Of Miracles, Strengths and Battles

Published:  01/06/2012

By Rodika Tollefson for North Mason Life

Community leader Randy Neatherlin continues to stand up for his beliefs as he fights his own battle with Cancer

Randy Neatherlin is the first to admit he’s not always the most popular guy around. Known for his passionate testimonies at some public meetings and for his outspoken beliefs, Neatherlin has created his fair share of adversaries while running for political office or taking a stand on controversial issues, including the hotly contested Belfair sewer project.

But even some of his opponents have come back to shake his hand, and even more so in recent months.

To an outsider, it has been business as usual the past eight months for Neatherlin, who is a commissioner with the Port of Allyn and Mason County Planning Commission, as well as being active with other boards and nonprofits. He attended a dozen or more meetings a month. He helped with Habitat of Humanity fundraisers. He sold real estate as a top John L. Scott broker.

While that kind of busy schedule is not unique for the father of three young children (as well as an adult daughter), what has left his friends, associates and even some adversaries in awe is the fact that throughout those eight months, Neatherlin was fighting his own battle for life.

Last April, at age 48 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and was advised to get his affairs in order. The esophageal cancer, which is rare in the United States, had advanced to stage four and spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

“I was supposed to be dead by June,” he said. “Even my doctor was emotional. The tumor was huge and my throat was almost closed off. The chances of survival were next to nothing, and there wasn’t a lot they could do.”

He said it felt like he was watching an episode of the television show “House.”

“You’ve been healthy all your life, and all of a sudden you’re hooked up to all these machines,” he said. “It’s so surreal.”

Asking a few of his friends to take care of his young children — including a 1-year-old — when the time comes, Neatherlin decided to seek a second opinion at the same time. With the support of his wife, Pam, who is a radiology technologist, he was determined to fight.

That fight has paid off. Neatherlin’s cancer is now in remission, and he’s traveled the entire journey without skipping a beat.

“I can’t count the number of times Randy drove himself home from chemo treatments and then attended some community meeting. When I told him I was concerned that he was sapping energy he needed to recover, he said staying involved is what he needed to get well,” said Mary Swoboda, who sent updates to his friends and supporters about his fight with cancer. “I can’t argue with his logic, obviously it worked!”

Battling on Two Fronts
Neatherlin, a Belfair resident for more than 30 years, said he’s developed somewhat of a reputation for “fixing things” and protecting people or issues since he was a student at North Mason High School.

A football player and president of the ASB, he said in those days he stood up to a group of teenage boys bullying girls. Since then, he started building many connections while also fighting for other issues. “I got to know so many people, in a sense they adopted me,” he said.

An entrepreneur even back then, Neatherlin bought his first property while still in high school. He also ran an arcade business and a mill — a business he has continued for many years, making roof shakes and shingles.

“When I look in the mirror, I’m still the shake and shingle man,” he said.

After owning a car lot in Belfair for almost a decade, Neatherlin started selling real estate nearly three years ago. He also produces television commercials after getting into the field while making video ad’s for his car lot.

He loves his work, especially being a real estate broker, but it’s his civic involvement that has become a major commitment, and may have even cost him dearly — he said the timing of the car lot fire was suspicious, since it happened while his run for state office was announced in the press and he was out of town.

“I’ve had some hard times here but I’ve survived. When you try to protect something, you’re taking someone powerful on,” he said. “One of my flaws in politics is I can’t stand certain things like others can.”

This past year, one of those things was the Belfair sewer. Neatherlin joined many other business and community leaders in protesting the rates and other issues related to the project. At those public meetings last summer, he was one of many people speaking out passionately in front of county commissioners — but outsiders had no hint that those meetings literally knocked the wind out of Neatherlin, who was undergoing weekly chemotherapy at the time.

“He hasn’t missed any (port) meetings, that’s what’s miraculous,” said fellow port commissioner Judy Scott, who has known him for many years. “He speaks his mind so he’s not always very popular, but that’s why he’s admired too because he’s willing to stand up for the community.”

Scott, who lost both her parents and her previous husband to cancer, said she knows a diagnosis usually means a death sentence, but Neatherlin refused to accept it.

“I know his faith and courage helps with survivability,” she said. “I think the faith and prayers of the people helped carry him through.”

Miraculous Recovery
Scott says even when people were going after Neatherlin for standing up for his beliefs, he has kept a positive attitude instead of becoming bitter or angry — much the same way he has gone through his journey with cancer, maintaining an upbeat attitude.

Neatherlin said his attitude goes back to his faith. He looked at all the positive things in his life instead of thinking he didn’t have much time left.

“I was sad but I looked at my life and all the things I had the opportunity to do, and a new chance at life with my (young) kids,” he said. “I’m so blessed, so it’s hard to look at God and say, ‘You haven’t given me enough.’ I looked up and said, ‘You have given me so much.'”

Neatherlin’s quest for a second opinion led him last spring to the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center in Renton, where he was introduced to Dr. Nick Chen. He’s learned about an experimental treatment Chen used successfully on pancreatic cancer and wanted to try on other types.

“Instead of treating it according to the recipe book, he wanted to make a new recipe,” Neatherlin said.

The recipe included weekly chemotherapy (a cocktail of nearly a dozen drugs) and homeopathic treatments such as vitamin D boosts.

“Because Randy’s cancer was spreading to distant organs, radiation wouldn’t have helped him,” Chen was quoted as saying in an article published in the cancer center’s newsletter. “Without innovative chemotherapy and an integrative approach, his disease would have continued to spread, becoming even more difficult to treat.”

The treatment worked rapidly. Based on Swoboda’s email updates, by June two of the tumors in his liver “have disappeared, one (was) almost nonexistent, two have shrunk to one-quarter of their original size and one has shrunk to one-third of its original size.”

By August, most of the tumors were gone except for a few small ones. In October, Swoboda reported to supporters that there was no indication of tumors in the liver and the esophagus looked good, and on Nov. 2, she followed up with the news that Neatherlin was declared cancer-free in both his throat and stomach.

Even Neatherlin’s physician who made the original diagnosis told Chen he has never seen this kind of turnaround. “His response to treatment was dramatic,” Chen said in the newsletter.

The Journey Ahead
Neatherlin is not completely off the hook. He still has to undergo monthly chemotherapy, and even a small tumor could rapidly spread again. He said if the cancer doesn’t return in the next month or so, his chances are excellent.

But he’s not dwelling on that either. Even at home, his life has not been any different. He did break down into tears, privately, just once, he admits — after having a vision of his young daughter saying she didn’t remember what her father sounded like.

One of his main reasons for sharing his story with others is the hope to bring more people to the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center and expose them to Dr. Chen’s treatments.

“This experimental program has blown things out of the water,” he said. “If it’s not a fluke, this could change everything for people with this cancer.”

As he and his medical team continue to keep a lookout for tumors, Neatherlin said he has much unfinished business, and that he’s seen a lot of beauty through his battle. “You can see God’s perfection and that there’s so many reasons behind this.” he said.
Fellow Mason County Habitat for Humanity board member and 2011 president Kelly Zoldak said Neatherlin blew her away by asking to be involved with new projects and never showing the huge toll the illness was taking on him.

“I think staying busy kept his focus off being sick. And he wants to encourage other people to be advocates for themselves.” she said. “If anyone deserves a miracle, it’s Randy. This community is better because of him.”

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