Daniel Ernce, the part owner and head chef of Springfield restaurant Progress, picked up running again.
He was also going back to the gym at a time when he felt, for the first time since opening Progress, he was finding a balance between focusing on his health, both physical and mental, and running a restaurant, which can consume you if you let it.
“I was just trying to be more health conscious,” Ernce said. “Taking a little better care of myself because we’re notorious for not taking care of ourselves.”
Then, one night, he was experiencing what he thought was “some kind of runner’s cramp.” He was, after all, running. No big deal. Stretch, sleep it off, try again tomorrow. The following day was worse.
“I was just pretty much fine one day and really not the next,” Ernce said.
After a sleepless night filled with abdominal pain, he took himself to the hospital, fearing kidney stones might be the culprit. The doctor thought it was diverticulitis.
A CT scan revealed them both to be wrong: it was a tumor, growing between a kidney and his heart.
“At first, I was really in denial about the whole thing,” Ernce said. “The more days I spent in the hospital, the more it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be something simple or straightforward or easy.”
Ernce is a co-founder of Progress, the popular dining establishment in Farmers Park. Since the early days of the health crisis for the 29-year-old, Ernce has received an outpouring of support from friends, family, patrons and complete strangers.
With lots of unknowns and uncertainties, Ernce just wanted answers
Early on, he was optimistic due to the fact that some indications suggested it might be benign. Ernce spent a week at Mercy in Springfield, where they sought a hospital, at first, within Missouri. Unsuccessful in finding a facility with an open bed, they expanded their search nationwide to find somewhere that had physicians confident enough to perform what would be a dangerously invasive surgery.
Ernce’s case was eventually accepted by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, but only if he could get there by midnight. It was 4 p.m. He traveled by ambulance plane, accompanied by a couple of EMTs.
A week of tests, pain medication and a surgery later and everything indicated it was, in fact, cancer. It wasn’t until three weeks after returning home from Chicago did Ernce get an official diagnosis of testicular teratoma, a type of testicular cancer.
“After the surgery, I had some kind of ups and downs,” Ernce said. “As soon as I was well enough to leave, I did — and I came back here, and I was just sort of in between doctors for a while, which was a very weird limbo to be in, because I knew I had cancer.”
The tumor that he went to the hospital over in the first place was still there, continuously contributing to pain and other health complications. Even at Rush, no one wanted to even get close to it, for Ernce’s sake, until it was smaller.
But also, the cancer had spread, and was no longer surgically removable. Fast forward again, through the painfully slow processes of navigating health care, and Ernce has begun chemo and radiation therapy, with what is now stage three cancer.
“The good news is it’s not in my brain or my bones,” Ernce said optimistically.
After four rounds of chemo, the intent is to revisit the tumor, which will have hopefully shrunk to a more manageable size, and have it removed.
Between cancer and chemo, the restaurant could no longer play the same role in his life
In the meantime, Ernce is in unfamiliar territory, one where he has to focus on his health. Progress, a place where Ernce had devoted 60-80 hours a week for the last four years of his life, would have partly do without him, at least in the capacity he previously was in.
That’s not to say he isn’t working more than a cancer patient should, however. On a typical day that he receives chemotherapy, he will spend several hours inside the C.H. Chub O’Reilly Cancer Center before making his way to Progress to work, cook and lead his staff. While it certainly isn’t ideal, this industry is grueling and he feels devoted to the restaurant.
“From the time we started working on Progress until now, it’s been my whole life,” Ernce said. “That has been the number one priority in my life over myself, friends, family and significant others…the thing that I put above everything was work, was Progress, was trying to create and build this restaurant.”
Looking back, Ernce understands that he was, even before the cancer diagnosis, working in a really unsustainable way.
“I was working at a pace I couldn’t keep up forever,” Ernce said. “If I’m going to burn the candle at both ends, it might as well be while I’m young and have the energy to. But then, when you get a cancer diagnosis, you just can’t do that anymore.”
