Still in the Game: Cancer Survivor Stories

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October 17, 2014

Cancer touches everyone in one way or another — at home and work. Half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Who hasn’t lost family members, friends, neighbors and/or industry colleagues to cancer?

In August, our industry bid farewell to Vern Toblan, longtime executive director of Pi Chi Omega, an international pest management fraternity. An industry leader, Toblan quietly and bravely battled cancer the past few years. He has called others to be more, to give more: Toblan asked that after his passing, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

Cancer hates donations. They’re just what the doctor ordered for continued advancements in screening, early detection and treatment of cancer’s insidious gang of more than 100 diseases.

Cancer survivors number more than 14.5 million in the U.S., thanks, in large part, to donation-driven advancements, according to the ACS.

Jeff Jones. Bob Kunst. Donna Coker. Stoy Hedges. Jim Gorman. Matthias Molnar. Steve Fisher. Peggy Adams. Lisa Maletta. Andrew Miller. Ken Reynolds. Jerry (and Nancy) Mix. Twelve industry pros share snapshots of their cancer survivor stories this month, so we — individually and as companies, associations and an industry as a whole — can rise above the disease.

 

Jeff Jones, Vice President, Admiral Pest Control, Bellflower, Calif.

Jeff Jones

Jeff Jones throws the first pitch before the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants baseball game. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Admiral Pest Control.

On May 9, 2014 — one year to the day after his right shoulder and dominant right arm were amputated because of stage 4 cancer (soft tissue sarcoma) — Jeff Jones threw the first pitch before the
Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants baseball game. Behind home plate, catching Jones’ heat, was Graham Allebaugh, senior manager of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS’s) Relay For Life for Greater Los Angeles. A few months earlier, Allebaugh presented Jones with ACS’s Statewide Patient Courage Award.

“I’ve battled cancer since November 2006,” Jones says. “After seven years, it came back big time. I asked the doctor, ‘What’s my best chance for survival?’ It quickly became clear the only dependable pitch in my arsenal was amputation. The doc gave me two weeks to think about it. That night I talked about it with my wife, Sheli, and made the decision to proceed with the surgery. I haven’t looked back since.”

Jones purchased a new Ford Escape outfitted with a hands-free, foot-activated lift gate and Intelligent Access (push-button start and easy door locking and unlocking). He also read a book chock full of practical tips about living with one arm.

“It also helped that I practiced living left-handed — and one-armed — for a few months before the amputation,” Jones says. “But it’s like learning a new language: There’s nothing like being dropped into that country where speaking that foreign language is the only option.”

Jones says such journeys require strength within — acceptance and persistence, for starters —
as well as strength from outside. For example, when sharing meals with clients, his brother Brian, president of Admiral, occasionally assists Jeff with cutting his food. The duo also practiced pitching an hour a week to prepare for Jones’s perfect pitch across the plate May 9.

“Countless family members, friends and industry colleagues — coworkers, suppliers and even competitors — have been here for me through it all,” Jones adds. “I can’t thank this wonderful industry enough. It’s my second family.”

Pest management business consultant Lloyd Smigel was among them, encouraging and entertaining him regularly.

“After my amputation, every day for about four months, Lloyd sent me a humorous card. It made my day,” Jones adds. “One card joked, ‘You better get well and get back to work fast. Your brother is thinking about replacing you.’ Then Lloyd’s next card read, ‘Don’t worry about it. Brian sold the company. You’re out of a job.’ None of it was true. It was just Lloyd being Lloyd, bringing me needed smiles and laughter. I’ll never forget it.”

Bob Kunst, President, Fischer Environmental Services, Mandeville, La.

A PMP Hall of Famer and former president of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), Kunst didn’t have much time to worry about his prostate cancer surgery. A few days before his surgery, Hurricane Katrina unleashed her wrath.

Bob Kunst

Hurricane Katrina hit home just days before Bob Kunst underwent prostate cancer surgery.

“My wife, Barbara, and I were in Indianapolis at an ASPCRO (Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials) meeting when Katrina hit, leaving us wondering if we still had a business, home and son,” Kunst says.

“The day Katrina struck, we received a text from our then-21-year-old son, Michael, who was living in New Orleans with friends,” Kunst adds. “Michael said they had to leave and search for higher ground. The next time we heard from him, it was four days later. Thank God he was OK.”

Two days after the good news from his son, Kunst underwent surgery, which was more complicated than he and his doctors anticipated.

“When I awoke from surgery, the doctors informed me I’d been ‘upgraded’ — from stage T2 to T4 — prostate cancer,” Kunst says. “They found a second, much-larger, dangerously located tumor and had to remove my prostate along with the two tumors.”

Kunst, his son and Fischer Environmental Services survived a tumultuous 2005.

