Adam Kreutinger started making lifelong decisions in fifth grade. That’s when he decided he wanted to be an art teacher. Shortly after that, the summer between eighth and ninth grades, he started dating Maria. They have been together for 20 years, married for five. They have two children together, an 18-month-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.
Their family is an artistic and creative one, with plenty of laughs and lots of puppets. Adam hosts a popular YouTube channel called “Puppet Nerd,” and teaches puppetry. During the Covid pandemic, he started a series teaching people around the world how to make their own puppets.
Adam got into puppetry, in part, to spend more time with Maria, who was involved in their school’s theater program. After auditioning for a part, he started making props and set pieces; when they worked together on a production of Little Shop of Horrors, a show that famously uses a very large plant puppet, Adam was inspired to start making his own. His favorite is a pink alien named Hubble, a very simple creation that Maria believes is the most like her husband. Creativity and making things as a skill and hobby is so central to their relationship that Adam designed Maria’s wedding dress, which she did not see until the day of their ceremony. A video Adam made detailing the process went viral online after it was shared by Star Trek star George Takei.
It was on his Puppet Nerd YouTube channel that Adam decided last summer to go public with some decidedly not cheerful news: he had been diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, a grade three brain tumor, for which he’s being treated at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
A sharp left turn
Adam says he’s never been one to have headaches and no one in his family had been diagnosed with cancer previously. His symptoms happened out of the blue, starting abruptly last July with a seizure as he walked to hose the sand off his shoes after a volleyball game.
“I didn’t even know I went down,” he says. Within hours, following ambulance trips to two different medical facilities and a late-night MRI, Adam was diagnosed and everything changed.
This all came one week after he wrapped filming of an episode of the Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America.” Once diagnosed, he and Maria were discussing treatment options that included courses of radiation and chemotherapy with Ajay Abad, MD, a neuro-oncologist in the Department of Neuro-Oncology at Roswell Park.
Anaplastic astrocytoma is a “relatively uncommon type of cancer in general and a type of tumor generally diagnosed in younger patients,” typically between the ages of 20 and 40, Dr. Abad says. It’s also common for someone with astrocytoma to be symptom-free before experiencing a seizure, because seizures are caused as the tumor infiltrates the brain tissue and interferes with brain activity.
Adam had surgery in August to remove 50% of his tumor, much less than the 80% removal his surgeon said would be enough to give him the best possible outcome. After that, he underwent six weeks of radiation, along with chemotherapy in pill form. He’s now in the middle of his fifth cycle of IV chemotherapy, doing his best to keep his focus on his priority projects, including going back to teaching art at South Davis Elementary School for the last month of the 2022-2023 school year. He will continue chemotherapy cycles until the end of 2023, then undergo MRI scans every two months, in the hopes of catching any cancer recurrence or tumor growth as quickly as possible.
Sharing time as a family
Their daughter gets a little confused when her parents have to return to the hospital for one of their “dates,” as Maria calls them. “She’s like ‘Well, he doesn’t have cancer anymore,’ because she knows he had surgery and his hair is back and he takes his medicine.” She is too young to understand this is not something that is going to go away. When Adam needed to rely on oxygen tanks following a setback after surgery, they told her the contraptions were a “charger” to keep him from getting a “low battery.”
Adam, who is 35, and Maria take advantage of Roswell Park’s Young Adult program, which includes access to a child psychologist to help them work through the tough conversations, like the one the family had to have after Adam had another seizure, without warning, when they were out for Halloween last fall. They also brought home books to deal with the questions that will inevitably come.
For now, today, Adam is feeling good. He’s returning to teaching art to elementary school students, incorporating his puppetry into lessons, and still making YouTube videos. But his cancer is one that he will continue to live with and be treated for, no matter how much like himself he looks today.
“Cancer has made me want to prioritize because I’m always working on projects. Now it’s just a matter of which ones are the most important. I want to make sure I finish,” he says.
Why Roswell Park for brain tumor treatment?
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“Since this happened, we’ve spent more time together than we ever have before, because we were kind of forced to,” adds Maria, who has been Adam’s full-time caregiver for almost a year. “But we were able to realize our priorities definitely changed about what was important. “
Adam continues to encourage people to pick up puppetry, at any age, as a physical, independent hobby that serves as a natural tool for storytelling. He has more stories to tell, ones of appreciation and living in the moment.
“Some people would look at my life before cancer and be like, I’ve got a wonderful wife, two beautiful kids, a great job, and then this happens,” he says. “But there are some people who are perfectly healthy and they can’t have kids and that’s not fair either. I don’t want to die, but if I did, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I have an amazing life.”
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.