Saddling up after cancer

October 8th, 2019
Nathan Kissack rides his horse Dixie on his parents' ranch in Wyoming as the sun sets behind him.
Nathan Kissack during a recent cattle drive at his parents’ ranch near Gillette, Wyoming. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

The sun has just risen at the Kissack ranch in Wyoming and Nathan, 31, is drinking coffee out of a big John Wayne mug.

As he takes a few sips, a famous John Wayne saying appears a little below the rim on the inside of the mug: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

The quote perfectly sums up the last year of Nathan’s life.

Nathan Kissack, a Wyoming rancher who had blood cancer, pours coffee into a John Wayne mug
Rancher Nathan Kissack has always loved John Wayne. Since being diagnosed with blood cancer last summer, Nathan has drawn inspiration from the John Wayne quote in his mug: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

Last July, blood cancer hit the young man out of the blue, just when he was back home working with his parents on their cattle ranch. There was no history of the disease in his family. And, Nathan had been in the best shape of his life as he trained to climb the highest peak in South America, Aconcagua.

Then, he was pretty sure he was dying.

Nathan had to gather up his courage and saddle up day after day: first at the hospital in Gillette near his home when one of his lungs collapsed, then as he endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments over 100 days at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, where he was transferred. The hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus is one of only a handful of places in the Rocky Mountain region where Nathan could get treatments for his rare type of blood cancer: T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.

Nathan Kissack has long hair and a full beard in this photo from his Wyoming ranch. He poses with his black lab.
Nathan with his dog Nightlinger before he lost all his hair due to chemotherapy for blood cancer. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kissack.

There were dark times. One week, the brutal cocktail of medications he needed was especially bad and he suffered torturous headaches. All Nathan could do was darken the blinds in his room, ignore his phone and listen to ESPN in the background, in hopes of finding a little distraction.

There were wonderful moments too. Someone dropped off an unsigned card at the Kissacks’ house in Wyoming. It had 10 $100 bills tucked inside of a note thanking the family for always having been so kind to others. Friends and family rushed to Nathan’s side. They made posters and sent photos and cards that he hung on the walls of his room. Nathan long had had a crush on one friend named Julia Popish.

Julia was finishing up her rotations for a demanding veterinary degree in Fort Collins at Colorado State University. Still, she found time again and again to visit her friend.

“That first night, she crawled into the hospital bed with me, which was way nice. You’re just so scared and pretty alone at night with your own thoughts,” Nathan said. “She was crazy busy, but she came and saw me more than 10 times.”

Nathan Kissack with his friend Julia Popish
Nathan Kissack with his friend, Julia Popish in April of 2019. His hair and eyebrows still had not grown back after dozens of rounds of chemotherapy to treat blood cancer. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kissack.

To keep himself going during the worst times, Nathan thought about getting back home to the ranch and climbing mountains again.

He also looked forward to every visit from Julia.

“I had liked her for such a long time, but timing was never our thing. She had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend when we first met,” Nathan said.

“But, if you’re going to get cancer, you might as well use it as a wingman,” Nathan says with a big grin.

Back home on the ranch

What a difference a year makes.

Rancher Nathan Kissack beat blood cancer. Here, he's with his horse, Dixie, at his parents' ranch in Gillette, Wyoming.
Nathan Kissack is cancer free and back home in Wyoming, working with his folks on their cattle ranch.

On a warm fall afternoon, Nathan is literally saddling up. He and his folks, Bart and Kathy Kissack, need to move over 100 head of cattle to a pasture with fresh grass. It’s been a remarkable summer, complete with unprecedented rains. The pond on this part of the ranch is brimming with water, creating a haven for birds. The cows are good and fat. Some would be just as happy staying right where they are, thank you very much. But it’s time to move them to a new pasture.

Rancher and cancer survivor, Nathan Kissack, driving cattle on his parents' Wyoming ranch.
Nathan Kissack keeps calves moving as he and his folks move cattle from one pasture to another.

You city slickers no doubt have heard the line from the old cowboy song, “Git along little dogies.” That’s Nathan’s job on this cattle drive: to keep the little calves, born in the spring, moving along with their mamas and the others.