“My prostate surgery was a nothing compared to Katrina,” Kunst says. “Katrina wiped out 1,900 of our customers overnight. But with perseverance, 13 months to the day after Katrina paid us a visit, we had one more client than we had the day before she hit.”

Donna Coker, Office & HR Manager, Johnson Pest Control, Sevierville, Tenn.

Donna Coker

Four months after Donna Coker landed a job at Johnson Pest Control, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

2005 was a busy year for Coker. In January, she moved from Florida to Tennessee. In March, she landed a job at Johnson Pest Control. Four months after that, at 41, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. The next month, she had a lumpectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed for more than a year.

“One of the things I looked forward to most during my chemo treatments was that after each treatment, when I returned to work, I was welcomed by a neon-green wooden number on my desk,” Coker says. “Placed there by a coworker, the number dropped by one after each treatment.

“Counting down 3, 2, 1 … after my final chemo treatment, I was greeted by a purple poster in my office that has a big green zero on it, with hair growing on its head and a big smile.”

Donna Coker

“Coworkers, friends and family — and an unshakable belief in God’s infinite goodness — are my pillars of strength,” Donna Coker says.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of this survivor story.

After eight years of regular checkups and clean scans, Coker received a negative mammogram in October 2013. Doctors found three tumors. Thankfully, this breast cancer is a less-aggressive type than the Coker first battled.

This second go-around, Coker’s breast cancer is stage 1. No radiation treatments. Her chemotherapy will be a pill taken daily for five years.

The suggested surgery path, however, is far more invasive. Last December, Coker underwent a bilateral mastectomy. Reconstructive surgery is scheduled to begin later this year.

“Breast cancer … twice — two types — what are the odds?” Coker asks, half-chuckling. “But I firmly believe with faith even as small as a mustard seed, not only can we move mountains, we can beat this dreaded disease.”

Stoy Hedges, President, Stoy Pest Consulting, Lakeland, Tenn.

Stoy Hedges

Stoy Hedges was given a 35-percent chance of surviving cancer five years — 34 years ago.

Hedges was a junior at Purdue University when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in May 1980.
“The doctors caught it earlier — my cancer diagnosis was stage 1 — but back then, the outlook was a bit bleaker,” says Hedges, who lost his mother to lung cancer. “My primary doctor gave me a 35-percent chance of surviving five years. Here I am, almost 35 years later.”

Hedges’ initial surgery went well. A second surgery for exploratory examination (necessary then in pre-MRI and pre-PET scan days) was much more difficult recovery-wise. It revealed no further evidence of cancer, but Hedges dropped from 165 lbs. to 130 lbs. in just a few weeks due to being fed via IV only for 10 days.

“I endured six months of brutal chemotherapy immediately following, but I give glory to God and an incredible team of doctors at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis for my survival,” Hedges says.

Hedges urges readers to receive regular physical examinations by their primary doctors: “There’s only three levels of news you can get,” he says. “No. 1: ‘We didn’t find anything.’ No. 2: ‘We found something, but thankfully you came in and we caught it early.’ And No. 3: ‘We found something. … Too bad we didn’t catch it earlier.’”

Jim Gorman, Vice President of Marketing, Nisus Corp., Rockford, Tenn.

After two prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screenings showed slightly elevated levels that antibiotics couldn’t curb, Gorman saw a urologist and had a biopsy. The doctor found stage 2 prostate cancer. Gorman underwent a radical prostatectomy. Within six weeks, he was functioning at 100 percent.

Jim Gorman

Nisus Corp.’s Jim Gorman (left) and Kevin Kirkland are the industry’s dynamic duo of prostate cancer-screening advocates.

Gorman has been cancer-free 12 years and is deemed cured. He’s in the perfect place to pay it forward.

Two years after Gorman’s cancer diagnosis, Nisus President Kevin Kirkland launched Eddie Check, an annual event that adds free PSA screenings to blood drives in East Tennessee. See “PMPs for a Cure” on for a story about Eddie Check, named after Kirkland’s father, a WWII veteran who lost his battle with prostate cancer before PSA screening was available.

“Early screening and detection is critical. If I hadn’t had that initial PSA test, I don’t know if I’d be here today,” Gorman adds. “That’s why we’ve added our ‘Ask 5’ campaign to Eddie Check. We’re telling everyone to ask five family members, friends and colleagues if they’ve had PSA screenings or prostate exams recently. Hopefully, PMP readers also will Ask 5.”

Matthias Molnar, Service Technician, Fisher Pest Management, Veneta, Ore.

