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When 'terminal' cancer came calling, Mexico was answer for Soldotna SBS owner

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter
Jenny Neyman photo

Not being a morose individual given to pessimistic thinking, Rick Abbott wasn’t expecting some of the worst news of his life to come from that doctor’s visit two years ago. This is, after all, the man behind the inspirational quotes posted on the sign in front of Spenard Builders Supply in Soldotna. This week’s offering: “One thing you can’t recycle is wasted time.”

As an optimist, he was hoping for a treatment plan to alleviate the neuropathy in his legs, pain in his joints, migraines, fatigue, nosebleeds and other health struggles that had been worsening. As a pragmatist, he was at least expecting an explanation of what was causing his symptoms.

He got the latter, but in a form that would considerably test the former.

“‘You have lymphoma and leukemia.’ The doctor said it just like that. No soft shoe,” Abbott said. “She said, ‘I have talked to a doctor group in Seattle for over an hour about your case. I haven’t been able to come up with a reason or a solution. I don’t have a cure for you.’ When you’re given that prognosis, what do you do?”

You don’t panic, first of all. One doesn’t maintain a successful business career as long as Abbott -- 40 years as general manager of Soldotna’s SBS and the old Superior Building Supply in Soldotna before that -- by falling to pieces when faced with a difficult situation. You measure up the problem and use the best tools available to address it. In this case, as with all in Abbott’s life, that meant relying on his love for family and his strength of faith.

No time for fear, anxiety

“I had a protective feeling of taking care of my wife (Phoebe), so I was trying to absorb what the doctor was saying, but more so I was trying to protect how she would receive this. But I know the Lord was protecting whatever feelings I was supposed to have. At that time I didn’t have any fear or anxiety -- I had none of those,” he said.

What he did have was a spirit ingrained with hope, a mind open to the unconventional route along which that hope would lead him, a soul at peace with however that journey would turn out, and a wife who is every bit as strong in faith and resolve as he is.

“Don’t give up and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. There’s got to be something out there that can help,” she said.

But there wasn’t, at least not in the U.S. After being diagnosed by an oncologist in Alaska, Abbott was referred to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The news there, in January 2012, was just as grim.

“I told him (the doctor), ‘I’ve worked in a lumber yards for many years, so I deal with charts and graphs. If you can take what I have inside me and put it on a chart or graph and show me where it is -- is it on the left side of the graph, is it on the right, where is it? Is it going up? Is it going down?’ I said, ‘Wherever it is, it’s OK with me, but if you could do that for me, that’s what I’m here for,’” Abbott said.

The doctor obliged, but the placement was not good, and the prognosis even worse.

“They said it was terminal and that they couldn’t do anything,” Abbott said.

As long as Abbott could stand the symptoms, he could go about his life. As the disease progressed to its final stage, doctors could give him targeted chemotherapy to help with the pain.

“I said, ‘Will it kill the bad cells?’ He said, ‘Yes, it will.’ I said, ‘Will it kill the good cells?’ He said, ‘Unfortunately, it will.’ I said, ‘Will the bad cells come back?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What about the good cells?’ He said, ‘No, they won’t.’ He used the term ‘shake and bake.’ Me being a salesman, I thought, ‘He’s got to come up with a different term,’” Abbott said.

'We need to go to Mexico'

Rather than taking that as gospel, the Abbotts decided to seek other advice. Phoebe was particularly interested in a hospital in Mexico, International Bio Care, which a longtime family friend, Annette Meyer, had told her about.

To Abbott’s ears it sounded a little strange. This is a guy, after all, who lives in work boots and flannel shirts. His office is decorated with old hand tools. He works in ledgers and budgets, with lumber and inventory -- things that are tangible, that can be measured, stacked and counted. He serves on the boards of the Kenai Peninsula Builders Association, Safari Club and Central Peninsula Hospital Foundation. And he’s the one to traipse off to Tijuana to undergo a series of mystical-sounding treatments that are beyond the purview of U.S. medicine, outside the coverage of U.S. health insurance and pay for it out of pocket?

“(Meyer) told us about these treatments that were just neater than sliced bread. Phoebe said, ‘We need to go to Mexico, we need to get all the facts that we possibly can.’ And I’m more basic, so I didn’t know,” Abbott said.

Phoebe, though, is more “leaves and twigs,” as the family lovingly, jokingly puts it.