Nathan looks perfectly at home back in the saddle and back home in Wyoming. He’s riding a gentle, 18-year-old quarter horse named Dixie, while his mom and dad, each riding four-wheelers, speed ahead to open gates and work the sides, keeping the cattle together and moving.

Waist-high prairie grass waves in the breeze. Tall trees are rare here. They stand sentinel over ranch houses and otherwise, this is the land of wide-open vistas with far more antelope than people. Nearby, perfectly pointy buttes rise up every so often. They look like a preschooler’s drawing of mountains, evenly spaced and not too tall.

Rancher Nathan Kissack who coped with blood cancer,drives cattle on his family's Wyoming ranch.
Nathan helps his parents drive cattle to a new pasture. His job is to keep the stragglers moving with the others.

Nathan is in his element.

“I get to work with my dad every day,” he says.

Later, his dad’s eyes tear up as he gazes at his son proudly.

Nathan enjoys driving cattle, mending fences and “doctoring” cattle when they’re sick. In particular, he loves calving season from February through April, even though it means tending to pregnant cows in temperatures that can plunge to 30 below. Night after night, he loses sleep, but gets to witness quiet miracles.

Rancher and cancer survivor, Nathan Kissack with his mom and dad, Bart and Kathy Kissack, at sunrise in Wyoming.
Nathan Kissack poses at sunrise with his dad and mom, Bart and Kathy Kissack, at their ranch near Gillette, Wyoming. The entire community rallied to support the Kissacks when Nathan was diagnosed with blood cancer out of the blue last summer.

“I love bringing a new life into the world,” Nathan said. “The heifers, the first-time mamas, are the toughest. They’ll get confused sometimes and can kill their own calves.”

When the cows are close to delivering, Nathan and his folks bring them into the barn overnight. An untended newborn calf could die in minutes in the harsh Wyoming weather.

If a cow is having trouble birthing her calf, Nathan sometimes pulls the little one out and puts the calf in a warmer. And, if a cow isn’t letting her calf suckle right away, Nathan uses a tube feeder to put milk straight into the hungry calf’s belly.

A rancher’s grit

Nathan enjoys nursing animals. Needing to be nursed himself was a whole different matter.

He had been haying with his dad last summer when he decided to see a chiropractor buddy about pain in his back. He figured he had just strained it while doing the manual labor that is part of every day life on the ranch.

Rancher Nathan Kissack riding a horse as cows kick up dust at sunset.
Nathan Kissack tends cattle. Rising up behind him are the buttes near his parents’ ranch in Wyoming.

The news was bad. An X-ray showed a large tumor right in the middle of Nathan’s chest. The friend sent him straight to the ER. Doctors in Gillette knew Nathan had cancer, but weren’t sure at first which kind.

Within days, Nathan’s lung had collapsed and he had clots in his lungs and left arm. His body swelled with fluid. The quick decline was scary and shocking. Nathan’s doctors consulted with experts at UCHealth and transferred him to University of Colorado Hospital.

An antelope in Wyoming
Antelope outnumber people in Wyoming.

That’s when Nathan learned he had a relatively rare type of blood cancer that often strikes children and younger adults. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. And, while experts have made dramatic gains in treating some types of blood cancer, they don’t have any new treatment options for Nathan’s type: just heavy doses of chemotherapy.

Even so, Nathan’s age, fitness and fierce determination proved powerful.

“Since he’s young and physically fit, we could use the toughest chemotherapy regimen for him,” said Dr. Bradley Haverkos, Nathan’s cancer specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “When older people get this cancer, the prospects are much worse because they can’t get the same chemotherapy.”

Headshot of Dr. Bradley Haverkos
Dr. Bradley Haverkos

Nathan initially tolerated the intense regimen well. It got harder later, which Haverkos said is typical.

“The cumulative effects of the chemotherapy can build up and wear you down,” Haverkos said.

Midway through Nathan’s hospital stay, doctors were able to give him the great news that his cancer already had disappeared. There had only been a 50/50 chance of trouncing it so fast, but Nathan got the best possible results.

“There are no signs of cancer anywhere,” said Haverkos, adding that long-term remission is a good possibility.