Molnar was diagnosed with stage 4 testicular cancer in December 2007. He spent the holidays and first two months of the following year undergoing chemotherapy to shrink his tumor so surgery could be performed. In April 2008, doctors successfully removed the tumor, but they also had to remove about 70 lymph nodes in Molnar’s abdomen during the 10-hour surgery.

In December 2008, Molnar began experiencing pain in his abdomen. An MRI showed a tumor. In February 2009, surgeons removed the second tumor. Significant complications from that surgery ensued. In June 2009, doctors harvested Molnar’s stem cells to knock out his immune system, preparing his body to accept three turbo-charged chemo cocktails in 10 days. Afterward, his stem cells were transplanted back into his blood to rebuild his immune system.

Matthias Molnar

Matthias Molnar says his bride, Annie, was his guardian angel throughout his hellish cancer battle.

“There were days I didn’t think I’d see 2010,” he says. “I dropped from 200 pounds to 110 in six months.

“My bride, Annie, was my guardian angel. She was beside me through it all, every day … and every night,” Molnar says, choking back tears.

At the time, Annie was Molnar’s girlfriend, not bride.

“We almost lost Matthias a few times,” Annie adds, pausing and sobbing. “But on what seemed the darkest of days, he turned to me and said, ‘If I make it through this, I want to marry you.’

“I asked Matthias, ‘Are you asking me to marry you? Is this really how you’re proposing?” she says, laughing and crying — as she was that day. “Of course, I accepted. He’s my angel.”

Steve Fisher, President, Fisher Pest Management, Veneta, Ore.

In March 2012, Fisher asked his daughter and son-in-law to move in with him and his wife. The two couples lived just 90 minutes apart, but Fisher’s son-in-law had recently pulled through a battle royale with cancer.

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher (right), with his son-in-law, a fellow cancer survivor.

“His cancer fight was ugly,” Fisher says. “For a while there, we thought we might lose him.”

A master tile setter, Fisher’s son-in-law didn’t have the strength or stamina he had before cancer struck. The plan was for him to begin training with Fisher Pest Management as a service technician, and maybe down the road, as Fisher neared retirement, the business could transition from one generation to the next.

In May 2012 — shortly after Fisher’s daughter and son-in-law decided to make the move — Fisher himself was diagnosed with stage 3 bladder cancer.

Fisher underwent surgery to remove several tumors and three months of weekly chemotherapy injections. He pulled through, just like his son-in-law.

“We live, work, laugh, cry and pray together. It’s a beautiful thing,” Fisher adds. “The way our cancer battles intersected, the way we lean on each other, there must be a Master Plan.”

Editor’s note (aka The Big Reveal): Matthias Molnar, the cancer survivor profiled above, is Fisher’s son-in-law.

Peggy Adams, Office Manager, The Bugman Exterminators, Las Cruces, N.M.

On April 23, 2009, Adams broke her pelvis in two places and received 14 stitches in her knee. That was a speed bump compared to the stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis she received the next day.

Peggy Adams

Peggy Adams’ stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis gave her a new perspective on life.

“When a doctor says, ‘You have cancer,’ it’s life-changing news — no matter the type or stage of cancer,” Adams says. “Everything else in life begins to fall into perspective very quickly.”

After Adams’ pelvis healed, she underwent six chemotherapy treatments followed by 33 radiation treatments. Five years in the clear, she still takes estrogen-blocking medicine and receives breast exams and mammograms twice a year.

“I have three children and two grandchildren,” Adams says. “To say, ‘Every day is a gift’ is a huge understatement.”

Feeling blessed and called to give back, Adams partnered with a nurse who works at a local cancer treatment center. The duo cofounded Loved Ones Support Team (LOST) in Las Cruces to assist children age 12 and older who have family members with cancer.

“When I was diagnosed, my daughter was in college and my twin boys were just starting middle school,” Adams adds. “My children had a lot of questions. A lot of times, I didn’t have the answers, or I didn’t know what was best to say, never mind how and when. That’s where LOST comes in.”

Lisa Maletta, Service Technician, Horizon Pest Control, Midland Park, N.J.

“I get to go to work every day now,” Maletta says with cheer.

Lisa Maletta

Lisa Maletta takes a stroll with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Olivia.

Seven years ago, getting out of bed wasn’t an option, never mind working in the field. In December 2007, doctors informed Maletta she had stage 2 ovarian cancer. She rang in the new year with four, potent monthly chemotherapy treatments.

“Horizon President Bernie Holst told me to take care of myself and focus on beating breast cancer, and that he’d take care of everything else — such as my health-insurance coverage and paychecks — and he did exactly that. It’s truly a blessing to work for Bernie and Horizon.”

Cancer-free now, Maletta never asked, “Why me?” Some days, however, she asked, “Why now?”

