Two years ago, Paul Goebel of Ellensburg noticed his breathing was more staggered than usual. The avid runner, biker, swimmer and kayaker thought it was winter asthma, induced from wood smoke in the country air. For the most part, Goebel was able to overcome the occasional wheezing he experienced during daily workouts.

In September 2011, Goebel, 49, competed in his first national triathlon and finished in second place for his age group. Basking in that glow, he was eyeing new bike tires and planning to hire a coach in preparation for next year’s age-group Olympic Nationals Triathlon. But as soon as he ramped up his training a bit, he said his breathing made him “sound like a train.” He knew it was time to see his physician.  

He never would have thought that he’d be asked to give the opening speech for the Kittitas County Relay for Life on Friday or that he’d be training for the Seattle Rock and Roll Half Marathon on Saturday with a specific mission in mind other than placing.

Goebel’s first chest X-ray, taken in January, showed that his left lung was saturated with 2 1/2 liters of fluid. Having the fluid drained was a welcome relief, but it made him instantly lose eight pounds.

Within two days, the first of Goebel’s results were in: the serous fluid showed adenocarcinoma cells, a metastatic form of lung cancer. He had stage 4 lung cancer.

The waiting

On Jan. 26, Goebel, a nonsmoker, was awaiting a PET scan to identify any “hot spots” that would tell where the cancer was originating. He also made an appointment to see a pulmonologist at Seattle Cancer Care Center who would drain his thoracic cavity again. Though relieved at the instant ability to breathe with two lungs, Goebel and his family weathered the frustration of waiting long weeks for results. By the middle of February, they still didn’t know what route of treatment they’d take; there weren’t enough cells in the fluid to conduct the necessary marker tests.

In the meantime, Goebel focused on a “green swill” diet with the support of his wife, Karen. Though aching for a good, old-fashioned hamburger at times, he’s grown accustomed to a diet without processed flour, sugar, much meat or dairy. He started eating more fish, knowing its many benefits.

Toward the end of February, Goebel traveled across Snoqualmie Pass to have tissue harvested for marker tests. By March, he received favorable news from his oncologist. He learned that an ALK test had come back positive, a blessing since it only occurs for 5 percent of lung cancer patients. For the test to come back positive, 15 percent of cells had to exhibit the mutation, and his cells showed the mutation in 64 percent.

Because his cancer has this genetic component, Goebel is able to take a new, FDA-approved pill called Crizotinab. The drug inhibits this particular type of lung cancer without requiring patients to undergo chemotherapy. Also encouraging is the fact that further therapies have been developed in the event of Crizotinab losing its effectiveness after several years.

“It’s amazing to think had I been diagnosed even one year earlier, I would have needed another course of care,” Goebel said. “My last CT scan showed that the tumor masses are no longer visible, that my lymph nodes have decreased in size, and that only the scarring is still there.”

Goebel travels to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance every two months for CT scans and blood work. The pill’s foremost side effect is liver damage, so his oncologists keep close tabs on that. He was told to expect fatigue and said, “I have to be mindful of getting enough rest. I don’t have the same endurance when I’m burning the candle at both ends and sometimes start to get tired at 6 or 7 at night.”

Work and family

Tired or not, Goebel hasn’t slowed down much. While he cut back his work hours substantially after receiving his diagnosis, he now maintains a fairly regular work schedule at Canyon View Physical Therapy, where he works as a physical therapist.

“I feel so fortunate to work with him,” said Natalie Joyce, his partner at Canyon View. “He is forever inspiring with his energy, optimism and positive outlook.”

Goebel enjoys taking his daughters Anastasia, 12, Bernadette, 11, and Christiana, 7, on trips to Lake Wenatchee and Mount St. Helens, and teaches children’s church at The River. The family also goes to Royal Vista every other Sunday so they can spend quality time with the residents.

He makes sure to get in at least one to two hours of exercise per day, from running the John Wayne Trail with his dog, lifting weights to maintain lean muscle mass or strapping on his bike helmet for a spin around town.

Jeff Harmon, pastor of The River Church, said Goebel is an inspiration.

“The thing that is so impressive about Paul is that, even though he stays busy doing so many things for so many people, nevertheless, it seems like time has slowed down for him. He now approaches life one day at a time, one hurdle at a time, one relationship at a time, and one opportunity at a time,” he said. “As his pastor, I am blown away by his faith in God and the optimism and gratitude he exudes no matter how difficult the circumstances he and his family might face.”

Some of Goebel’s blessings come in the form of patients who bring in gluten-free cookies, friends who write thoughtful notes or offer child care when the Goebels travel to appointments.

When asked about the greatest change in his life since January, Goebel said, “I have a heightened sense of urgency. I am more aware of and have greater value for the people in my life. One of the blessings from cancer is that I have more gratitude than I did before.”

In describing her husband, Karen said he’s been true to his faith.

“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” she said. “This diagnosis doesn’t mean that his attitude or his faith has faltered … not once. He doesn’t ask ‘why me?’ He sometimes says he’s privileged that God chose him to help others.”

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