Danielle McAvoy was one of Nathan’s nurses. She met him the day he arrived in Aurora. His dark brown hair hung well below his shoulders. In the winter, along with long hair, he wore a full, thick beard to stay warmer on the ranch. But Nathan knew the chemotherapy he needed was going to rob him of all his hair. So, he asked McAvoy for shears and enlisted his mom to cut off all his hair and donate it to a nonprofit called Wigs for Kids.

Nathan said he’s a “rip the Band-aid off “ kind of person. During his treatment, he had to endure 10 spinal taps. Instead of delaying them, he had the nurses get them over with as soon as possible.

Rancher and cancer survivor Nathan Kissack holds one of his nurses, Danielle McAvoy, in his arms during the Light the Night celebration at Washington Park in September, 2019 in Denver.
Danielle McAvoy was one of the nurses who cared for Nathan Kissack during his 100-day hospital stay last year. She saw him through tough times and now he’s strong enough to lift her up. The two reconnected last month at Light the Night in Denver’s Washington Park. The event celebrates cancer survivors and supports the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Photo by Krystyna Biassou for UCHealth.

“Yeah, that grit comes from ranching,” he said.

McAvoy supported Nathan through the worst of times. Despite the hardships and humiliations – like having company in the bathroom when he was at risk of falling – McAvoy said Nathan kept everyone on his hospital floor entertained.

“He had the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever seen and it made such a difference,” she said. “He had a really great support system, which is crucial for all of our patients.”

Nathan deliberately avoided reading online about blood cancer so he wouldn’t spook himself. Instead, he focused on the future and chatted his nurses’ ears off about Julia.

“He was absolutely smitten and it was adorable,” McAvoy said.

Lessons in perspective

Along with crushing on Julia, Nathan frequently thought about escaping his hospital room and getting back outside.

On the ranch, he’s out in the elements all the time. Some of the work isn’t any fun. Haying, in particular, gets monotonous. But, he loves being outside on quiet mornings. In good weather, the meadowlarks are singing. Or, Nathan tunes in to podcasts or some of his favorite music. Years ago, he was in a hardcore band. But, he also loves country music.

Rancher Nathan Kissack with his black lab, Nightlinger.
Nathan Kissack’s dog, Nightlinger, accompanies him on the ranch and on mountain climbing trips.

On rare days off, Nathan has been getting more and more into mountain climbing.

In June of 2018, weeks before his cancer diagnosis, Nathan and a buddy had climbed Cloud Peak. It’s a rigorous, 12-mile one-way journey to the summit of Wyoming’s fourth tallest peak.

And, that’s if you do it the easy way. Nathan and his friend, Clark Van Hosier, inadvertently did it the hard way.

“We were lost and cold and frustrated. We had no snowshoes and were post-holing into snow up to our thighs. It hailed on us three times,” Nathan said.

Still, they made it. With detours, Nathan figures they did about 30 miles altogether. The view from the summit down to ice blue, glacier-fed lakes was incredible.

Nathan Kissack shows off his John Wayne tattoo on his left foot.
Nathan Kissack loves John Wayne and has a tattoo of the famous actor on his left foot.

The trip also gave Nathan one of the great lessons he has learned over the past year: perspective.

As he told Clark, “No matter what happens, I don’t think anything is ever going to be that hard again.”

Well, think again. He had no idea that cancer was lurking around the corner and that the treatments would be brutal at times. Still, on his worst days, Nathan thought about going back to Cloud Peak and perhaps someday climbing the world’s tallest peaks like Aconcagua in Argentina and Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Reaching the summit again

Nathan finally got to leave the hospital at the end of October, exactly 100 days after he arrived. McAvoy and other providers on the blood cancer unit gave Nathan a special sendoff, linking their hands high in the air and creating a tunnel for him to triumphantly pass through – just like parents do for little kids at soccer games.

While Nathan’s prognosis is excellent, he still needed intensive chemotherapy through April. He could do that in Gillette for five days every three weeks. Over the long term, he’ll need easier rounds of chemo once a month for at least two more years.

Even with all those chemo treatments, Nathan was feeling well enough by summer to set his sights on Cloud Peak again. He planned the trip for mid-July, on the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. His friend, Clark, came along again as did another friend, Whitney Gunderson.

“This time, we were going to do it right,” Nathan said. “We had more food. It was way warmer.”

