Tim Cooper, a manager of multiple restaurants at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, has never shied away from hard work. In fact, he spends most of his days on the front line with his team, making sandwiches, operating the cash register and unloading food trucks.
He considers the hustle to be a badge of honor and the best way to connect with the people he serves. But the daily grind caught up to him a few months ago in the form of pain in his neck and back. At first, he tried to keep going, but the discomfort became too much to handle. He got it checked out at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, where his care team quickly determined that Cooper needed to see a specialist right away.
He was referred to Novant Health Spine Specialists on Randolph Road in Charlotte. The physician who examined him became alarmed at what he saw and quickly consulted with his partner, Dr. John Berry-Candelario, a neurosurgeon.
Berry-Candelario then did his own examination and told Cooper he needed emergency surgery to stabilize his neck and back. It got worse.
Cooper hadn’t just hurt his back unloading trucks. He had cancer. And the condition of his spine was so precarious that he was in danger of being paralyzed.
Cooper had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. For the 55-year-old, it was a painful revelation that instantly brought back memories of his own mother’s battle with the same disease.
“Things didn’t correlate at first,” said Cooper. “When you think of cancer, you typically think of lung, breast or prostate cancer. But to find out you have a blood cancer that is affecting your bones and other organs, that’s tough.”
Multiple myeloma is an uncommon cancer diagnosis. In the United States, the lifetime risk of developing the disease is 1 in 132. However, it is twice as common in Black Americans as in white Americans. The reason is unknown.
Cooper’s cancer had weakened his spine in several places, putting him at risk of being paralyzed for the rest of his life. The day he received his diagnosis, he underwent the first of two surgeries to stabilize his neck and back. He went on to have targeted radiation followed by chemotherapy. And if all goes according to plan, he will eventually require a stem cell transplant.
The news was almost too much to take. But Cooper recalls thinking during a moment of introspection, “Why not me?” While there is no cure for multiple myeloma, he chose to see his diagnosis as an opportunity to lean on his faith, his family and his medical team.
Mindset is everything
Cooper grew up in in Harlem, New York. He lived with his parents, two older brothers and younger sister in a modest apartment and spent most of his free time playing basketball at their neighborhood court.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot,” said Cooper. “But I never used that as an excuse. Just because my siblings and I started out in the ‘projects,’ it doesn’t mean you have to become the projects. I believe it all has to do with your mindset. My parents instilled a strong work ethic in me and worked to ensure I was exposed to new opportunities.”
One of those opportunities came with spending part of his summer vacations each year with a white family in the suburbs. His parents signed him up for the Fresh Air Fund program, which introduced inner-city kids to life outside the city.
“I remember calling home that first week,” he joked. “I complained that white people eat differently, and act differently, and even discipline differently. But that experience opened my eyes to the importance of accepting everyone the way they are.”
Moving to the suburbs
Several years later, Cooper’s parents moved the family to Teaneck, New Jersey. Teaneck provided a better environment to raise the kids in a diverse and welcoming community. Cooper was also delighted to live closer to his cousins, who had moved there a few years earlier.
“They had a really big backyard with a basketball court and swimming pool,” Cooper said. “And for us, simply owning a home nearby was a huge accomplishment. That move was an act of faith and an answer to prayer for my parents, and it’s that same faith that has kept us on the right path ever since.”
Back to school
With his eyes set on teaching, Cooper went on to earn a degree from Rutgers University. But deep down, his heart was set on working in the restaurant industry.
“It was tough coming out of college and then taking a job as a waiter,” he said. “But I knew if I was going to make it, I had to learn the business from the ground up.”
His hard work paid off as he went on to become the general manager and district manager at several operations, including Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, in New Jersey and Maryland.
To be closer to his parents, who had relocated to North Carolina in 2007, Cooper took a job managing several restaurants at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2020. Then COVID-19 hit, and – like so many others at the time – his restaurants shut down and Cooper was furloughed. Fortunately, his boss knew someone at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and a quick phone call led to a job transfer. For Cooper, it was just the latest example of divine intervention.
A family connection
Not long after starting the new gig, the pain kicked in. At first, it was just in his neck. He tried to ignore it, but after a few weeks, the pain spread to his back, and he felt tingling in his arms and hands. The pain would eventually get so bad that Cooper found getting in and out of bed to be a monumental task. When he finally went to the doctor, he was mentally prepared to hear that he needed surgery.
But he was not ready to hear that he needed surgery because he had cancer.