“I’m supportive of traditional medicine but I also know that preventative medicine is always a good thing. The kids used to pick on me because I was always into vitamins and things. The kids got tired of it as they got older, but now that they’re grown up they’ll ask their mom if I have any leaves and twigs for various things. I’ve always tried to do things the healthy way,” she said.

She called the hospital in Mexico and was immediately impressed. She had called after hours and there still was a doctor available to answer her questions. They offered to mail information to family members at no charge. They were helpful, courteous and friendly. And most of all, they offered hope.

“I called them and said he has this diagnosis and there wasn’t much in the line of anything offered. Well, it was offered but there wasn’t confidence that there would be any help. They would throw it at him and he would respond to it possibly, but he might not, so they’d try it again, another round, and still again. But it would just come back,” she said. “So I gave them the diagnosis and wondered if it was something they could treat. They said, ‘Absolutely.’”

That single word was an answer to her prayers.

“They gave me hope. They said, ‘Absolutely we have things to offer.’ They said their success rate is high. And we, personally, have friends who have been there and highly recommended it. It was just a different approach. I was encouraged,” she said.

People in the central Kenai Peninsula had undergone treatment at the facility and now were cancer free, she said. Not friends of friends, or a cousin’s buddy, or a coworker’s acquaintance’s husband. People they actually knew.

“We see the benefits done for people. We’ve seen people where (U.S.) doctors had given up on them and now they’re OK,” Abbott said. “And you ask the doctors there (in Mexico) and the bottom line is, no, not everybody makes it, so it’s not a magic place. And they would be very quick and clear to tell people that are there other hospitals than theirs that offer these treatments. But we heard of several people in this area who had received treatment there. And so we prayed about it.”

To sway Abbott even further was the sense he got that the hospital was truly out for his health, not his money.

“They said to Phoebe, ‘Have him come down here, we can help him.’ She said their countenance was so different, so kind, and there are other people in this community who have already been there and are in remission. They did not say, ‘What is his Social Security number, what’s his credit card, how much money do you have, this is how much it is, blah, blah, blah.’ As a businessman, that spoke volumes to me,’” Abbott said.

$27,000 for everything

Comparatively, his cancer treatment was “cheap” — $27,000 for everything, including three weeks of in-patient care.

“Just a bag of chemo (in the U.S.) costs, what, $6,000?” Abbott said.

But treatment in the U.S. would be eligible for health insurance coverage, whereas everything with the Mexico treatment would be out of his own pocket.

“So I went to my 401k,” he said. “When you’re looking at life or death, and you’ve got three children, six grandchildren, a wife that you’ve been married to for however long (43 years, he clarified). To me it’s a win-win deal, whether you live or die anyway. You’ve got people that you love and love you, so what’s a 401k for?”

They flew to San Diego in February 2012 and were met by a hospital representative who drove them across the border and to the 28-bed hospital. When they checked in they found fresh fruit and water waiting for both of them -- a service that was refreshed daily throughout their stay. They figured it’d be a day of waiting around and getting settled. And there was some getting settled -- seeing the area around the hospital in Tijuana, which seemed quite safe, and meeting other patients, some from Mexico, others from Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, including some Amish and Mennonite people, Abbott said. But there was no waiting around.

“We arrived on a Sunday. We figured, ‘They’ll get us checked in and nothing will happen until the next day.’ Well, that wasn’t true. They started immediate treatment. I was really pretty surprised at that, that they’d do anything the first day,” Phoebe said.

Abbott underwent several procedures, including Alivizatos Treatment, named for the Greek doctor who pioneered the protocol. It’s a 20-day infusion of vitamins, minerals and amino acids that is meant to regenerate and enhance the body’s immune system and modulate its metabolism so that it essentially starves cancer cells and encourages the reproduction of healthy cells. He was put on the accompanying Alivizatos Greek Treatment Diet -- low in acid and protein, encouraging drinking lots of alkaline water and avoiding preservatives, refined sugar, fat from meats, flour and alcohol -- and began chelation for detoxification.

He had hyperbaric oxygen therapy daily and underwent three rounds of hyperthermia treatment, where his body temperature was raised to 108 degrees to stimulate the body’s response to fight off disease, as it would with a naturally occurring fever.

When he first arrived at the hospital, Abbott’s blood was drawn to create dendritic cell vaccines. The blood was sent off to Switzerland where it was treated, sent back to the hospital and sent home with Abbott to give himself two weeks of injections. The vaccines, as they’re called, stimulate his dendritic cells, which circulate in the blood and can latch onto invading pathogens, again helping his body’s immune response.

