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A Foundation for Brain Cancer Research Honors a Father’s Lasting Legacy 

“We would always reference the 30 seconds before,” Cynthia says. “The 30 seconds before everything went sideways and there wasn’t enough air to breathe.”

In the 30 seconds before, Rick and Cynthia Oehme were talking about picking the kids up and making dinner, happily making plans for the rest of their lives. Then the doctor walked in with the news that would change everything. 

Rick was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumor that typically gives patients eight months to live, on average, after diagnosis. The Oehme family was shocked, but Cynthia had sensed something was off months prior. She began keeping track of the out-of-character instances in a notebook. 

Rick Oehme and his wife, Cynthia

In early 2008, Rick, an executive at America West Airlines who was known for his vast knowledge of airplanes and his quick wit, began to struggle with ordinary tasks, like recalling aircraft tail numbers. At dinner, he couldn’t add the tip to the bill. Once at a gas station, the gas pump prompted Rick to enter his zip code, but he didn’t understand the request. He called Cynthia to ask for help. She gave him the numbers and then instructed him to turn around and come home. They were going to the emergency room. 

An MRI revealed a lemon-sized brain tumor on the left side of Rick’s brain. Rick underwent brain surgery with a surgical team from Barrow Neurological Institute. The surgery was successful and most of the tumor was removed. Rick began the standard protocol of chemotherapy and radiation and went right back to work. His coworkers were incredibly supportive – they chipped in on a second-hand couch for Rick’s office so he could rest when he needed it. Rick was determined to beat his diagnosis. In addition to standard treatment, Rick sought supplemental naturopathic care and was a strong advocate of Chinese medicine. 

It was a whirlwind, Cynthia remembers, but for a brief time life felt manageable for the Oehme family. 

“Rick’s attitude from the beginning was that we were going to fight this,” Cynthia says. “We’re going to define this, not the other way around.” 

Fighting a formidable foe

As brain tumors often do, Rick’s tumor came back two years later. He had another brain surgery, this time with Dr. Kris Smith at Barrow Neurological Institute. For the Oehme family – Rick, Cynthia and their children, Tanner and Riley – time together with family and friends became even more of a priority. They spent time surfing in Maui, Rick and Tanner rode dirt bikes in the desert and any time spent on the lake gave everyone a sense of normalcy. 

Brain tumors, especially glioblastoma, have a high incidence of recurrence. According to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States Statistical Report, about 90 percent of patients with glioblastoma will experience a recurrence. 

Rick’s brain tumor quickly came back a third time. This tumor reached more delicate areas of his brain and left him with deficits, such as vision cuts, difficulty walking and Rick lost the ability to read. His quality of life was severely impacted, Cynthia says. 

It was during this time, after careful consideration and many tearful conversations with his family, Rick chose to discontinue treatment. 

“It was his journey and it was our privilege to walk him through it,” Cynthia says. “It wasn’t ours to hijack or force him to make decisions based on how we felt.”

Although it was difficult to accept. 

On their last visit to Dr. Smith, the Oehme’s son, Tanner, joined them. Rick carefully explained his thoughts on ending treatment. Tanner asked Dr. Smith, “If this was your Dad, what would you do?” 

Dr. Smith replied, “This was my Dad.” 

Dr. Smith cared for and saw his own father succumb to glioblastoma. He understood what Tanner was going through, watching his hero fight for his life against an enemy that left few survivors. Dr. Smith’s unique perspective and the encouragement he offered them was invaluable, Cynthia says. 

“We felt so supported and cared for,” Cynthia says. “There’s not a person at the Ivy Brain Tumor Center and Barrow who doesn’t have a deeply personal, connected story.”

Rick passed away in June of 2012 at home surrounded by his family. His absence continues to be felt by all who knew him. 

“It’s intensely personal,” Cynthia says. “Brain cancer has broken my heart but not my commitment to helping the next family confronted with this disease.” 

Rick and his daughter, Riley

The surgical interventions and aggressive treatments Rick received at Barrow gave him more precious time with his family, allowing him to see his children, who were teenagers when Rick was diagnosed, grow into adulthood. Rick became a grandfather when Tanner became a new father and he watched his daughter, Riley, graduate high school.

Unfortunately, the Oehme family’s experience with brain cancer would not end with Rick. His mother, Lois, was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 2019 and passed away two years later. She was married to the family patriarch, Dick, for 62 years. The family was grieving, again. 

“As hard as it was to wrap our heads around Rick getting the disease, going through it again with my mother-in-law was hard to understand,” Cynthia says. 

The Rick Oehme Foundation

In 2009, before Rick passed away, it became apparent that the brain tumor community needed more support. The family set up a nonprofit foundation dedicated to finding a cure for brain cancer. The purpose of The Rick Oehme Foundation is to help fund innovative brain tumor research. They are specifically focused on supporting the work of Dr. Nader Sanai, director of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center and chief of neurosurgical oncology at Barrow Neurological Institute. Dr. Sanai’s research focuses on innovative early-phase clinical trials, accelerating the testing and development of new treatments for patients with the most aggressive brain tumors. 

“It’s an insidious disease, but it really brings you together with the best human beings,” Cynthia says. 

Learn more about The Rick Oehme Foundation and join them in their mission to find a cure for brain cancer. During the month of May, Brain Tumor Awareness Month, The Rick Oehme Foundation will match all donations made to Barrow Neurological Foundation to support the Ivy Brain Tumor Center up to $100,000.

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