“Both of my parents have had cancer,” he said. “My dad had colon cancer, and I’ve watched my mom battle multiple myeloma for years. When I told her the news, she said, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’”
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Music in the operating room
Berry-Candelario explained that the spinal column is divided into a series of sections. Over time, the multiple myeloma in Cooper’s bone marrow had caused sections to collapse and burst causing neck pain and neurological compromise. In Cooper’s case, this breakdown of bone not only caused pain and instability in his neck and lower spine, but also put pressure on his nervous system, which is what was causing him to lose his neurological function in his arms and hands.
“Mr. Cooper was at risk of becoming paralyzed,” said Berry-Candelario. “Like the kid’s game Jenga, I explained that we needed to do two surgical procedures to carefully extract the diseased bones from his neck and spine. Then, we would insert some bracing equipment to refortify the spine.”
Both surgeries went well, and Cooper recalls a special moment when Berry-Candelario told him to count down from 10 before the anesthesia kicked in. Instead of counting, Cooper started to hum “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” by Quincy Jones, one of his favorite jazz musicians.
Berry-Candelario was familiar with the tune, and with the click of a button, he had it piped in through the operating room speakers. It was a small gesture that made a big difference.
"I found out later that Dr. Berry-Candelario joined Novant Health six weeks before I met him. To have a Black neurosurgeon who likes jazz music and is perfectly trained for the unique spinal cancer surgery that I needed, well, again I see that as God at work,"
One step at a time
With his neck and back now stabilized, Cooper went on to have radiation successfully administered by Dr. L. Scott McGinnis, at Novant Health Cancer Institute Radiation Oncology - Charlotte. Radiation therapy is able to treat areas not accessible to the surgeon. High dose conformal therapy, which Cooper had, is able to remove tumor at critical sites in order for healthy bone to grow back.
He was then referred to Dr. Patricia Kropf, a hematologist at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Elizabeth. Kropf prescribed an ongoing, twice-a-week multidrug cancer treatment regimen. The goal: Destroy as much of the remaining cancer in his body as possible, before pursuing a stem cell transplant to eradicate any residual disease.
Healthy Headlines caught up with Cooper in the midst of his radiation treatments, and we were taken with his calm, positive demeanor. Despite his uncertain outcome, he agreed to allow us to tell his story to encourage others, especially men, to get regular checkups.
“There’s no question that Mr. Cooper has been through a lot over the last several months,” said Kropf. “Even when I explained that he had an incurable disease, he never complained. He always has a smile on his face, and we’ve given him the best treatment regimen possible to ensure he will have a prolonged life.”
But the treatment process has taken a toll. For months, he’s had to wear a neck brace, which has prevented him from being able to drive, let alone turn his head. He’s also experienced bruising and swelling in his legs and feet, a side effect from his cancer treatment.
Cooper said the loss of independence has been the hardest part. To help with his day-to-day needs, his brother moved into his apartment in Gastonia. But Cooper still needed to find a way to make the twice-a-week 35-minute drive to his cancer treatment in Charlotte.
That’s when an old friend, who just happens to be a community pastor, volunteered to be Cooper’s personal chauffeur.
“There’s no question that God put him in my path,” said Cooper. “Outside of driving me to and from all of my appointments, he minsters to me and keeps me motivated. I truly believe God puts people in your life at every step.”
Cooper also credits his mom for his positive outlook.
“Over the years, I’ve seen my mom fight this same battle with grace, faith and dignity. Little did I know it at the time, but it’s like she’s been showing me the way all along.”
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Good news at Thanksgiving
A week before Thanksgiving, Cooper had a follow-up appointment with Berry-Candelario. It was the first time Cooper had been back to his office since his diagnosis four months ago. Cooper wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was brought to tears when Berry-Candelario explained that his recovery was progressing nicely and that he could now safely switch to a smaller neck brace offering more mobility. He also told Cooper that it was time to get signed up for physical therapy.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I’ve got to deal with cancer today,’” said Berry-Candelario. “Nobody does that. But once you know, the goal then becomes to make sure you are armed with a team that can help make sure you’re on the right track going forward.”
Cooper: “I got emotional right then and there. When you lose your independence, every step in the right direction feels like a step toward freedom.”
Kropf is also pleased with Cooper’s cancer treatment progress. Thanks to his ongoing infusion cycle, she suspects he could be in remission soon, opening the door for his stem cell transplant.
In the meantime, Cooper said he will continue on, like he always has. “What alternative do I have? I can either sit here and be depressed, or I can keep the faith, stay positive and do all of the little things, day after day, to get my life back.”
As stories go, we now find ourselves right in the middle of Cooper’s. There are still a lot of questions to be answered leading up to his next steps in care.
For Cooper, it’s been the longest and most challenging time of his life. But he’d like to personally invite readers to follow along as he continues to share his story, for better or worse, and for a reason bigger than himself.
We've continued to update his journey as new developments arise. (Read Part 2 here.) Please feel free to write words of encouragement to Cooper in the comments section below.