Steven Whisler: Celebrating a Life Well Lived

In our journey with prostate cancer, each of us must decide how we will deal with the emotional aspect of this disease and how we plan to face the inevitable. I cannot say that I have handled this situation very well; after being diagnosed with stage IIIC prostate cancer, I was in an aimless fog of anxiety, indecision, and self-pity.

That all changed for the better when I attended a Reel Recovery fly-fishing retreat for men with cancer held on the Yellowstone River in Montana. A big part of my recovery was meeting Steven Whisler at the retreat.

Complaining was not part of his DNA

Our first organized activity at the retreat was something called a “courageous conversation,” in which we talked about our disease and the impact it had on our lives. Most of us unburdened ourselves; there were many searing accounts of cancer treatments and a lot of tears.

When it was Steven’s turn to talk, all he said was that when he went to the doctor to treat a backache, it was discovered that he had stage four prostate cancer. That was the last Steven ever said about his disease; complaining and self-pity was not part of his DNA.

Then Steven switched the conversation to his new Mustang GT car parked outside the lodge. Steven seemed almost apologetic about buying this expensive muscle car. Afterwards I approached Steven and explained that he did not have to apologize to us; we are all, basically, menopausal older men, and understand exactly why a muscle car is needed.

Squeezing the most out of life

As I was to find out, there was a lot more to this unassuming man with the mischievous smile. Steven wanted to squeeze the most out of his remaining days, to make a difference in the lives of other people, and make a mark protecting his beloved trout stream, the Henry’s Fork in Idaho.

That afternoon Steven invited me out for a cruise in the Mustang; so began my memorable adventure with this remarkable man. Steven seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the interesting locations to visit within a 300-mile radius of his hometown of Island Park, Idaho.

He showed me the best places near the retreat, and we eventually ended up in the dirt parking lot of a cowboy bar called The Saloon. This place was straight out of central casting, and I was half expecting Jack Palance or Walter Brennan to come tumbling out its swinging doors.

A wonderful place

“You are going to love this place,” said Steven as he hopped out of the car.

I was a little nervous (I had watched too many “Yellowstone” episodes).

“An Ivy League puke from Massachusetts has no business going in a place like that,” I said.

“You are not a puke; you will be fine.”

I am not so sure about the puke part, but Steven calmed me down and in we went. Of course, it turned out to be a wonderful, friendly place, especially when the patrons found out about the retreat. The bartender, Cowboy Mike, even offered us free shots of their famous whisky, but we were not doing alcohol, so I asked for a Sarsaparilla. Steven shot me a wicked look, so I backed off and got a glass of water (I was going to ask for the wine list, but wisely decided against that).

Telling a joke

Steven sidled over to two young cowpokes at the bar. We introduced ourselves and talked about the retreat, etc.  Finally, he told them a rather ribald joke. With that, the bar erupted and we left. It was quite satisfying to know that two old guys with no prostates could still cause a bit of mischief.

The next morning at breakfast, I described how Steven had brought the Old Saloon to a halt, and eventually I goaded him into telling the joke. Since then, his joke has become the motto of this band of brothers from the retreat.

That afternoon we each went our separate ways, with Steven inviting me and my wife to visit him and his wife in Idaho the following summer. We kept in touch, but COVID prevented us from visiting.

Devastating news

On February 10, 2021, I received this devastating email from Steven:

"Sadly I have a negative Cancer report. High grade remission didn’t last long. Metastasized to liver. Stopped treatment in December. Under Hospice care but keeping positive attitude. Prognosis is weeks rather than months."

He concluded the email with this startling sentence. It is something that I like to go back to when feeling discouraged about my side effects:

"It’s been a great run, celebrate a life well lived!!!!!"

Dignity and grace

Later I was able to connect with Steven's wife, Valarie Zupsan. She told me this:

“I was honored and privileged to be able to care for him. He had such dignity and grace, even at the end. He was so kind and caring and a great patient. He did it out of love for me. I miss him so much.”

This is the obituary for Steven Whisler.

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