Mitchell T. Happeney
Mitchell T. Happeney

Processing a Cancer Diagnosis and an Open Letter
Monday, February 13
Just recently, I became a very proud second-generation Miami graduate. Eight years ago, I studied at Miami University, where both of my parents attended and graduated. One day, during my sophomore year, my parents called and told me to return to my hometown. My dad had been hospitalized, and they found that his kidneys were failing. When I received the call, I did not know the reason. My parents did not want to tell me over the phone. Prior to this visit to the hospital, my dad had never visited a doctor’s office in my lifetime. It was odd. So, I left Miami and traveled to my hometown. My dad is tough, I thought. The cause was probably just a bad virus. My dad probably just wanted me to return and take care of some things while he was hospitalized. I was wrong. That day, my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. 

Over the years, I have observed three stages when processing a cancer diagnosis. Each member of my family has probably gone through at least one of these stages.
 
The first stage was what I call the “blur,” where I cannot remember many events after my dad’s diagnosis. It was a blur. In that blur, time passes quickly. Decisions were made that impacted the short and long-term health of my dad. My family’s emotions were up and down. We did not know how to respond. Even more, I cannot comprehend how my father processed the diagnosis. But he did and moved forward. For some of us, it took much longer to move forward. The year after the diagnosis, I do not remember much.
 
The second stage was the “pride and distraction” stage. After the first few months with my father’s diagnosis, I had a great deal of pride and sense of urgency. Some outsiders would call it anxiety. But, in general, my family has a strong work ethic, and it sometimes comes off that we are busy buddies. As proof, my parents are first generation college graduates, and they both have Ohio State University graduate degrees. They broke two new barriers that most do not. As most children, I wanted to prove I could break barriers as well. And more importantly, I wanted to demonstrate that I could break barriers to my father. So, I became an engineering student, joined and led two student organizations and a completed a year-long co-op during my last two years. To put it simply, I never said I couldn’t do something. I might not be the best, but I would compete. My pride motivated me. And, it was the only way I understood how to operate for many years. I convinced myself the outcome would be good if I persisted. In my mind, I could control my future. My pride distracted me from my dad’s treatment.

Left to right: mom, me, my sister, my brother, and my dad. 

The third stage is the “relapse” stage. In this stage, my father becomes very sick again. An attack on my father’s immune system could cause the cancer to go out of control. This stage is much like the “blur.” It’s difficult every time it happens but also a little different. In the blur stage, my mother and father supported us. In the relapse stage, we are actively supporting each other. Overall, we are a much stronger family.

Eight years have passed since my dad’s diagnosis. And, my father’s life is thriving. I was inspired to join the Mt. Kilimanjaro trek because my dad’s success story is a testament to great cancer research – multiple myleoma needs advocates.

Open letter
 
Dad,
 
When you were diagnosed with multiple myeloma, our family was fearful. We did not know how to respond. We felt like victims. Today is a different story.
 
Over the past eight years, I have seen you fight…every day. You do not complain. You do not talk about your pain. You are not defined by cancer. Prior to my Mt. Kilimanjaro trek cancer research campaign, I doubt many colleagues or friends even knew you had cancer.
 
I plan to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for you, our family, and many other patients that need improved treatments. Our family has watched you and know you challenge yourself and your diagnosis every day. With your persistence and cancer treatments supported by research organizations such as the MMRF, your life is thriving today.

2013 motorcycle trip to Mt. Denali

2013 motorcycle trip to Mt. Denali

Over my entire life, I have watched you. Since I was very young, I remember you working hard…all the time. Not some of the time but all of it. Whether it was driving to Florida to break your own personal speeding record or riding our motorcycles to Alaska, you have always been my role model and hero. Today, that has not changed.
 
To quote the late Stuart Scott, "When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live."
 
I love you beyond measure.
 
Love,
Your son, Mitchell
 
Sources:
National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, “A Snapshot of Myeloma,” March 22, 2013, https://www.cancer.gov/research/progress/snapshots/myeloma.
 
Just Keep Climbing: Training for the Challenge of a Lifetime
Wednesday, February 08
In 2008, my dad, Randy Happeney, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. We have all heard the word “cancer.” But unless you have a close friend or family member with this disease, you probably haven’t heard the phrase “multiple myeloma.” In the lymphoma cancer family, multiple myeloma has a very small number of patients compared to its counterparts, Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Nearly 1.4 percent of all newly diagnosed cancer patients are diagnosed with multiple myeloma. So let’s put it into financial perspective as well. In 2011, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) had a revenue of $5.1 billion and only $54.9 million was allocated to multiple myeloma cancer research efforts. That’s 1 percent of the NCI revenue. In the overall cancer perspective, multiple myeloma research funding is a lower priority. Who will advocate for the 1.4 percent of newly diagnosed multiple myeloma patients and my father? I will.
 
