Steamboat man learns to make the most of life after two cancer diagnoses
June 16, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Bill McKelvie said there's nothing like sitting in a doctor's office when the "C" word first is used.
He should know.
He's been there for that instant of disbelief when he hoped he didn't hear right. He's been there when the questions far outnumber the answers but all the words are drowned by fear. He's been there when future plans vanish into thin air. Everything from an already-paid-for Mexico vacation set for the next week to his daughter's high school graduation still several years away were gone as soon as "cancer" sliped the doctors lips.
He should know. He's been there twice.
It was 2000 the first time McKelvie was diagnosed with cancer and as terrible as the initial word sounded, things got better surprisingly quickly.
He was told on a Wednesday that he had colon cancer, and the only question the doctor asked was whether he'd prefer surgery to remove it on the upcoming Monday or Thursday.
"I was thinking I would get a little bit of my colon removed and that I might be out of the hospital after a week," he said.
In his 23rd year teaching U.S. history at Steamboat Springs High School, it all happened over February's Blues Break, so he initially thought he might not even miss a day of work. That proved optimistic, but he did return after three weeks, albeit sore.
His next diagnoses was entirely different. In 2003, a routine cancer check turned up troubling news. Not only was he told the cancer had returned, but also that it already had nearly won the battle, overtaking his liver.
"I was told I had four months to live," he said. I was frozen in my chair. It took me two hours to get out of the doctor's office, and the only way he accomplished that was by calling my wife to come get me. I'm sure other patients needed to use the room, but I couldn't get out of the chair."
The difference? The first time, there was a solution. The second time, there was an expiration date.
That was in May 2003, and McKelvie was just days from retirement. The news meant he wouldn't live to see another school year even if he had wanted to go back to work.
"It's a shocking reality to hear those words," he said.
Hope came in the form of Dr. Allen Cohn, who examined McKelvie's chart and offered the most inspiring of opinions: "Bill, I think we can beat this."
And with that, Bill dedicated himself to winning. He began taking a new drug that had big effects, and when he was allowed to start chemo, he did so with abandon, taking as much as he possibly could as often as he possibly could.
He was sick in September, the month he was supposed to die, but he still managed to go on a bear hunt with his daughter, Laura. On Labor Day, as everyone else in town relaxed at a barbecue, he talked the hospital staff into opening its chemo room, and he showed up for another treatment.
The ensuing year was horrible, exhausting and painful, but he lived through that as well, and finally, doctors were able to surgically remove half of his cancerous liver.
Making the most of it
McKelvie isn't the same person he was. Not at all.
"Cancer opens your eyes like you wouldn't believe," he said.
There have been more trips, thanks in part to his retirement and in part to a desire to do it all.
He got to see his daughter, Laura, graduate from high school in 2004, and he and his wife, Christine, reveled in visiting her at her college, University of Montana. They made at least two trips a year, fishing and hunting, exploring Yellowstone and the far reaches of the region.
He saw Laura graduate from college and later saw her get married.
Surviving cancer allowed him to see his son, Jamie, graduate from college at Colorado State University and then go on to a career in the U.S. Navy.
He's now based out of Norfolk, Va., and visiting him was the main goal of a massive road trip this spring. That trip included stops to see friends in Kansas and Missouri. The McKelvies took in a colonial reenactment in Maryland and visited Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. When it all appeared over, time to head home, they swung south on a lark to Alabama to visit family, stopping for every interesting-looking historical marker along the way.
"That was a great trip," Bill McKelvie said. "I feel like a 10-year old. I've been a survivor for 10 years, and now I feel like I'm in a candy store. I'm just trying to do it all, overextending myself and having too much fun."
But that sunshine still shines only through the dark clouds cancer left behind.
The liver surgery removed half of Bill's liver and the remaining half was so damaged that the operating doctor said there was only a 50 percent chance he would live five years.
Even though he's already doubled that projection, he's never been able to shake it or the thought that someday he'll once again be sitting in that room, once again stunned into silence by the worst news from a doctor.
"All of us, we still have it in the back of our minds: 'I'm a survivor, but for how long?'" he said. "Every time we step into the hospital to get checked out, we get nervous. That cancer is always right behind me."
Neither the joyful distractions of surviving nor the lingering fears of the disease have kept McKelvie away from the annual Relay For Life event in Steamboat Springs.
He credits a number of different people for saving his life, first of all Jan Fritz, Yampa Valley Medical Centers’ cancer services director. She was the one who goaded Bill into the meeting with Dr. Cohn that gave him the first hint of hope. That also got Dr. Cohn on the list, of course, with other members of the hospital’s staff, all the way down to the cook, who McKelvie insists is far superior to the Denver hospital counterparts.
He also credits fundraisers like Relay For Life, events that help pay for research. That research directly saved his life in the form of a new drug coming on the market the day McKelvie needed it. It helped beat back the cancer and opened the door for chemo.
"If it hadn't been for those research dollars the American Cancer Society spends to do the research, I wouldn't have made it," McKelvie said.
When Relay For Life got its start in Steamboat, it had an immediate supporter in McKelvie, who will participate this year with a team composed largely of teachers and half of whom are cancer survivors.
He takes part not just because he's afraid he'll someday have the cancer conversation again but because he knows friends and maybe even family could face that moment in the doctors office, and he knows just how devastating those words can be, just how much research can help.
"Every year, the relay gets so emotional," he said. "There are all these memories, and you think about all the people you know who have survived, and you think about a great many who did not survive, even here just within our little community.
"It just has such a huge devastating impact on individuals, everyone in the family is impacted, and we want to honor the memory of those who have passed away."
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com