CATLIN — Rick Kinder sees every day as a gift.
The Catlin man noticed in February he was ending his day as an ironworker a bit more tired than usual.
“I’ve always been healthy,” he said. “I seldom went to the doctor. I didn’t even have a personal physician. We had worked on the wind farm in Paxton and in November (2011) we started building the Busey School in Savoy. We were doing a lot of heavy lifting and I noticed I was feeling more tired and weaker than usual.
Then he found the lump in his abdomen.
“It just kind of showed up,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘This is not right.’”
“You never told me about that,” said his wife, Ava, as the couple sat at the dining room table in their Catlin home.
“I was used to living with aches and pain,” he said. “But I thought this should be checked. So, I called the Carle clinic and talked to a nurse. Since I didn’t have a physician, she said to just come in to the ER and ‘we’ll go from there.’”
He told Ava about his appointment just after 10 p.m. the night before. Just two weeks after his 62nd birthday, Kinder had no idea the next day would begin a difficult medical journey.
He checked into the emergency room — pulling his hood up so fellow ironworkers busy on a project nearby wouldn’t recognize him — and started a series of tests. The procedures lasted 10 hours and ended with Kinder being admitted to the oncology ward.
“My doctor was an expert in blood cancer. She thought it was mantle cell lymphoma right from the beginning,” Kinder said.
Dr. Maria Grosse Perdekamp’s first impression proved to be correct after the test results came back. Mantle cell lymphoma is the rarest of the non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. There are an estimated 15,000 people in the United States with the disease. Men are four times more likely than women to develop it, and the disease usually strikes those who are age 60 and older. Because it has few symptoms, it usually is not detected until it has reached an advanced stage.
In Kinder’s case, that was Stage 4.
“When I felt the lump, I thought the worst,” he said. “But I wanted to stay optimistic. In the back of my mind I think I was prepared for it, but I was in a bit of denial, too”
The lump he had felt was his spleen, an organ often involved in mantle cell lymphoma. The first day led to a series of tests and scans.
“When we left that morning, I was not prepared for all of that,” Ava Kinder said. “I thought we were just going to go over and get back home.”
Kinder’s stay extended to almost two weeks as doctors began chemotherapy right away, even before the test results were finished.
The couple worried about telling their daughter, Jennifer, and Rick’s mother, who lives nearby and is 93 years old. They all handled the news with the same resolve as the couple.
The chemotherapy treatments put a strain on Kinder’s body.
“It was pretty much the strongest they had there,” he said. Ports were inserted in his chest to allow the doctors to withdraw blood for tests while injecting the treatment.
The chemotherapy lasted four or five days, then Kinder was allowed to go home for two weeks to regain his strength before returning for another round of treatment. The therapy worked well, and instead of the six sessions originally scheduled, Kinder was able to finish in four.
The treatment schedule took a toll on the couple’s strength. Through it all, Kinder remained upbeat. His attitude helped others.
“I wanted to quit my job,” said Ava, who now works at Danville Area Community College. “He wouldn’t let me. I had just started Master Gardener classes in Champaign, but he wouldn’t let me quit those, either. And I’m glad I didn’t. It let me get away from the cancer worries. It served as my support system.”
The process was tough. Even though he wasn’t feeling well, Kinder went to watch Jennifer run a half-marathon in Champaign on a cold rainy day in the spring.
“I met her at the finish line,” he said. “She told me, ‘Every time I started getting tired I would think of you, Dad, and what you’re going through and I would keep going.”
In the meantime, word of his illness spread through family, friends and neighbors through social media and other means.
“We just had an outpouring of letters and cards,” Kinder said. “There were prayer groups across the country. I have a sister in Colorado and a sister in New York, and family everywhere.”
The couple started an Internet site to keep everyone updated on the situation.
Ava, who now is retired from District 118 schools, remained friends with a woman who worked as a secretary at South View Middle School. The woman’s brother was a cancer researcher for Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He offered to look at Kinder’s case even before the Carle physicians recommended the Kinders go to Barnes for a stem-cell transplant. All the physicians agreed on the proposed treatment.
Preparation for the transplant meant going through a series of shots to build up the stem cells in Kinder’s blood. Thirty days after his final chemotherapy treatment, Kinder was in Barnes so the stem cells could be collected and frozen in preparation for the transplant.
Kinder explained bone marrow manufactures the types of blood cells the body needs. A series of protein shots boosted his bone marrow’s production of stem cells. His blood was withdrawn and placed in a centrifuge, which then separates the blood’s components. The stem cells — 5.5 million of them in Kinder’s case — are collected and frozen in nitrogen.
The wait usually is a week to 10 days after the cells are collected before the transplant is done. Kinder said they had visited Barnes on a Friday and were on the way home when the hospital called to schedule the transplant for the coming Tuesday. More doses of strong chemotherapy took place in an effort to kill the cancer cells in Kinder’s body before the transplant.
The actual transplant itself didn’t take long.
“I was sitting in the chair when the nurse came in with her cooler,” Kinder said. “She said, ‘Ready to do this?’ and took out a package about the size of a napkin. That was my stem cells. After they had thawed, they hooked me up, and the whole process took about 4 minutes.”
After the transplant, Kinder’s blood counts took a nosedive. He was required to stay near the hospital. Ava stayed nearby in Hope Lodge, a facility operated by the American Cancer Society.
The procedure was done June 5. After 10 days, his blood counts began to increase. Kinder was allowed to go home on June 25. During the weeks at Barnes, he was allowed to walk around and even go outside while wearing a mask. Any infection in the early days after the transplant could have been fatal.
Both spoke about the progress being made in cancer research and how Rick’s outlook is much better than someone who contracted mantle cell lymphoma a decade ago.
“People should know the donations they make to cancer research do make a difference,” Ava said.
Now the Kinders concentrate on Rick staying healthy. He still tires easily, but his hair has grown back and his smile shows often.
“He has been a textbook case since the beginning,” Ava said. “He was a male, over 60 with no symptoms until the cancer had reached an advanced stage. And he has been a textbook case during the treatment, too.”
Kinder’s cancer now is in remission. But they know they are not done with the disease.
Every three months he goes in for blood tests and he receives a PET scan every six months.
There is no cure for mantle cell lymphoma. The disease usually reoccurs within three to six years, requiring another round of treatment and a possible stem-cell transplant.
Kinder knows he’s fortunate in his battle.
“I keep my motivation,” he said. “I know I’m not cured.”
His eyes look toward a nearby poster of the couple’s granddaughter, Grace Church, who is 8.
“I’m going to see her walk down the aisle at her wedding.”
Ava said the couple now sees their lives differently.
“Every little thing is not little anymore,” she said. “One day Grace was over here to go swimming, and I was going to take her to see ‘Brave’ in 3D and have dinner at Steak ’n Shake, and I told Rick and he said, ‘OK, I’m going with you.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yes, the next time we have a chance to do it, I might not be able to go.’”
Kinder looked out a nearby window at birds and squirrels busy at backyard feeders.
“I have an appreciation of the everyday things,” Rick said. “Every day is a gift.”