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Standing Strong, Walking the Walk Along a “C Word” Journey
“You’ve got to get to the hospital right now,” the doctor said. “We’ve caught it in a very early stage.”
Within 24 hours, McCall traveled from his Beckley, WV home to a Charlottesville, Va. hospital where he received his first dose of chemotherapy for AML - acute myeloid leukemia.
His hospitalization brought an adjustment to holiday traditions of the McCall family.
Dani McCall Englander, Curtis’ sister, explained, “we were still together, just in a hotel room in Charlottesville and Curtis was in the hospital.”
Unable to have much contact time, Dani and Curtis’ children devised a cute method of emotional support.
“We made our crazy family video that made Curtis and Toni (his wife) laugh until they cried,” Englander said. Importantly, “the kids had fun despite the circumstances.”
As treatment progressed, they visited him both at the hospital and at home during breaks in the chemo treatment.
Despite the “you don’t want to eat or walk” side effects, a critical decision still faced McCall. Chemotherapy brought remission, but the aggressive cancer had a strong chance of reoccurring. His chance of a longer fuller recovery with greater life quality meant a risky stem cell transplant which itself had a 25% risk of death and 50% risk of complications.
All during the treatments McCall told of “keeping the faith” and “staying positive.”
Englander called him “ A trooper. I never heard him complain once. He was focused on getting home to his kids. Toni was a wonderful pillar of support and stayed with him. They both missed their kids, but they stood by one another and stayed strong.”
A former nurse and current filmmaker and cat rescuer, Englander, most recently seen as the First Lady in the Netflix production of “House of Cards,” explained that a combination of strong faith and social media brought support for what would become Team McCall.
“An amazing network of family, friends and co-workers “through prayers, support and love his way,” she said.
Facebook friends from Germany and all over the world formed a prayer chain.
“It’s amazing how many people have this disease,” McCall said, noting that while undergoing treatment a thirteen year old teammate of his son was diagnosed. “They found it early,” McCall said.
Social networking integrated with faith supporters, particularly during his three months at a Duke University hospital for the stem cell procedures, which required an in hospital team of a dozen workers. The transplant procedures allow for chemo and radiation to kill a larger portion of cancer cells along with good cell. New cells mature following the transplant, which is a period when the patient is most susceptible to infections and rejection.
Actually, when he would be discharged to return home in August, the physician warned: No hugs. No kisses. No handshakes. His immune system remained infection susceptible.
His church friends made a prayer blanket for him and he saw its making through an incredibly touching Youtube video, Englander said. “Caring Bridge posts kept everyone up to date. We were able to talk, email and text through everything. I’m sure we drove him crazy sometimes but we wanted him to know how much we care and how hard everyone was pulling for him.”
Toni McCall wrote the nearly daily “blog” on CareBridge where friends and family received their updates during his immune system building period.
In one CareBridge post, Toni McCall stated, “Curtis has more determination in his pinky than most people have in their whole body.” During even the hardest times, Curtis (also known as “Puncher”) maintained Marquee (Cinemas) work and studies youth football coaching techniques so that his beloved Shady Spring Tigers who on Nov. 2, 2013 would again be Class C champions.
Toni McCall coordinated the Team McCall shirts.
“Kids, sports teammates, church friends, family, co-workers, distant relatives, you name it, took pictures of themselves wearing them and Toni posted them for him on the tough days,” Englander beamed.
Ironically, supportive tables were turned prior to Curtis’ diagnosis.
In the fall of 2012, Dani had a “scare” of possible lymphoma, which turned out to be an animal rescuer’s bout with Cat Scratch Fever.
“He often called or emailed to check on me , and, in fact, we had just spoken on the Tuesday before he was diagnosed. When I got the call about him later that week, I was so angry that it happened to him and not me, as I don’t have children. I would have gladly traded places with him, but those are not the sort of decisions we get to make.”
At the time of the interview, McCall was six months past the stem cell transplant. He now has about five months before he will be considered cancer free from the transplant. During his stem cell recovery, you would hardly believe he has a compromised immune system. Instead, he’s busy coaching, getting back in shape, and stepping up his business activities.
He’s remained involved throughout the ordeal with the booking (i.e. movie choices) at the 18 venue circuit which stretches from Connecticut to Florida, with West Virginia locations in Beckley, Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg, Summersville, Tridelphia (Wheeling), and Welch.
McCall predicted “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Frozen,” and “Hobbit Desolation of Smaug.” as blockbusters, though, not on the same level as “Hunger Games Catching Fire” or “Iron Man III,” the May release that remains the 2013 boxoffice champion.
Looking back at 2013, Curtis McCall has found a deeper appreciation for “how short life is” and for the many sufferers of cancer.
Reflecting on the tribulations of diagnosis, treatment and his on-going recovery, McCall accents his faith: “It just wasn’t my time to go.”
You hear nothing but positive praises from Curtis, but one of his wife’s posts underscored the seriousness of the transplant treatment: “Curtis and I had a conversation about how I was making it look so easy. It's not. Ask any nurse or doctor who works directly with these patients and they'll tell you that transplant is risky. But, currently it is the only treatment for patients with this type of cancer,” Toni McCall wrote.
As his sister stressed focus on the future and the family’s many blessings, she admitted, “We’re very fortunate. Things have gone remarkably well. We know we have been blessed.”
And, just a few weeks ago, Dec. 6, 2013, Curtis celebrated his birthday. It had been exactly one year since he received the phone call telling him that he had leukemia. Today, he is cancer free seven months and counting...