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Mount Carmel Golden Apple winner in a fight vs. cancer

'Why me? Why not me?' pancreatic cancer patient Curt Ehrenstrom says his Oak Lawn home. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media

"Why me? Why not me?" pancreatic cancer patient Curt Ehrenstrom says in his Oak Lawn home. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 26, 2014 6:13AM



A year after reaching the pinnacle of his career, Curt Ehrenstrom is fighting for his life.

In 2013 the Oak Lawn man won the prestigious Golden Apple Award, which goes to the finest of 135,000 teachers statewide. It was a joyous celebration at Mount Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side.

The odds of winning a Golden Apple are long, but not as long as the odds Ehrenstrom’s facing now.

Last summer, the 52-year-old Ehrenstrom underwent a battery of tests to determine why he’d been rapidly losing weight, energy and stamina. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

“It’s the circle of life. Like I tell everybody, better me than you. There are a lot of ways to look at this. If this had happened when my three oldest kids were 3, 2 and 1, it would have been devastating financially for my wife,” Ehrenstrom said. “I hate to sound like Pollyanna, but I think about that all the time, man. Back when they were little, I was the bread-winner. We were broke, dead broke, we didn’t even have money for life insurance then.”

He and his wife, Shellie, have three adult children, Jon, 26, Charlotte, 25 and Zac, 24 Their fourth child, Luke, is 14.

Family and friends are teaming this Saturday to raise money for cancer research.

The Coach E’s Odd Squad has 85 members — “proof of how well loved my dad is,” Charlotte wrote in an email — and has raised more than $25,000 to the Pancreatic Cancer Network for cancer research in a 5K walk/run at Montrose Harbor.

Ehrenstrom would love to participate, but won’t be there. He sometimes finds it hard to get out of bed.

“Every hour is an adventure. This morning I felt terrible. My legs hurt. I took a nap, took some medication and since I’ve been up, I’ve felt great,” he said. “You talk about making plans? I don’t buy green bananas.”

When Ehrenstrom won the Golden Apple, he weighed about 240 pounds. He’s down to 162. Clothes hang loosely. Ehrenstrom, who looked ready to suit up for football a year ago, now resembles a grizzled prospector from the Old West. His face is gaunt, his goatee and the hair on his head are nearly all gray. But that handshake? It’s still the strong grip of a football coach. And the eyes tell you he’s ready to dig in for the battle.

By late May 2013, his weight had plummeted from 240 to 205 “and I knew I was sick,” he said.

In June he had a test that showed nothing wrong.

“I think they focused on my kidney stones and they were clearly there. Of course that’s what they attacked. I had two surgeries, but I went to the doctor and said, ‘I’m still sick,’ ” he said.

That led to more doctors, more tests. He pressed the issue. Finally, a tiny tumor was found on his pancreas in late July.

“The whole tumor is the size of a marble, a little nugget of poison,” he said, shaking his head.

The cancer sapped his energy so much “Coach E,” as he’s known at Mount Carmel, was unable to coach football. Nor could he return to his beloved classroom. Not doing either gnaws at him. He treasures a football from a playoff game Mount Carmel dedicated to him last season. He misses teaching physics.

“I miss the school terribly. This would be my 30th year. They’re good folks at Mount Carmel and I miss that,” he said.

Mount Carmel has not forgotten Coach E.

Some arm-twisting by the Rev. Tony Mazurkiewicz, Mount Carmel’s president, convinced Ehrenstrom to be commencement speaker at graduation May 25. Ehrenstrom will be honored on May 2 as Man of the Year by the Mount Carmel’s Athletic Association.

He said he’s “not looking forward to is the ‘Coach E Farewell Tour’,” but is deeply honored and thankful.

Ehrenstrom, who grew up in St. Cajetan’s Parish in Morgan Park, is the seventh of eight siblings. One sister had a tumor in a kidney, but she’s now fine, he said. Cancer may run in the family. Their mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1987, he said.

He soon will meet with genetics experts at the University of Chicago hospital to discuss his case, and he plans to take an experimental cancer vaccine to help future cancer patients.

“His family “is taking this as well as can be expected.” Humor helps. His subject line in a recent email to his siblings was, “Stick a fork in him.”

Sitting in an easy chair with a pet dog and cat nearby, Ehrenstrom said he figures “I have maybe nine months left, but I think we can push that envelope a bit.

“Everybody asks me if I’m mad. What’s the point in that? Better me than my wife. What are you going to do? It just happens. It’s part of life. Why me? Why not me?” he said.



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