Pretty much every reporter has told this story: “Community rallies around family as one of their own battles insidious disease.”
JR Rardon certainly has.
The veteran journalist has generated thousands of words over the past decade-and-a-half of reporting on the triumphs, tragedies, and day-to-day happenings in Vancouver Island communities like Port McNeill, Campbell River and Parksville, carving out a reputation for decency, caring and integrity in the process.
Fate and cancer have conspired to put him on the other side of the notepad.
Nearly two years after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Rardon and his wife Pam are on speaker phone from a rented apartment owned by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, sharing their story of the cutting edge treatment they hope can save his life, and the community support that is helping make it possible.
“Since the beginning in June of 2018, I’ve been through four different types of chemotherapy and 20 shots of radiation, and it has managed to come back each time,” JR said.
“Docs are now saying that’s pretty much it for any hope of a cure, except for this CAR-T cell immunotherapy. It has shown quite a bit of success as a final treatment, but it’s still so new that more follow-up studies need to be done to determine how long it can put patients into remission — or maybe even cure the lymphoma.”
Like it has for so many, cancer snuck up on JR, 61, unexpectedly.
After a lengthy stay at the North Island Gazette, followed by a stint at the Campbell River Mirror, he had settled into a home in Port Alberni and the editor’s chair at the Parksville Qualicum Beach News when the diagnosis was delivered in the spring of 2018.
Months of treatments knocked down the initial tumour, but on the eve of returning to work the cancer resurfaced with a vengeance late last spring. Conventional radiation and chemotherapy didn’t work and he was rejected as a stem cell replacement candidate as “high-risk, low-reward.”
A recently developed treatment available in the United States, CAR-T cell transfer therapy is officially recognized in Canada, but not available yet anywhere outside clinical testing programs due to lack of infrastructure. JR is among the first wave of Canadians to be funded and approved by Health Canada to receive treatment in the United States.
He arrived in Seattle on Jan. 2 for a treatment regimen expected to take approximately two months.
T-cell transfer therapy works by harvesting cells from the patient then genetically re-engineering them in a manner that targets their cancer; essentially, it soups up your immune system cells with what they need to take out the enemy.
“Then they will reinfuse them back into my system and they will go a-hunting,” JR said.
The treatment is still too much in its infancy to offer concrete estimates on its efficacy. Side effects are possible. The long-term effects are not fully charted. JR says it’s too soon in the game; medical researchers need more time, more patients and more success stories.
But anecdotally there have been enough success stories to offer the family hope.
Pam and JR have been very grateful for the support given to them by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada and their Comox Valley-based contact Megan Norrish, who has been instrumental with giving them the support and information they need, including making them fully aware of the immunotherapy option.
Part of their reasoning for going public is making sure others in their situation know this option is out there.
“We don’t have quite the hardship that a lot of people have and that’s why the emphasis on the need for this and getting into the pipeline,” JR said.
Even though Canada is paying the medical tab, that doesn’t mean this journey comes without a financial cost. The treatment might be covered by the government, but the two-month stay away from home is not. Coming on the heels of the costs created by more conventional treatments in Canada, the family needs help.
Daughter Elena, eldest of the couple’s three adult daughters and a journalist like her dad, is spearheading the fundraising campaign with a recently launched Go Fund Me.
“It’s going to be lot of cost for them between rent and food and travel and we want them to focus on healing,” she said.
Opened a little over two weeks ago, the campaign has raised a much-appreciated $6,650. And as appreciated as the donations are the kind words being posted to the page.
“I donated because JR is JR — a man of good, integrity, community, strength and creativity,” Jackie Hildering posted.
“JR, you always have a kind (word) for everyone. Given that I am not a photo-taker, you chronicled my kids in their early years playing sports. I always enjoy chatting with you. I hope to see you again soon. Keep up the fight, my friend!” wrote Cyndy Grant.
“JR is a North Island legend and he documented many as well. Get well neighbour,” said the Furney Crew.
Complications from the cancer had JR unexpectedly in the hospital for part of his early stay in Seattle. It left him fatigued, but didn’t affect his treatment schedule. His cells have been collected. He is back to being an outpatient and hopes to receive the souped-up CAR-T cell infusion the first week of February. If the treatment takes, he could be back home about a month later.
During the lead-up to this process, they’ve been in contact with Barry Marchi, a resident of Sparwood B.C., who recently completed his treatment. He’s shared his experiences with them, preparing them for what they’ve already been through and what they can expect to come next.
It’s just another example of the widespread support they’ve seen since embarking on this journey.
“We’ve felt overwhelming support from our employers and our family and our friends,” Pam said.
“I think my dad, just because of his job, in every community he’s been in, he’s touched people,” Elena said. “We definitely appreciate the support. It’s been a bit of light in the darkness.”