“I said going in, ‘I want everything you can possibly give me, just pour it on,’ and they did,” Abbott said.

He said he doesn’t know all the science behind it, how it works or what it does, but he knows he felt immediate improvement.

They returned home to Sterling late in the week, and he returned to work the following Monday.

 “My employees said that I looked much better, that I seemed much better. Things had changed. About two weeks after that I told my wife, ‘Honey, I can feel my calf.’ Now, this wasn’t even supposed to be part of the deal, but I don’t have neuropathy anymore.”

Before being released, a doctor did a before-and-after review with Abbott, looking at his blood under a microscope. Upon arrival his red blood count was low, his white blood cells were inactive and a “citrus layer” around his cells (an indicator of immune system health) was thin, he said. When he left his red blood cells were up, his white blood cells were active and the citrus layer had deepened.

“I was so excited about that. In three weeks' time they had gotten the white cells to work. Just that, alone, in three weeks' time was amazing,” Abbott said.

Since then, though the doctors told him he’d likely have to come back for further treatments, his red blood count continues to rise, and he’s feeling better all the time and -- best yet -- all of his blood tests have come back cancer free. He still hasn’t needed another round of treatment.

The entire experience was amazing, Phoebe said, from the care to the treatment to the results. Particularly comforting to the Abbotts was the spiritual encouragement they found at the hospital. Abbott took a pillowcase that students from his church had made him, covered in handprints and Biblical verses. Throughout his stay he felt supported in his faith and was able to support other patients in theirs, he said.

 “They encourage you to exercise your faith there,” Phoebe said. “There were times when the IVs weren’t going really well, he was praying and the nurses were praying right with him. They were prayerful people.”

Questions from across Alaska

Since coming home, Abbott has offered himself as a resource of information, willing to talk to anyone about the nuts and bolts of his treatment.

“I know I’ve had so many people praying for me,” Abbott said. “And here I’m the guy who puts the stuff up on the sign about adversity and trials and things. I try to make it an encouragement to others, so they can apply it to their lives. That’s pretty important, because I think we all go through adversity, but it’s just for a season.”

If he can offer anything, he hopes it’s at least a little comfort to help them through the dark, frightening experience of a cancer diagnosis.

“I’ve been really burdened by people with their fear. It’s bad enough to have the condition, but to have the fear to go with it is even worse,” he said.

He’s been getting calls from all over the area, Alaska and even people in the Lower 48. Part of it is attributable to his recovery, he thinks, and part of it is probably because he is who he is -- a respected businessman, not the stereotypically (apologies to Phoebe) “leaves and twigs” sort.

After all, he is a long-serving member of the Central Peninsula Health Foundation board, which raises funds to support the hospital and its patients. He’s supported the addition of cancer treatment services at the hospital. And even though he chose to leave the country for his cancer treatment, he still is a staunch advocate for the local hospital. Without his doctors at Central Peninsula Hospital and in Anchorage, he wouldn’t have gotten his diagnosis, and he’s always felt well cared for in any medical needs he’s had at home, he said.

“I look at the hospital and care that’s here and it’s very good. We’ve been here long enough to remember the old hospital, too, and it’s always been known as good, and you look at what’s available now and there’s a lot to be said about it. We should never take that for granted,” he said.

“It’s just unfortunate that what I received (in Mexico) is not available here. The (local) hospital is so supportive of wellness, it would be the first to look for ways to support wellness, and the peninsula should be thankful for that. But unfortunately, our U.S. society isn’t allowing for some of the treatments that are done elsewhere in the world.”

As big of an advocate as he’s become for his treatment, Abbott said he would in no way want to talk others into anything they aren’t comfortable with. All he can say is what worked for him.

“As far as I’m concerned, just as long as they’re really strong in their decision, that’s wonderful. Going to the hospital here and getting the treatment they need is wonderful, just as long as they’re strong in what they’re doing. I just want to help people,” Abbott said. “I have great respect for the work that’s done at the hospital, but I know what worked on Rick Abbott — prayer and this treatment in Mexico. It’s very humbling to have gone to a place that has done all of this. Can I explain why it worked? No, I can’t, it’s beyond me. All I can do is be thankful.”

He would be even more thankful to see those treatment options available in the U.S., especially right here at home.

“I’m thinking that’s changing,” Phoebe said. “I’m hoping the effect of this sort of thing is evident and will be available someday.”

Jenny Neyman is editor of The Redoubt Reporter, which covers Kenai Peninsula news in Alaska. Used with permission.