On the morning when they planned to hike to the summit, Nathan and his friends put on headlamps and headed out from their camp at 4 a.m. They wanted to make it to the top by 10 a.m., before the thunderstorms rolled in. Nathan’s friends put him in the lead so he could set the pace. His dog, Nightlinger, who is named after a character in a John Wayne movie, walked by Nathan’s side.

Just before Nathan reached the summit, Whitney looked up and saw her friend on a beautiful rocky outcropping with the sun rising behind him and Nightlinger at his side. She snapped a photo that encapsulated Nathan’s joy in being able to climb again so soon after his cancer struggles.

Nathan Kissack in silhouette on a rocky outcropping near the summit of Cloud Peak in Wyoming.
Nathan Kissack climbed Cloud Peak, one of Wyoming’s tallest mountains, a year after his cancer diagnosis. Photo courtesy of Whitney Gunderson.

“It felt so good. It was really rewarding. Then, we went back to Buffalo (Wyo.) and had three cheeseburgers and a beer,” Nathan said.

Back when he had been in the hospital, Nathan’s mom remembered doctors and nurses telling her son that he would soon be climbing mountains again.

“He was going through all these complications, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘don’t give him false hopes,’” Kathy Kissack said.

But sure enough, Nathan’s team had been right.

His mom watched proudly as her son battled back.

“I really admired his grit and determination,” she said.

Nathan impressed his doctors too.

“He’s so ambitious and he’s out there living life,” Haverkos said. “That’s part of the reason he’s done as well as he has. Not everyone gets through all the chemo and climbs mountains. He’s gotten back to his life pretty quickly. He’s definitely a model.”

‘As long as I felt I was needed, I settled in’

Gradually, as Nathan recovered, he started to feel like himself again. He had made it back to Wyoming. He had climbed Cloud Peak.

He and Julia remained friends and kept getting closer during marathon Facetime sessions.

Nathan Kissack poses with an old fashioned windmill ner his family's ranch in Wyoming.
Nathan Kissack with a windmill and buttes in the background.

One of Nathan’s goals was to get fit, both so he could feel healthy again, and so he could impress Julia the next time he saw her.

Months in bed had robbed him of his muscle tone, then steroids had sent his weight ricocheting all over the place, up to about 189 at one point from his regular 155.

Every morning, when he felt well enough, Nathan got up at 4:30 and met buddies in Gillette when the gym doors opened at 5 a.m. so he could work out before working on the ranch.

Nathan Kissack posing without a shirt after working out to get fit from cancer.
Nathan Kissack was determined to get fit after cancer forced into in the hospital for 100 days and his body swelled from steroids. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kissack.

When his immunities were down due to courses of chemo, he wore a mask and still worked out hard. One day, he pushed himself too much and passed out. Another time, he dropped a barbell on his face. Neither incident stopped him. Nathan just assigned friends to keep an eye on him in case he got woozy and fainted again.

Julia, meanwhile, had graduated from vet school and was considering job offers far from Wyoming. She’s originally from Casper and had met Nathan when she was tending bar at a restaurant in Laramie. Each was dating someone else at the time, but they kept in touch and a strong friendship developed.

“He was just this hilarious character with long hair and zero filter. We had a similar sense of humor,” she said.

They hadn’t talked for a couple of months when Nathan called Julia last year.

“Hey doc, why don’t you give me a call,” he said on a message, using one of his favorite nicknames for her.

Cancer scares some people. Julia didn’t flinch. She’s the daughter and granddaughter of veterinarians. Medical challenges for furry patients had been part of her life every day.  She was used to being a rock for friends. And, coincidentally, when Nathan was going through his health ordeal, Julia happened to be doing oncology rounds.  It turns out that there are similarities between cancer in dogs and cancer in people. What’s more, empathy seems to come naturally to medical pros who care for animals.

“Our patients can’t tell us what’s going on with them,” Julia said. “And my education had exposed me to emotionally taxing situations.”

Visiting Nathan in the hospital helped Julia get away from the hard work at school. She showed up, crawled into his hospital bed and brought lighthearted banter with her.

While Nathan was crushing hard on her, Julia was still in friend mode. She gave him a break from talking about cancer, while privately researching his illness and encouraging him to ask important questions.

