June 5 2013 12:00 AM

After cancer surgery, Roy Saper is proudly back to 'not normal'

Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Roy Saper was getting high in his kitchen last week from making chocolate chip pecan waffles. Pour, sprinkle, press, sizzle.

I told him I needed to stop at one waffle.

“No, we’re going to keep on going,” he said. “That’s the deal.”

The owner of East Lansing’s Saper Galleries is persuasive enough when he’s hawking a Jiang Tie-Feng serigraph or a Tunis Ponsen watercolor. Now that he’s trumpeting the benefits of early cancer detection, he’s unstoppable.

Before Saper’s cancer surgery March 14, almost everything flipped his hair-trigger enthusiasm switch. Now everything does, period.

“I wore a catheter for two weeks, which is kind of cool,” he beamed. He explained that it helped him multitask. “You don´t have to go to the bathroom. It´s doing it for you.”

Saper, 61, said he feels “a thousand percent better” after a radical prostatectomy and a difficult post-operation month. His doctor doesn’t guarantee he’s cancer-free, but Saper is sure that the operation saved his life.

“If I can make it to five years, that´s good,” he said. “If I can make it to 10, that´s really good. I´m going for 50.”

Saper’s diagnosis in early March, after a biopsy came up positive for aggressive prostate cancer, was just a hair short of there’s-no-point-in-operating. He considers any chance to tell his story, including this one, to be another reward for his "temporary inconvenience."

“Waiting too long could be an end-of-life decision,” he said. “There is no question but that if I didn´t bother getting retested in early 2013 and waited a year or so, that would have been too late.”

If he did nothing, Saper was told, he had two to five years to live. The cancer cells were doubling every four months.

"You´d like your investments to do that," he said.

Saper is an art dealer, but his training is in quantitative economics. He plots and graphs everything, from the maple syrup he makes in his kitchen to his utility bills for the last 20 years. He keeps a spreadsheet on the sap yield of each tree on his lot for each year, how much syrup was produced and how long it took to boil it down. 

From December 2010 to January 2013, another spreadsheet on Saper’s computer tracked an alarming 64 percent increase in prostate specific antigen. As men get older, PSA goes up, but not that fast, unless something is wrong. In January, his doctor felt a lump on his prostate and sent him to a specialist.

“People who don´t go to a doctor for a physical, who don´t get a PSA test, it´s like never taking your car for an oil change after 50,000 miles,” Saper said. “It will die. It has to. It has moving parts that need to be fixed.”

Saper told the doctor he was planning to go to Costa Rica to pursue one of his latest discoveries, handmade boxes made from cocobolo wood, for his gallery.

"Go ahead, but don´t schedule any more trips," the specialist told him ominously. A biopsy at Sparrow Feb. 23 came back positive for cancer. On the Gleason scale, used to measure the aggressiveness of cancer, scores of 8 to 10 are often considered inoperable because the disease has probably spread to the bones. Saper’s Gleason score squeaked in just under 8.

Ever the empiricist, Saper tossed a jar of crystalline syrup marked “March 9” onto the table.

“It takes 42 gallons of sap to make one gallon,” he said. “I just boil it up here while I’m doing computer work. Free maple syrup. You can’t get any more local than that.”

Five days after Saper boiled that jar of syrup, he was in pre-op at Sparrow Hospital. 

“They used the Da Vinci laparoscopic robotic method to do a radical prostatectomy,” he said, arching his art dealer’s brow at the mention of Da Vinci. “It was the coolest thing.”

While waiting on the operating table, he peered across the room at the surgeon’s console.

“His fingers are in little rings and there are foot treadles, like on an organ,” he said. “It´s totally science fiction.”

The Da Vinci machine is used in several types of operations, including prostate removal, to minimize invasiveness and increase precision.

“It’s fascinating,” Saper said. “These five robot arms go inside my body. One´s a camera, one´s a light. He´s got cutters, slicers, suture things. Look on YouTube for videos.”

(Note to male readers: Do not do that.)

Saper said they removed his prostate, seminal vesicles and “some other stuff,” including the part of the urethra that passes through the prostate.

“They hack that off, then they take the bladder, and bring it back down and connect the urethra to it, stitch it back up,” he said. “Total reconstruction of your insides.”

Anesthesia might have something to do with Saper´s blithe description. All he remembers about the five-hour procedure is quizzing the anesthesiologist on the function of each person in the room as she wafted the mask in his face.

“After about three of those, I was in the recovery room,” Saper said.