Owning a restaurant, he has always come to expect the unexpected. The cancer, however, caught him by surprise. Though he said, going forward, he might better be able to predict and control his cancer than Progress, as the restaurant industry is a difficult and unpredictable business. He described his work as an “unruly creature,” especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Openness, acceptance and gratefulness recurring attributes of his journey
Ernce feels as though his cancer diagnosis is perhaps the only thing that could’ve slowed him down and forced him to reevaluate his life, priorities and mindset. He described being coerced into focusing on himself and his health as “a new journey” and “humbling.”
He has tried to be as transparent as possible throughout the entire process, from initially being admitted to the hospital for his tumor, to being diagnosed with cancer, to the start of chemo.
Ernce has used social media (Facebook and Instagram) as a channel to keep everyone up to date on where he is, how he is doing and what the next steps are.
It has allowed him to relay significant amounts of information and details about his condition to a significant number of people, without mentally straining him by messaging and responding to everyone who is concerned, which has been a lot of people.
“It’s not that I was ungrateful for it,” Ernce said. “It was just kind of a lot to take in and a lot to handle and know how to deal with because there’s not really a playbook for how to feel or how to deal with your first cancer diagnosis.”
The support and level of kindness he has received from family, friends, restaurant guests, and complete strangers has been “overwhelming in a very positive way.”
Local business and friend help make a dent in medical bills
For example, Getaway Golf, a miniature golf course in Springfield hosted a fundraiser in which 100 percent of the proceeds went towards Ernce, to help his not-inexpensive hospital and treatment bills. All day on September 24, the sales of their bar, golf course and apparel were raised for Ernce.
“He’s the best chef around, and outside of work, he’s one of the nicest people you could ever meet… I’m constantly inspired by his work,” John Reinart, the owner of Getaway Golf, said on Facebook. “After taking some time, going through the various emotions (some positive, some negative), I’ve been inspired to use my platform for good.”
In response to the fundraiser, Ernce expressed gratitude and embraced the support.
“This support you all have shown this weekend has really been unbelievable,” Ernce said. “I’m stunned. I couldn’t believe that so many people would show up in such a big way. The truth is, I didn’t think anyone really liked me that much.”
From the beginning of the cancer diagnosis, Ernce knew he would learn lessons from it, but just wasn’t sure what they would be at the time. But the first lesson is becoming more and more clear.
“People care about me,” Ernce said. “It’s still hard for me to get my head around, because I’ve never really cared for myself.”
For those looking to help, Ernce started a GoFundMe page to help cover the cost of his medical bills.
“I have ALWAYS struggled to ask for help and to receive help,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page. “However, this experience has shown that asking/receiving help is not only paramount, but it’s as crucial to my recovery as the chemo in my veins.”
Honesty and optimism, the themes of Ernce’s mindset and communication
At the beginning of his treatment, he was having conversations with a colleague who was nearing the end of his treatment for blood cancer, and found advice to help better appreciate his own support system. Through this interaction, and his experiences so far, Ernce has been honest, and optimistic, which don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“I knew it wouldn’t do me any good to sit around and be bummed that I have cancer,” Ernce said. “So I’ve tried to be open about it and be as positive as I can. Some days it’s easier than others, sure. I don’t always wake up feeling like a million bucks. There are good days and there are bad, some are easier than others.”
Ernce also noted that his particular type of cancer is highly researched and treatment is almost “textbook.” While it’s certainly not an ideal situation, he feels it’s going as well as it can be and understands that there are worse cancers to have.
He isn’t sure what the future holds for him, but right now just wants to focus on his health (and doing what he can to ensure Progress has a successful holiday season). In the meantime, he will continue undergoing treatment to hopefully put this chapter of his life behind him and accept the support this whole process has made him more familiar with.
“I’ve never been good at accepting help or kindness or whatever,” Ernce said. “I’ve always just kind of tended to keep things to myself and handle it by myself. So I’ve been learning to ask for help. To say yes, to receive help, to be grateful for that help and graceful in receiving it.”
Those interested can be kept updated on his progress on his Instagram account, @daniel_ernce.
(Editor’s note: Jack McGee, the reporter of this story, is a current part-time employee of Progress.)