CLEVELAND — A Northeast Ohio woman who’s survived cancer twice is hoping to share love and kindness this Valentine’s Day to help others going through cancer.
'Never in a million years'
In 2018, Julia Oppman was working as an esthetician. She’d gotten interested in the field after high school, first attending school to become an esthetician, then working in “salons and spas, doing facials, makeup, different skin care treatments” for years. She also worked for a well-known skincare company, “educating and training” across Ohio and nearby states.
“I always wanted to do something to somehow make a change or somehow make a woman feel beautiful about themselves,” Oppman said.
Oppman said she “never, in a million years,” expected a cancer diagnosis in October 2018.
“Being healthy my whole life prior, [I] never, never, ever thought,” she said.
But cancer became her reality at 36 years old.
“I had no idea. I was living on coffee, just thinking I was a tired mama with a two and a four-year-old at that point,” Oppman said. “I thought it maybe could be mono, honestly, because I was tired and this was going on for a long period of time.”
After about six months of feeling unwell, with reoccurring infections of strep throat, a specialist decided to draw additional labs.
“Thank God he did, because he's the one that actually found out it was AML, which came as a complete surprise,” Oppman said.
That diagnosis of AML, or acute myeloid leukemia, came just before Halloween. The rare and aggressive blood cancer would require a month-long inpatient stay for "induction" chemotherapy.
Oppman’s husband and their two children, Juliette and Carter, formed her support system, along with their dachshund, who Oppman said has been her “therapy dog” through all this.
“They really have been my strength and my purpose through getting through so much of this,” Oppman said of her kids, now five and seven years old.
She added, “They're my littlest supporters, but yet my biggest supporters, for sure, and then my husband, Jason, who has also been amazing throughout all of this.”
Still, the diagnosis—and hearing she would have to stay at the hospital, away from her kids for 30 days—was hard to process. Ultimately, Oppman spent that month inpatient at University Hospitals in downtown Cleveland for her initial chemotherapy treatments. Since this was well before the COVID-19 pandemic, her family could visit, but it was still tough.
“Me trying to balance being a mom, still working and having kids and then doing this intensive chemotherapy, this treatment,” Oppman said. “So it was very challenging, but I was in full survival mode at that point. I was not really thinking of anything else other than getting out of there and being back home, just trying to get through this as much as possible.”
She said that month “was awful.” Still, the visiting hours helped.
“The nurses there were really, really great to [the kids]. They knew exactly where the snacks were. So the kids would come in, they would grab their snacks, visit Mom, they were able to do art therapy, which was helpful. So they enjoyed that,” Oppman said.
After that inpatient stay, Oppman was allowed to go home. Over the next couple of months, she’d come back for three additional five-day inpatient stays to receive more chemotherapy.
“You go home, you let your [blood] counts recover and then you hit it harder again,” Oppman said. “So as soon as you start to feel better again, you're going right back in to go through it all again.”
'It's harder than anybody can imagine'
With her last treatment set for February 2019, Oppman began thinking about Valentine’s Day—a chance to celebrate the end of her treatment while “sharing the love” and spreading kindness to her fellow patients.
“'I’m going to come bearing gifts,’” Oppman said. “‘I’m going to bring a smile to these patients’ faces, because it's tough.’ Being there for the holidays, it's harder than anybody can imagine, being in those four walls of the hospital.”
Oppman delivered care packages to all the patients on a floor at UH in 2019. They included lottery tickets, Starbucks gift cards, eye cream, socks, lip balm and “different things that patients could use while they're in treatment just to brighten them up [and] smile,” she said.
While her own treatment was finished, Oppman’s Valentine’s Day initiative wasn’t. She came back to do it again in 2020. That second year, she brought gifts for the nurses and doctors, too. She’s received many messages of thanks, some of which she shared with News 5.
One wrote a message about a spouse, saying, “Thank you for the Valentines [sic] Day gift of love. She will enjoy it all in better days ahead!”
“I think it's different coming from someone who's been there before, because I truly can relate. I can relate to what they're going through,” Oppman said.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t yet done going through it. Throughout the following year of testing and close monitoring, Oppman still had a very small amount of cancer cells in her body, known as MRD, or minimal residual disease.