But the memory of what happened after surgery tripped Saper’s hard-to-find “pause” button.

“This is terrible," he said softly. "This is terrible.”

After surgery, they rolled him to his room, put his feet on the floor and told him to take two steps to bed.

“No way,” he said, and fainted. He bit his lower lip as he fell, spurting blood.

A few days later, when they tried to get him out of his bed into a chair, he fainted again. Never a man with flesh to spare, Saper hadn’t had anything to eat for days. Anemia and fluid loss were a major worry. His weight neared 120 before finally inching back up.

“I wanted to die,” he said. “I thought, ‘I just can’t do this.’”

In the weeks after his surgery, Saper’s savor for life was tested further. His well-traveled world shrank to one corner of his art-filled home, designed by modernist architect Alfred Browning Parker for a General Motors executive in the 1960s, now pressed into service as an infirmary.

For a month, Saper barely got up from the low-slung leather sofa in his living room. Next to the couch, a black slat coffee table designed by modernist George Nelson was festooned with a Foley catheter bag and drainage tubes. Staying hydrated was a constant problem.

“I watched the fluids drip, trying to imagine whether I would ever go back to work and the computer and ever eat a real meal or dine in a restaurant again,” he said.

Saper still looks alarmingly thin, but he got his restaurant wish. Over the Memorial Day holiday, he went on a 1,700-mile road trip with his wife, Nell Kuhnmuench, to visit their two sons: Jay, 22, graduated that weekend from Middlebury College; Adam, 27, goes to law school at New York University.

One of the first things Saper did upon recovery was to resume a genealogy project he started back in the 1970s.

“When I feared I was checking out, that was the first thing I thought of,” he said. “That’s the greatest gift I could leave my kids. I’m anxious to get this going.”

This month he dug into a backlog of art-related inquiries. He gets frequent requests to help with court cases involving art fraud and evaluates art for estates and probate cases.

“I had a two-month break, but now I´m back at it,” he said.

“I’m not a retirement kind of guy.”

Saper is also looking after his own parents. His dad, 96, lives half a mile away and is “slowing down.” His mother, 95, has Alzheimer’s and doesn´t always recognize him. He visits them both nearly every day.

But the main focus of his life, other than family, has always been the gallery. 

Saper Galleries started shortly after its namesake came to Michigan State University in 1974 to study music therapy. For a while, Saper took a detour from art under the influence of a charismatic professor, Carl Page (father of Google co-founder Larry Page), ending up with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Department of Computer Science. After graduating, Saper did economic forecasting for then-Gov. James Blanchard, but his side job — an art dealership he ran from his house on Bailey Street, was more rewarding.

“I needed to do the art thing full time,” he said. “I remember going to the Harvard Co-op at 12, 13 and buying prints. Some people collect music or books or go to films, are fanatics about baseball. That was the thing I connected with.”

Saper’s itch for quantification still came in handy. When he talks about art, the fusion of passion and commerce is so complete it’s a wonder he ever considered any other vocation.

“When one sees a work of art that is a joy, if you like it, you have to get it,” he declared. “I guess that´s maybe what love is, if there is a definition: when you see something, someone, and you want to have that connection, long term.” That can be slippery concept in love, but in the art market, long-term connections are neatly quantified.

For years, Saper’s routine was to get to the gallery a little after 8 a.m., work a full day, go home for a family meal, and return to the gallery until midnight. But Saper is too gregarious with clients and walk-ins to be as productive as he would like at the gallery. In recent years, he started doing more work at home, a habit that set him up well for the latest phase of his working life. Last week, he started coming back to the gallery for short trips.

“I´d rather be going to work every day than to be visited by relatives every year, 6 feet under,” he said.

Work is just one of a long list of things Saper wants to do with his next 50 years. There are books to read, ancestors to trace, sons to advise. Chances are he´ll do more than one of those things at once.

He’s reaching new heights in Saper-tasking, even without a catheter. Standing at the kitchen counter, brushing his teeth, he exercises his legs with a rubber therapy band while reading a trade magazine, listening to music and scanning the computers out of the corner of his eye for new emails.

He isn’t getting chemotherapy or radiation treatment, but every Thursday, he goes to the doctor’s office for physical therapy and white-knuckle electrotherapy to further wake up his bladder muscles.

He admits that electric butt probes are no fun, but it’s part of a trade-off for which he is profoundly grateful.

“It´s no big deal,” he said. “I can walk, I can see, I can think. The mind is the same. It´s just a lot of parts were cut out. I am back to my old normal, which is proudly not normal.”