They always say your life can change in an instant.
But for most, that concept is impossible to grasp until it happens to them.
“I was using a couple milk jugs to get into a crawl space, and that ended up being a bad idea,” says Josh Wheeler, a former classmate of mine at Osseo Senior High School, in describing a moment in 2017 when he was working for Comcast.
Back then, Wheeler was installing cable in middle-class homes, braving the elements of some of the most treacherous attics and basements in suburbia.
On this particular day, Wheeler’s client didn’t have a ladder to get into the crawl space, so Wheeler propped two milk jugs into what was supposed to be an advantageous position, only for the jugs to give out.
This resulted in Wheeler spiraling back to the floor, a painful fall that left him with a large gash on his right knee.
“I managed not to bleed on the dude’s floor, but I still have the scar on my right knee,” Wheeler says.
We all have had rough days at work, and usually we go home and are able to forget about the struggles of that day.
That’s what Wheeler tried to do, but following his accident, a few days later he wound up with a crippling headache.
He persevered through that day with his head throbbing, figuring that eventually he would go home and sleep off the extreme discomfort his brain was dealing with.
That night, despite trying to get his mind to shut off and rest, Wheeler could not shake the excruciating pounding going on inside his head.
Worse, his wife was not around to assist in helping him get through the night.
“My wife was up in St. Cloud because her brother was having commencement,” Wheeler says, adding that his wife offered to come home and look after him, but he figured the headache would subside once he was able to fall asleep, so he told her to stay in St. Cloud.
But Wheeler was never able to fall asleep, so he went to the hospital in an attempt to find some relief.
He says he assumed he might be dealing with a bad sinus infection, but after meeting with the nurses and doctors at the hospital, he was made aware that his situation was much more serious.
“You have a white blood cell count of 0.8,” a doctor told Wheeler, but that information alone didn’t mean anything to him.
He would soon find out the significance of this detail.
“If you don’t go in for that [white blood cell count] within 24-48 hours, you’re dead. They told me if I had waited another day, there was a good chance that I was not going to make it.”
Shortly after being informed of his white blood cell count, Wheeler was being primed for a bone marrow biopsy, a procedure that is much more invasive than simply drawing blood.
“They use this long needle and stick it right in your hip, and that’s how they get spinal fluid out,” explains Wheeler.
Doctors recommended the bone marrow biopsy after noticing that the knee injury Wheeler sustained a few days prior while attempting to get into the crawl space was not healing properly.
“The tell-all was the headache and the red spot on my knee,” says Wheeler of his upcoming diagnosis, one that could not be made at the current hospital he was in.
The nurse there told him he had to go to a different hospital on the other side of town for a more thorough evaluation.
“I didn’t know then that I was about to begin a 45-day stay in the hospital,” Wheeler admits.
After arriving at a hospital in Robbinsdale and undergoing a battery of tests, the emergency room doctors prepared to give Wheeler some life-changing news.
“I didn’t even know what leukemia was,” Wheeler deadpans when I ask for his reaction to that evening’s diagnosis. “I had heard the term before, but I didn’t know it was cancer.”
Wheeler pauses to reflect on that moment from just a few years prior.
“How long do I have to live?” he remembers asking the doctors.
“It’s completely curable,” the doctors said. “You just have to go through a number of days in chemo, and then outpatient chemo to guarantee 100% survival.”
“I had no idea what I was in for, and those first couple days involved quite the ringer of tests,” Wheeler says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wheeler insists he was level-headed about the entire ordeal, going so far as to say that his first reaction was to shrug his shoulders at the journey awaiting him.
“It is what it is,” Wheeler remembers thinking, by then having gone through enough personal hardship to recognize that life was not going to grant him the path of least resistance.
“It was one of those things where, looking back, I probably didn’t understand the magnitude of what was going on until I started going through some pain,” he adds.
That pain Wheeler talks about is chemotherapy, a laborious process that reminded him he wasn’t dealing with a bad headache or disgruntled stomach.
“It’s a mind game when you’re going through chemo, knowing that your body is about to be put through some agony,” remarks Wheeler. “You can’t even explain what’s going on. It’s just the body’s way of reacting to chemo.”