“What happened over time, the level just kept going up and up and up and up,” Oppman said.
A bone marrow biopsy in the summer of 2020 revealed Oppman had relapsed. She would need a bone marrow transplant to save her life.
“It hit me harder than the initial diagnosis,” Oppman said. “I was already trying to heal at that point and I was trying to move on, move forward, and it just felt like everything came crashing down yet again.”
With COVID-19 visitor restrictions in place at UH, Oppman decided to get the transplant at The James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State. Once insurance approved it, the family temporarily relocated to Columbus, since transplant recipients must stay close to the hospital for 100 days.
“The donor actually came from Germany, so it's a woman,” Oppman said. “So she saved my life and hopefully I get to meet her one day.”
Oppman lost her job of more than nine years days before the family moved. She then underwent intense chemotherapy to prepare her body for the transplant. The bone marrow transplant that saved her life on October 21, 2020 (now celebrated as her “rebirthday”) also deepened her desire to help others.
“I knew if I survived and made it through this, I would never want anyone to just feel the way I felt, just being stuck in that room for so long,” Oppman said.
During her time in the hospital in Columbus, Oppman could only see her children through a window. However, her husband was allowed to visit her.
Dr. Alice Mims, Oppman’s transplant doctor at Ohio State and an associate professor of medicine, said mental health is a huge part of patients’ care and improvement. She described Julia as a “wonderful person” who always looks out for her family and others.
“She had recently undergone her transplant and then immediately was like, ‘What can I do for others?’” Mims said.
Oppman’s family made it back home to Northeast Ohio in time for the holidays in 2020. And for Valentine’s Day 2021, Oppman yet again created care packages for patients. This time, in addition to everything else in the care packages, a friend made crystal coasters.
“She actually lost her mother from cancer, so she wanted to be really involved in it, too,” Oppman said.
Oppman delivered them to Ohio State this time.
“I think it's even more special when it comes from someone who's been through a transplant or a prolonged hospital stay, and they kinda know the things that would bring them joy in a similar situation,” Mims said. “And I think in light of the visitor restrictions as well with the pandemic, that made that even more special to have that outside world contact last year.”
'A blessing to many others in the midst of her own journey'
Mims added that if other people are considering doing something similar for patients, it’s a good idea to think about times that are not around big holidays.
“Doing something for Valentine's Day is not something that typically gets done for a lot of patients,” Mims said. “And so even in times that aren't around holidays, I think patients are always appreciative of having that outside support.”
One of the transplant patients who wrote Oppman a message of thanks said, “I definitely want to say I love the picture of the bumblebee that reads stay strong. I hope that you continue to heal and stay blessed. Thanks again it really meant a lot.”
Tim and Elinor Shoemaker were touched by the care package they received. Elinor was a patient at the James Cancer Center (at Ohio State) last year. In a text to News 5, the couple wrote, “We were out of Elinor’s room for a scheduled test, and when we returned, we found Julia’s care package with her name and phone number. We texted her to say Thanks, and we’ve been in touch ever since, sharing our journeys. It’s good to communicate with someone who personally understands the experience of the roller coaster that we are on. Julia is a blessing to many others in the midst of her own journey.”
How to help
Oppman is collecting donations for this year’s care packages through the end of January. She hopes to collect enough to assemble care packages for a floor of patients at each of the two hospitals (UH and Ohio State) where she received care.
“You're sitting there just day after day and you're not feeling well,” Oppman said. “Any little thing can truly brighten up the day and just give them a little bit of hope and love, and just this care package can truly mean a lot to them.”
She added, “You truly don't know what someone else is going through, their hardships, until unfortunately you have to go through it.”
If you’d like to donate to these Valentine’s Day care packages for patients, Oppman has set up a PayPal account using her email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“100% of the donations (every dollar, including my personal donation) will go to a patient that is battling cancer and any extra care packages will be mailed out to other patients at other hospitals,” Oppman said.
Olivia Fecteau is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.