Eye on KELOLAND: The battle after cancer

Eye on KELOLAND

“For me, running is a chance to kind of reset the day,” Nick Wendell said.

You may see him running all over the city, but he particularly enjoys the trails on a local nature reserve. He’s finding his stride again.

“This place has a little slower pace. It was somewhere when I was able to get more mobile, but maybe not up to running speed yet. I would often come here,” Wendell said.

And, after countless miles, it always feels good when Wendell can get where he’s going and finish. That’s true for running, and for his own personal marathon.

“I had thyroid cancer, which took me on a journey of surgeries and kind of radical treatments and had a couple of reoccurrences,” Wendell said.

That diagnosis came in 2015 on April Fool’s Day.

“Kind of the ultimate cosmic joke I suppose,” Wendell said.

Wendell outran that cancer and beat it. However, another monster wasn’t far behind and caught up with him last year.

“It started again,” Wendell said.

This time the cancer was a deep tissue sarcoma. This type of cancer is more aggressive and can be deadlier than what Wendell previously experienced.

“It was growing right in the very center of my body. So, it was connected to my spinal column. It was connected to my rib cage and my lungs,” Wendell said.

Another invasive surgery and grueling treatment left Wendell weak. There’s a picture of him in the hospital with his daughter, Amelia. The two are hugging on his hospital bed, holding on tight to every precious moment because an uncertain future threatened to pull them away. That’s why when Wendell went into remission, it was a celebration. Family caught him on video ringing a bell in the hospital lobby to mark the end of his treatment. Wendell couldn’t be more thankful to be alive and well. He soon would find himself stuck between a happy ending and a depressing beginning he wasn’t expecting.

“I found myself having to confront, you know, this depression and anxiety that came with surviving cancer,” Wendell said.

We typically think of fighting cancer in two ways: you either survive it, or you don’t. Wendell’s focus on his physical health momentarily distracted him from a complicated toll to his mental health. But…wait…Wendell beat cancer twice! Shouldn’t he have been on cloud nine?!?! He wondered the same thing.

“Most of us know someone who may have lost their lives to cancer. We know people who have lost loved ones to cancer and so, you do feel a certain amount of guilt that you’re not celebrating survival, but some of the realities of cancer make survival hard to celebrate?” Wendell said.

Financial burdens, depression, fear, and survivor’s guilt are some of the things people have to reckon with after they ring the bell.

“I remember just laying there thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one,'” Wendell said.

Don’t misunderstand Wendell. He’s not complaining, and knows he’s supremely blessed to be alive when others aren’t. He says people who fight or survive cancer need another type of medicine.

“Access to quality mental health care, in particular in the upper Midwest, can be challenging, especially in rural communities can be challenging. So, it’s access to quality care but it’s also giving people the language to talk about what a mental health journey can look like,” Wendell said.

It’s early, but Wendell has begun working with local physicians, researchers, and non-profits — like the American Cancer Society — to help find ways to give survivors better access to mental health after care.

“Talking with Nick, he makes some very valid points about his, if you will, his PTSD,” Melissa McCauley, with South Dakota’s American Cancer Society, said.

McCauley says the organization helps connect people with the resources they need to not only heal physically, but emotionally and mentally.

“It is so important to remember the fact cancer doesn’t define you. It is something you are fighting and you’re not alone,” McCauley said.

Wendell is a speaker at the American Cancer Society’s fundraiser, which was postponed due to the Pandemic. The “Holiday FIR Hope” is a virtual gala on November 19th. The money raised will help with cancer research to find treatment, cures, and support for possibly you or your loved one, going through cancer. There is still time to get involved and donate. Contact McCauley for more information at Melissa.McCauley@cancer.org.

As for Nick Wendell, after a tough few years, he’s finding his stride again.

“Cancer survival is a journey into itself, and I think moving into remission had some surprises for me,” Wendell said. “I’m kind of thankful to feel like I’m on the other side of it, but maybe more empathetic and stronger than I was before.”

With cancer, mental health, or even running; oftentimes, there is no “there” to get to. Once you finish one race, there’s always a new one waiting for you. Wendell shows us all you can do is move forward, take a deep breath, and just keep going.

“The reality of cancer survivorship is there is a life after cancer. As I said, if you’re really fortunate like I am, you will go into remission…but you’ll still have a lot of work to do,” Wendell said.

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