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'I’m going to fight it like hell': Elkhorn man with rare cancer still teaches exercise classes

'I’m going to fight it like hell': Elkhorn man with rare cancer still teaches exercise classes

Jeff Strufing rarely eats steak.

But he didn’t turn down the steak entrée that his wife made for dinner one night in January. And later, the Omaha man said, that was a godsend.

The steak caused a bowel obstruction and irritated Strufing’s inflamed intestines. It led doctors to discover that he had a rare cancer in his abdomen.

Despite the diagnosis, Strufing hasn’t let it change his lifestyle. The 46-year-old business owner, husband and father of two still works part-time as a paramedic and teaches weekly classes at three gyms. He’s done it all while undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

“It’s not my plan. It’s God’s plan,” Strufing said. “I’m going to fight it like hell no matter what.”

The disease, malignant signet cell carcinoma, is fairly rare and can be tough to diagnose, said Dr. Stefano Tarantolo, who treats Strufing. Rather than one tumor, the inside of Strufing’s abdomen is studded with small tumors the size of pinheads. Strufing said the lining of his abdomen looks like the skin on an uncooked turkey.

Although the prognosis is uncertain, Tarantolo with Nebraska Cancer Specialists, is optimistic with how well Strufing has handled treatments.

Strufing will undergo six more rounds of chemotherapy. Depending on the outcome, doctors might perform a “hot chemo” treatment. Doctors would remove the lining of his abdominal wall and then pour in heated chemotherapy solution. The treatment is used on rare abdominal cancers, cancers that have spread from nearby organs to the abdominal lining, and those that have returned.

Strufing hasn’t asked many questions about his diagnosis. He said he didn’t want to know the stage because he’s going to fight it no matter the outcome.

Doctors often tell patients going through chemo to stay active. But Strufing has exceeded expectations by continuing to lead 10 exercise classes a week.

“He’s clearly motivated and has a great attitude,” Tarantolo said.

The cancer diagnosis came as a shock to Strufing, who’s otherwise been in good shape since he decided to prioritize his health seven years ago.

Working as a paramedic for a local transport company left Strufing with an unpredictable schedule. It made it tough to get a solid night’s sleep or eat a healthy meal.

At his heaviest, the 5-foot-9-inch man weighed about 265 pounds. He might put a healthy meal in the office fridge, but depending on call volume, might not have gotten back to it. That made drive-thrus an easy option.

“When I would sit to put on and tie my shoes, I would have to take a deep breath and hold it to bend over. Having a big belly made it hard to breathe,” Strufing said. “That was my pivotal ‘OK, this is just wrong’ moment.”

He joined Kosama, a studio specializing in group fitness, and lost 65 pounds. He worked his way up to coaching and instructing. And 18 months ago, he purchased the two Omaha locations. He bought the Lincoln location six months ago.

In the gym, Strufing pushes clients to reach their goals, whether it’s defining their abs or getting closer to dropping diabetes medication.

Now, as Strufing is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, he’s still teaching.

On occasion, his Wednesdays include teaching classes at 5 and 6 a.m. before heading to a four-hour chemo treatment. Then, he goes back to the studio to lead a 4:45 p.m. class.

That’s no surprise to gym staff. Jessica Yaghoutfam, a manager at Kosama on 168th Street and West Center Road, has known Strufing for about seven years.

She said running the gym is a top priority for Strufing, right behind caring for his family: wife Erin and sons Jacob, 11, and Noah, 3.

“I’ve always been kind of a people helper. It gives me a chance to connect with people on an individual basis,” Strufing said. “I can push the ones that need it and show the ones that can’t that they can.”

During a recent class, Strufing demonstrated each exercise before a dozen gym-goers. He led them in high knees, lunges and planks, among others. For the duration of the class, he wore a chemo pack strapped around his waist. It administers medication every other week for two days.

Clad with a microphone, Strufing shouted out words of encouragement. “Nobody gives up,” he hollered as the class members sat and twisted from side to side for an ab exercise. Throughout the class, he sang along to the tunes playing in the west Omaha studio. He wrapped up the session with a class huddle.

Yaghoutfam said Strufing always keeps a positive attitude in the gym and seldom lets his diagnosis get him down.

“This place, I think, gives him drive. Helping others helps him,” Yaghoutfam said., 402-444-3100,

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