After 45 days of being confined to a hospital bed, Wheeler was finally able to leave the hospital and return home.
More chemotherapy awaited in the months ahead, but at least he was returning to a place he for many years assumed would always be there.
“The best part about me coming home was being able to see my cat, my wife, and that’s about it,” says Wheeler, downplaying his exit from the hospital.
From leaving the hospital in the summer of 2017, up until the beginning of 2018, Wheeler grinded through extensive chemotherapy.
“Some days I had to drive myself to and from chemo because my wife’s work wasn’t, to put it kindly, that gracious to let her drive me,” Wheeler says with laugh. “It was hard having to get myself to and from there because when you sit there for over an hour getting chemo pumped into you, it tires you out.”
“There were days where I almost fell asleep in the chair because I was so tired and worn out that I needed a Mountain Dew, or else I wouldn’t be able to make that ten-minute drive back home.”
Like a true Minnesotan, Wheeler battled his way to January, a point where doctors told him that the leukemia that once afflicted his body was now gone.
“It was mixed emotions at that point because I had finished chemo, but it was also a matter of what now?” Wheeler admits.
Even though he had since resumed light work for Comcast a few months prior, Wheeler wasn’t content to continue installing cable systems for much longer.
“The reason I got out of cable was because it was way too physically demanding. I could have built myself back up to where I was pre-cancer, but doing thirteen hours of cable every day, regardless of your health, is not a viable long-term option,” he says.
For a man like Wheeler, it wasn’t like he could easily transition into a cozy office job either, and like most people, his bills still needed to be paid.
When you factor in all the other challenges everyday people go through, plus the very real possibility that his cancer could one day return, you might say Wheeler’s real test had only just begun.
“That’s the thing that I’ve seen the most. Going through cancer isn’t usually a one-time deal. For most people, it eventually comes back. It’s crazy to think that people can take that many blows throughout their life.”
If and when the cancer does return, Wheeler assures me that he will be prepared.
“I’m ready for when the cancer does happen again, but I want to be able to catch it,” he says convincingly.
Wheeler adds that through conversations with his oncologist, he’s confident that the cancer is for now in remission, but there are still moments that make him nervous.
“Last week I had a headache that was so bad I had to take an Oxycodone, and while that helped, the headache didn’t completely go away until I slept it off,” Wheeler tells me. “It’s that kind of thing where if my headaches get that bad, it’s hard not to worry that maybe the cancer has come back.”
All these potential pitfalls would make many people nervous, but for Wheeler, these irritants are simply further motivation to continue to relentlessly pursue his goals.
He says that growing up as an avid sports fan in Minnesota, he fell in love with listening to Paul Allen call Vikings games on KFAN, so much so that it inspired him to want to work in the radio industry.
And as Wheeler finishes up his bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State University, he tells me that there is no other career he would rather pursue.
“I want to do radio for a living, but I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it’s not a high-paying job,” Wheeler says, noting how people often encourage him to work toward a career in software or something that is guaranteed to land him a steady paycheck.
Wheeler scoffs at the idea of complacency, in any context.
“I see people who are supervisors at Whole Foods or Target, and I think, is that really what you wanted to do with your life? I couldn’t imagine being 40 and saying I’m an executive team lead at Target. It’s not something that I would hang my hat on,” Wheeler says.
“I decided after having cancer that I wanted to do something cool. I didn’t want to be caught in this revolving door of employment. I want to learn everything and anything about radio and TV. I am willing to branch out and learn anything I can possibly get my hands on, and if opportunity knocks, I want to be the first one to answer.”
Don’t take Josh Wheeler lightly.
A young man given a second chance at accomplishing his dreams?
Now that’s a bad dude.
We’ve seen comeback stories of the most seismic proportions before.
Perhaps Josh Wheeler will be the next to do it.
Check out the Josh Wheeler podcast, which includes a recent interview with Quentin Super where they discuss writing, business, and a mix of other subjects!
Quentin Super’s next book, The Long Road East, will hit a bookshelf near you this spring.
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Send us a message and we will get a signed copy out to you tomorrow!