“As long as I felt needed, I settled in,” she said. “I didn’t expect us to become more than good friends. It was all silly and goofy.”

Rancher Nathan Kissack walks his horse, Dixie, on his parents' Wyoming ranch.
Summer brought rain and tall grass to Wyoming as Nathan Kissack’s friend, Julia Popish was getting used to a new job in California.

Then the summer rolled around. Back when Nathan was in the hospital, he leaned on Julia.

“It was a human connection in its purest form,” Julia said.

Then, after graduation, Julia moved to San Diego to start her first job in early July. Suddenly, the tables had turned and Julia found herself leaning more on Nathan. She was in a new city, with a new job and knew almost no one in California.

Nathan wanted to be one of her first Wyoming friends to visit.

‘Maybe cancer’s been good for you’

Nathan’s hair was starting to grow back. He was getting eyebrows and facial hair again. And he was posting photos of his buff body on Instagram.

Julia, meanwhile, was starting to think of her friend in a new light.

“I finally took a step back from the relationship and looked at what I would want in a partner: someone you could go through the ups and downs of life with and still manage to have a sense of humor,” she said. “The dude broke me down with all these compliments over three years.”

Rancher Nathan Kissack with his friend, Julia Popish.
Nathan Kissack and Julia Popish. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kissack.

Maybe their timing was about to be perfect for a change.

Nathan has two younger brothers, Jake and Levi. After the worst of the cancer ordeal, Levi said something funny, but true: “Maybe cancer’s been good for you.”

Nathan immediately agreed.

“I was pretty flippant with things before. It took me a long time to grow up. I always had to learn the hard way,” Nathan said.

Meanwhile, Nathan and Julia started discussing a change in their relationship.

“Before cancer, Nathan had a crush,” Julia said. “Cancer basically erased that relationship and a new, raw authentic connection developed, from which something more could grow.”

Now, Nathan was ready to travel several hundred miles and speak his mind. Julia, in turn, was ready to give their romance a shot.

He flew to San Diego in August to celebrate Julia’s 27th birthday with her in person. The year before, he’d had to make due with a call from the hospital.

Nathan’s flight landed around 5:30 p.m. He thought Julia would be working and that he’d meet her later at her apartment. But, things were looking up when she met him at the airport.

“She picked me up. She fooled me,” he said.

Nathan didn’t arrive with any grand gestures. He just spoke from the heart.

“I told her that she’s really cool and I wanted to take it seriously.”

Julia agreed. And they went on to have a wonderful official first date, enjoying tacos, then live music at a punk club. Julia wore one of Nathan’s tee shirts from a favorite band: As I Lay Dying. The gesture was sweet. And there was a bonus. Nathan wasn’t laying in a hospital feeling like he was dying anymore.

The next day over coffee, Julia and Nathan reveled in the normalcy of their relationship. Yes, in a way, everything had changed. But, in reality nothing had. They were still very good friends, who could laugh and talk and be 100% real with one another.

“Sometimes, you’re the dating version of yourself,” said Julia. “I’d rather have a best friend, then move into a relationship.”

Some of her friends wondered if she was afraid to date someone who had coped with cancer.

Nah, she told them.

“We already went through the worst parts,” she said. “If anything else ever happens, we’ll just be that much more prepared to handle it.”

Adds Nathan: “I don’t have a lot of fear with anything now. My biggest fear now is regret.”

Rancher Nathan Kissack kisses his new girlfriend, Julia Popish, while the couple celebrated her 27th birthday in San Diego.
A friendship blossomed into a romance. Nathan Kissack and Julia Popish went on their official first date when they celebrated Julia’s 27th birthday in San Diego, where she’s a veterinarian. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kissack.

And so, with Julia’s help, Nathan got a new tattoo to go with his many others, including one of John Wayne on his left foot.

Julia designed the new one. It’s an image of a mountain with the simple, powerful message: victors not victims.

“I’m always working toward beating this and not being a victim,” Nathan said. “Everything gets exponentially easier after cancer.”

Plus, he and Julia are planning a future together.

“It’s super weird,” he says with huge grin. “I’m like a dog who caught my tail.”

 

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.