Worth the walk

Cancer survivors take on Relay for Life

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— Doctors told Bill McKelvie that nothing could be done to help him after he was diagnosed with cancer for a second time.

"I was told that I had six months, at the most," McKelvie said. "What saved my life is a brand new drug that attacks colon cancer in the liver. If that new chemo drug hadn't come out, I wouldn't be here."

Because of that drug, McKelvie is alive and able to participate in a Steamboat Springs Relay for Life fundraiser Aug. 4 and 5. The fundraiser benefits the American Cancer Society and funds cancer research as well as numerous ACS programs. The event, which takes place across the country, is being held locally on the track at Steamboat Springs High School.

"The money put into research will save people's lives in the future, or at least give them hope," McKelvie said. "That's why I'm excited about being in the Relay."

McKelvie was first diagnosed with colon cancer in February 2000. Within six days of the diagnosis, he underwent a procedure to remove 6 inches of his colon.

"There was a three-year period afterwards that I thought I was OK and beat it the first time," he said. "But you think you're safe, and then it comes back. Cancer is a very hard thing to get rid of."

In May 2003, McKelvie was re-diagnosed with cancer that doctors said had spread to two-thirds of his liver. The news came two weeks before his retirement from the Steamboat Springs School District.

"I told the doctor I did not teach high school for 32 years to go out like this in my first year of retirement," McKelvie said. "I charged into the cancer room (at the hospital) and wasn't going to miss one drop of chemo, because it was going to save my life. But it was the Yampa Valley Medical Center staff who really saved my life."

McKelvie underwent a year of intensive chemotherapy treatment, and half of his liver was removed. But as difficult as undergoing surgical procedures and chemotherapy treatments was the emotional and mental impact of a cancer diagnosis, he said.

"One of the hardest moments is when you first find out the mental shock of, 'You've got cancer.' It's devastating," he said.

McKelvie befriended fellow cancer patients at the hospital, and some of them did not survive.

"I'm walking in honor of three people who didn't make it -- Suzanne Frasier, Dan Waggoner and Jean Spencer," McKelvie said.

Cancer survivors Helen and Luther Berntson have walked in four or five Relays for Life. In their first Relay, their team walked the equivalent of Fort Collins to Salt Lake City.

"We do Relays because of the cancer research," Helen said.

"We are willing to work for this because of the research and screenings," Luther added.

For more information about the Relay for Life fundraiser event Aug. 4 and 5 in Steamboat Springs, call Sarah Catlin at (970) 640-9309 or Pam Williams at 870-7424.

Helen's breast cancer and Luther's prostate cancer were detected by routine screenings in 1999. Helen's was discovered during pre-operative blood work, and a doctor ordered a mammogram before hip surgery. After Helen's mastectomy, she had her hip surgery.

Luther took a Prostate-Specific Antigen test while his wife was in the hospital. A few weeks later, he went in for a prostatectomy.

"We were on a first-name basis with everyone in the hospital except for the OB ward," Luther said.

Neither of their cancers spread to their lymph nodes, and neither had to undergo chemotherapy. But cancer is common in their families.

"Both of my parents died from cancer," Luther said. "My dad had pancreatic cancer, and my mom had lung and breast cancer."

Helen's mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer.

Luther said almost everyone is affected by cancer in some way.

"Either you are a survivor or either parent, your siblings, aunt, uncle or friends have had it," Luther said. "Everyone, at least by the time they are 25 years old, knows someone affected by cancer."

"It isn't necessarily a death sentence," Helen said. "I don't worry about it coming back. If I were told that I had it again, I would right away do what I had to do. I don't hardly think about it."

The couple is helping organize the local Relay for Life event, and they plan to participate in it because they said it gives hope and raises money for a cure.

But until a cure is found, people like Bill McKelvie will continue to wonder if or when cancer will strike again.

"Cancer is a hard thing to talk about," McKelvie said. "It's a very private battle and most people withdraw because it's iffy if they are going to get through it or not.

"For the rest of my life, I will be looking over my shoulder. I always think about it."

To reach Allison Plean, call 871-4204 or e-mail aplean@steamboatpilot.com.

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