healing process. Brookfield Central sold bracelets to help offset Wagner’s medical bills and friends at UW-La Crosse started a unique fund-raising event featuring dancers and athletes in his honor.
The event, called The Rob Wagner Cancer Benefit, just celebrated its ninth year and has raised more than $100,000 for UW-La Crosse students to fight cancer.
Starting with the ninth annual Rob Wagner Cancer Benefit, all proceeds benefit the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer Fund.
"The students at UW-La Crosse changed the course of my life eight years ago with the first annual Rob Wagner Cancer Benefit and the fact that we still carry on that mission today is everything I could have asked for and more," says Wagner. "The students work so hard to entertain for a good cause and our goal is to bring as much awareness as possible to our event and overall goal in finding a cure for childhood cancer."
Today, Wagner is 28, lives in Franklin with his Jack Russell, and has been in remission for 7 1/2 years. He is very dedicated to volunteering for the annual benefit and he also works for an online advertising company, ExactDrive, as a general manager and director of operations.
"It’s a great opportunity for someone my age," he says. "I love being able to work with many different industries."
Recently, Wagner found out people with his form of cancer can now undergo chemo outpatient.
"It’s a great feeling knowing that no one with the same cancer I had will have to spend as much time in the hospital as I did," he says.
Wagner says he’s a better person for undergoing cancer and, as strange as it may sound to some, he wouldn’t give back the experience.
"The hardship was difficult. Staying positive was tough. But the people you meet and the community and support I received while going through it … Words can’t even describe it. When you see all of that it really defines what life is all about," he says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.