The Wyoming rancher’s back hurt.
Nathan Kissack, 30, figured he had pulled a muscle while cutting hay for the cows on his ranch near Spotted Horse, a two-gas pump town in northeastern Wyoming.
Along with the tough labor on the ranch, Kissack had been working hard to get in great shape. He and a friend had plans to climb the tallest peak in South America, Mount Aconcagua, which soars to nearly 23,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of Argentina.
Worried about his back, Kissack went to see a buddy who’s a chiropractor in Gillette. The news was bad. An X-ray showed a large tumor right in the middle of Kissack’s chest.
The buddy sent Kissack straight to the ER. Doctors in Gillette knew Kissack had cancer, but weren’t sure at first what kind.
Within days, Kissack’s lung had collapsed and he had clots in his lungs and left arm. His body swelled with fluid.
The quick decline was shocking.
“I was in the best shape of my life and four days later, I couldn’t walk,” Kissack said.
Doctors eventually discovered that Kissack had blood cancer and sent him to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus, one of just a handful of hospitals in the region that can treat patients for Kissack’s aggressive form of cancer — T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
That was in July and Kissack has been hospitalized ever since. He has endured more than 84 days of chemotherapy to beat back his cancer. There’s no history of blood cancer in Kissack’s family. Doctors say that for most patients, getting blood cancer is just a matter of lousy luck.
In order to push for better cures and treatments, UCHealth nurses, doctors, families and patients are supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night walk in Denver’s Washington Park on Sept. 27.
Treatments for blood cancers can be brutal and long. Like Kissack, many patients must brave long stretches in the hospital receiving drugs with tough side effects.
For those who can’t leave the hospital to attend Light the Night in the park next week, nurses and blood cancer advocates brought a walk to them on Monday. Nurses darkened the hallways. Patients came out of rooms they barely leave. With IV bags hung on poles beside them, they slowly marched around the hospital’s 11th floor.
Each patient and family member carried a lantern. Survivors coping with blood cancer carry white lanterns while supporters carry red ones and those who have lost a loved one carry gold lanterns.
Kissack has done remarkably well with his treatments and recently learned that his cancer is gone for now and he soon will get to go home.
Carrying his white lantern, he led the march, proud and thrilled that he’s come such a long way from his bleak diagnosis in July.
“He’s doing great,” said Dr. Bradley Haverkos, one of Kissack’s physicians. “It’s tough for young people to sit in the hospital for more than 80 days. Nathan has stayed very positive through all of this. He has such a good outlook and that’s part of why he’s done so well.”
Haverkos is a board member for the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and a big supporter of Light the Night.
He said some progress has been made on new therapies for blood cancers, like CAR-T cell therapy. But the newest treatments only work for specific subsets of patients, so there’s a continual drive to find new and better cures.
“We’re always trying to do better,” said Haverkos.
He oversaw Kissack’s care at first, then when tests showed more about the young man’s specific type of cancer, Haverkos’ colleague, Dr. Enkhee Purev, took over.
“He’s done very well,” Purev said of Kissack. Because the cancer can be quite aggressive, however, it can come back. Kissack will have to continue getting chemotherapy as an outpatient for the next three years.
Purev joined Haverkos in highlighting the importance of continuing research and new cures, including for Kissack’s specific type of blood cancer.
“The only treatment we have for his type of cancer is the traditional chemotherapy,” said Purev, who is also an assistant professor for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
And said Purev: “The only way to improve outcomes is to develop new therapies. That’s why it means so much to invest in research.”
The kind of chemotherapy that Kissack received kills cancer cells, but also ravages the patient’s body, which is why people like Kissack have to remain in the hospital for so long.
“We’ve been using some of the same therapies for quite a while,” Haverkos said. “And it’s a pretty tough road. It’s really toxic stuff and an intensive regimen with a lot of side effects and risks.”
In the beginning, Kissack’s mass in the center of his chest was affecting his heart and causing breathing issues. Then the chemotherapy drugs wiped out his immune system.
Kissack has endured the long days of painful treatments thanks to great support from friends and family. One of his brothers set up an air mattress for frequent visitors. Friends on the rodeo circuit pop in and spend the night. Stuffed animals and treats fill Kissack’s room. A big box is full of cards, including several with goofy old pictures from Kissack’s grandmother. And he wakes up every day to a wall of photos right across from his hospital bed.
“As cheesy as it sounds, it’s the first thing I see in the morning,” Kissack said.
Many of the photos remind Kissack of life on the ranch, where he and his folks run as many as 500 head of cattle at a time. Before coping with cancer, he wore his hair long, down to the middle of his back. Hours before Kissack’s chemo started, his mom borrowed some trauma shears from the hospital and cut off Kissack’s hair. He donated it to Wigs for Kids.
In the winter, Kissack also wears a full beard. It keeps him stay a little warmer during calving season in February when he has to head out every couple of hours throughout the night in temperatures that plunge as low as 30 below zero. The calves can be born at any hour and can quickly freeze without immediate attention.
As tough as the work is, Kissack can’t wait to get back to the ranch. Just being outside again will be wonderful.
“I will probably cry when I walk out of the actual hospital,” said Kissack.
He’s only cried twice during his ordeal: once when he learned he had cancer and the second time when a huge group of doctors — about 15 in all — squished into his room in late August to tell him he was cancer-free.
Getting back to normal sounds great. He can’t wait to see his dog, a black lab named Nightlinger after a character in an old John Wayne movie called The Cowboys. Kissack looks forward to celebrating his friends’ 30th birthdays and weddings.
A cold beer sounds pretty good and so does a trip to the gym.
Since Kissack had to give up the trip to South America, he and that friend are planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa next year. He’s a big football fan and another friend has promised to take him to see the Green Bay Packers play at Lambeau Field. And another friend wants to go to Switzerland.
When Kissack first got the cancer diagnosis back in July, his younger brother was convinced that everything was going to be OK.
“He told me he wasn’t worried. That really stuck with me,” Kissack said.
“Just like anything, your attitude helps a lot. It’s hard to have a bad attitude when you’re surrounded by friends,” he said. “And the nurses have been so, so good.”
Kissack has definitely been feeling some good karma.
“My whole life, I’ve just wanted to be good to people,” Kissack said.
Apparently, everyone noticed.
“They’re scared for you and they say the nicest things to you and you don’t actually have to die,” Kissack said with a grin.
“If you can stay positive, that makes all the difference.”