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From uncertain to astounding, Port commissioner battles cancer amid community support

It was last April when Randy Neatherlin noticed he couldn’t swallow food properly. A couple of times a day, food would get stuck in his throat and it would hurt to swallow, said Neatherlin, a long-time Belfair businessman and current Port of Allyn commissioner.

“That feeling of not being able to swallow, that happens — but twice in one day, and on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” he wondered.

He and his wife visited a doctor, who took one look down his throat and confirmed the worst — Neatherlin had stage IV esophageal cancer, a fast-acting disease that had already taken the life of one of Neatherlin’s friends a month and a half prior.

“My doctor was very emotional when he told us,” Neatherlin recalled, remembering that he was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his kids on it at the time. “I stood between the two of them, my wife and doctor, and told them it would be OK.”

In the next several months, Neatherlin felt an outpouring of love and support from a community that has cared for him and fought against him time and again over the years he’s lived here.

An uncertain future

By the time Neatherlin was a senior in high school, he was already running three businesses in town. The California native, who had spent most of his life caring for an ill mother, had moved to Belfair (after a brief stint as a cowboy, herding horses near Grand Teton, Wyo.) to get to know his father. The two lived in his father’s camper for two weeks before Neatherlin moved into a trailer near his dad’s property for many years.

Neatherlin went on to own and run several businesses in Belfair and become deeply involved in Mason County, particularly North Mason, politics — throwing his two cents in on issues involving the school board, the salmon center, the sewers and more, even when people didn’t always like what he had to say.

“This town took me in completely,” he said. “I always believed in the best for it and I love it more than you could imagine.”

When he received his cancer diagnosis, Neatherlin’s prognosis wasn’t good: He knew from watching his friend and from his doctors that esophageal cancer moves quickly. Most esophageal cancers fall into two categories — one associated with tobacco and alcohol use and the other often connected to a history of acid reflux, which Neatherlin suffered from much of his life. Neatherlin had the second type.

His doctor estimated that he’d only had the cancer for three or four months, maximum, but it had already spread to his liver.

One course of action was to undergo radiation, chemotherapy and surgery — the whole gamut — to fight the cancer, but the outcome still didn’t look good, Neatherlin was told. Many people with esophageal cancer die from complications through surgery or from starvation because the pain from swallowing becomes too great.

Neatherlin tried to stay positive

“I looked up at God and I thought, I’ve had so much,”* he said. “Who am I to look at him and say it wasn’t enough?” When his doctor told him it would be all right to seek a second opinion, Neatherlin was confused.

“I thought, ‘What difference of opinion?’ I have cancer. How is that going to change?” he said. What he didn’t realize at the time, though, was that he had other options.

Promising treatments

After receiving the initial diagnosis, Pam Neatherlin, Randy’s wife, went online. That’s how the couple found Dr. Nick Chen, an oncologist and medical director of the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center in Renton, known for housing doctors who perform cutting-edge cancer research and for blending conventional treatments with alternative therapies for “whole-person” care, according to the center’s website.

Soon, Neatherlin was visiting Dr. Chen once a week, for eight-hour chemotherapy sessions and other homeopathic treatments. He even tried acupuncture once.

“What struck me the most, when going in, was seeing naturopath doctors and the oncology doctors sitting down and talking to me together,” he said. “I like when I see people working together for solutions.”

During those lengthy sessions, Neatherlin would have 11 bags of cancer-fighting drugs pumped into him.

“As big as I am, I’ve always been a healthy guy with a low heart rate and perfect blood pressure,” he said. “Watching them work on me, I felt like I was on an episode of “House,” except I was the patient. It was so surreal.”

While he visited the cancer center, letters poured into his doctor’s office from members of the North Mason community asking Chen to look after Neatherlin.

“Once I got sick, the weirdest thing happened,” Neatherlin said. “I started getting hugs and thanks from people for things I didn’t even know they knew I did.”

By June, a month into his chemotherapy sessions, tests indicated that the chemotherapy was working — an MRI on his liver showed that out of six original masses, two had disappeared and the others had shrunk to one-quarter to one-third of their original size.

Despite the good news and the overall positive attitude Neatherlin tried to keep up for the community and his family (including a grown daughter, two school-age sons and a 1-anda-half-year-old daughter), he still had some dark moments.

It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror and see that and not think, ‘Randy, you’re dying,’” he said. “The worst moment was when I was alone in my bedroom and a thought popped into my head. I could hear my youngest daughter tell my wife, ‘I don’t remember what he sounds like.’”

An astounding recovery

By Aug. 1, a PET scan, which uses radiation to highlight cancer cells in the body, showed zero evidence of any cancer in Neatherlin’s body. Even the tumor that had been in Neatherlin’s esophagus had been reduced to scar tissue.

Over the next two to three months, as Neatherlin continued chemotherapy and a regimen of homeopathic treatments, full-body MRIs and CAT scans continued to verify what had at one point seemed impossible — he was on the verge of remission.

“The whole goal was to get the cancer out of the liver so we could do surgery on the throat,” he said. “We didn’t realize that the tumors in my throat had disappeared, too.”

On Oct. 27, Neatherlin had an endoscopy from the original doctor who had given him his diagnosis.

“He told me he’d been doing this since 1993 and that this was the most impressive recovery he’d ever seen,” he said.

By November, Neatherlin’s cancer was officially considered in remission. The news spread throughout the community.

“I am grateful (and I’m sure Randy is too) for an incredible cadre of doctors, nurses and staff who have watched out for Randy and cared about him and his family from the start,” wrote community member Mary Swoboda, who sent regular updates to people around North Mason about Neatherlin’s prognosis, in an email. “But most of all, I am grateful for a loving God who sees our hearts and answers our prayers in ways that are beyond our wildest hopes and dreams.”

Neatherlin, who tears up at the thought of the support he’s received from doctors and loved ones, still receives once a month chemotherapy treatments to ward off any cancerous tumors that may still remain.

“I know it could come back tomorrow, one piece that they didn’t get, and I could be gone in a couple months,” he said. “But these people — my doctors, the letters I got — they were so wonderful for me.”

Neatherlin and his doctor, Dr. Chen, will be interviewed on the KTTH 770 AM radio station from 11 a.m. to noon on Sunday, Jan. 15. Chen is looking for more patients with Neatherlin’s type of cancer to further study his treatment methods.

(Editor’s Note: This originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2011 edition of the Belfair Herald and is reprinted with permission.)

 
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