At my local YMCA, a Stairmaster and I have a fragile relationship. During my training, I decided to climb a Stairmaster for 50 minutes. Within the Stairmaster’s training settings, I selected a mild climb and targeted to have good control of my heart rate. Previously, I had been completing Stairmaster training sessions between one to three times a week. And the climbs were becoming easier and easier both physically and mentally. I increased my speed intensity by two levels. And, I felt great after completing my training sessions. Though one day, I received a reality check.

Overall, my training goal was to increase my stamina for the MMRF Mt. Kilimanjaro trek that will stretch eight and a half days. Our group plans to climb the largest free standing mountain in the world. The climbing altitudes range from 7,000 to 15,000 feet, then a steep summit climb up to 19,341 feet. In contrast, the tallest peak of Colorado, Mount Elbert, is 14,440 feet. That means all the Colorado Rocky Mountains are nearly 5,000 feet lower. Mt. Kilimanjaro is tall! I am concerned. I am concerned mostly about my physical fatigue.
 
So that day, I decided to test my climbing stamina and wore my MMRF Osprey pack (sponsored by CURE Magazine and Takeda Oncology) with a 30-pound dumbbell weight. It’s surprising how nicely the 30-pound dumbbell weight fits into my pack. It’s almost like a dumbbell was designed to fit within small climbing packs. Anyway, I noticed a few new effects of the newly added weight.
 
First, I was surprised how the pack weight affected my balance. Prior, I only needed hand rail support if I was exhausted. Now, my body no longer wanted to be hands-free. I needed balance support and the hand railings helped a great deal.
 
Second, the pack wasn’t very comfortable with 30 pounds. I wasn’t surprised because I have worn the pack many times. I hiked Mt. Bierstadt, the Smoky Mountains and Red River Gorge. During these climbs, my pack felt comfortable. It was very weird.

And best for last, I noticed early that I could not keep up with the mild pace. My stamina was gone. I was out of breath. I started a very intense sweat. Overall, I was confused again. I have been climbing for the past few months, and did not expect to see such a decline in my performance. After 20 minutes, I was forced to reduce the speed. Then, sadly after wearing the pack 30 minutes and almost to the pace of a snail, I removed the pack and climbed another 15 minutes. Five minutes short of my 50-minute goal. I was like, “What the heck am I going to do at 19,000 feet!?”
 
Reality check: my training needs to pivot. Just keep climbing.
 
Since that day, I planned to improve all three effects. To improve my balance, I trained my core. To improve my pack comfort level, I continued to wear the pack and adjust accordingly. To improve my stamina, I introduced strength training and continued to wear the pack on the Stairmaster. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the challenge of a lifetime and I will be prepared.
Preparing for Kili and Meeting the Team
Wednesday, August 03
Am I mentally and physically ready for Mount Kilimanjaro? Our MMRF event manager, Kelley Ward, wanted all of us to answer this question with confidence very early. Therefore, an early pre-hike climb of Mount Bierstadt in Colorado was planned. From an individual perspective, I was pumped! Another climb! I am in! We could meet our teammates and calibrate our team for Mount Kilimanjaro. Such a great idea!
 
Shortly after receiving the news, I started training. With my dear friends, I ventured to the beautiful Red River Gorge and the majestic Smoky Mountains. For many hours, we hiked with packs and gear. It was tough at times, but I really enjoyed the hike. Luckily, two of my friends were experts — one hiked the Appalachian Trail and the other is an Eagle Scout. I was in good hands and they really helped me along. These two hiking experiences were difficult physically, but I pushed myself and I thought maybe I was ready for Mount Bierstadt.
 
Additionally, my friends were curious and asking questions about the Mount Kilimanjaro trek. It was good practice and fun to explain my cause: raising awareness and funds for multiple myeloma cancer research. It was rewarding to provide insights to others about fighting cancer. The fight is very real. Awareness starts with those small conversations.
 
Day 1 was filled with introductions and discussions about what brought us to join the Mount Kilimanjaro trek. In all, we had 22 individuals arrive to hike Mount Bierstadt: Two photographers, two explorers, two CURE magazine team members and 16 Mount Kilimanjaro team members. The group arrived from all over the country, from Alaska to Boston.
 
On June 8, we planned to visit Rocky Mountain National Park to complete a quick hike and really get to know each other. Then afterwards, we planned dinner with interviews.
 
While driving to Estes Park, I rode with Gary Rudman (a patient), Terry White (another patient) and Daryl Olsen (a caregiver). The entire ride, we shared our stories. There were some deep multiple myeloma-related discussions. These guys have battled. They fight every day. I was so impressed. But what intrigued me most was that multiple myeloma didn't define them. Gary is an amazing cyclist, Terry is a wild Alaskan fisherman and Daryl is an avid mountaineer. Such great stories come from people who overcome their obstacles. Getting to know them personally was a privilege.
 
After completing a short hike at Estes Park, we ate dinner together at a nearby restaurant. It was a really good bonding moment. Everyone was excited for the next day's hike. There was a distinct buzz in the room. We were asking ourselves: Why are we climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? Everyone had great reasons. Deep reasons.
 
Me? I am climbing for my father and the patients at that dinner table.
 
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