“Dad was in the hospital for three months, suffering from congestive heart failure, when I was going through chemo,” Maletta adds. “I wanted to visit him more, but that wasn’t in either of our best interests. Also, I didn’t want him to see his little girl and wonder if she was going to make it, too.”

Maletta sees a silver lining through it all.

“My dad and my cancer journey taught me we’re a lot tougher than we think,” Maletta says. “More importantly, they reminded me of the stuff that really matters — all of the blessings and each
of the loved ones in our lives.”

Andrew Miller, President, 888-PEST CONTROL, Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Doctors found a rare cancer — a grapefruit-sized primary mediastinal yolk sac tumor — in Miller’s chest. The stage 4 tumor was in a deadly spot and super aggressive. They gave Miller a 5-percent chance of living one year.

Andrew Miller

Doctors gave Andrew Miller a 5-percent chance of living one year. That was 14 years ago.

That was 14 years ago. Chemotherapy and surgery were Miller’s saving grace.

“No one can tell anyone with absolute certainty how long he or she has to live,” Miller says. “That’s between God and each individual.”

Miller says 12 rounds of chemotherapy in 12 weeks saved his life, but took a long-term toll on his organs and arteries.

“My chemotherapy combined three nasty chemicals to combat the cancer. They called it ‘RotoRooter,’” Miller says. “I lost 65 lbs. in three months, but the long-term effects were worse.”

Last summer, Miller suffered a stroke and was in a coma for 10 weeks.

“I’m in a wheelchair, paralyzed on the left side now,” adds Miller, 50, a father of four. “I just view this as my second tour of duty.

“I’ve always liked to help people, to talk to and listen to them,” Miller says. “I’m well positioned to help people battling cancer, recovering from a stroke … or trying to accept paralysis. I feel called to such outreach. It’s not an obligation.”

Ken Reynolds, President & CEO, Apple’s Environmental Pest Management Solutions, Lebanon, Tenn.

In 2004, Reynolds battled what doctors thought was a sinus infection that wouldn’t quit. It turned out to be stage 4 squamous cell cancer on his tongue and in his throat.

“The cure — surgery, followed by 17 chemotherapy treatments and 35 rounds of daily radiation — felt like it would kill me some days,” Reynolds says. “I had a feeding tube for four months. I lost 86 lbs. and made five trips to the hospital because of dehydration.”

Ken Reynolds

Ken Reynolds beat stage 4 tongue and throat cancer.

Within two years, though, Reynolds was back in the game.

“It took me five years to fully rebuild my muscle mass and strength, but I was able to rejoin my softball team in the summer of 2006,” says Reynolds, who played baseball in college for Tennessee Tech. “I had pinch runners — I couldn’t even walk briskly after the treatments — but I got some wood on the ball.”

Three years ago, Reynolds lost one of his pinch runners to cancer.

“My buddy left behind a wife and two little girls, ages six and four,” says Reynolds, fighting back tears. “Honoring God and remembering my buddy are two of the many reasons I’ve been working closely with cancer patients the past decade. To whom much is given, much is owed.”

Jerry Mix, Editor-at-Large, Pest Management Professional, Cleveland

A few months ago, while speaking with Mix — a PMP Hall of Famer and former editor and publisher of this magazine — he said, “Marty, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you doing a story about cancer?”

Jerry Mix

PMP Hall of Famer Jerry Mix and his wife, Nancy, are cancer survivors.

“We’re writing a story on how cancer has united this wonderful cottage industry in hope,” I answered. “Cancer affects everyone, in some way, at work and home. We’re sharing industry survivor stories, as well as news of expanding efforts to raise awareness and funds to fight cancer. For our part, we’re donating a portion of our October issue’s proceeds to the American Cancer Society to help fund research and advancements in early detection and treatment of all cancers.”

Mix’s next words rocked this writer, reminding him once again of how pervasive and evasive cancer is.

“Well, I’m a skin cancer survivor and my lovely bride, Nancy, is a breast cancer survivor,” Mix says.

During the past 15 years, Mix has had several surgeries to remove cancer from his cheeks, nose and right hand. Including plastic surgery, the procedures number more than a dozen.

“After being cancer-free for six years, I had skin cancer removed from my left cheek and schnoz this past May,” Mix says. “Then, on our 27th wedding anniversary, on Friday the 13th in June, Nancy underwent breast cancer surgery, which went well.

“The Mix household dealt with cancer all spring and summer,” he adds. “But we realize many others are entrenched in colossal cancer battles. Our thoughts and prayers extend to all those with cancer and all those who’ve lost loved ones — family, friends and industry colleagues — to this disease.”

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About the Author

Marty Whitford

Marty Whitford is the Publisher/Editorial Director for PMP magazine. He can be reached at mwhitford@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3766.

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