PIQUA — A local couple is raising funds for lung cancer awareness and research, sharing their personal journey of how their own experience with the disease has impacted their lives.
Lifelong Piqua resident Jeff Meckstroth, who retired from the Piqua Fire Department after 31 years of service in 2008, was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer in the fall of 2015. His wife, Rhonda, explained that it was uncovered by chance at his annual physical exam, where the doctor asked Jeff if he had any other questions or concerns, and Jeff brought up a cough he had.
Looking into that nonproductive cough led to x-rays and other examinations and a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer after doctors found a nodule in Jeff’s lung. Jeff also underwent three surgeries to collect tissue samples before doctors found that Jeff had a rare genetic mutation of non-small-cell lung cancer, one that occurred in approximately 4 percent of non-small-cell lung cancer cases.
The lung cancer diagnosis came as a shock to the Meckstroths as they dealt with the public perception of lung cancer.
“He’s never smoked a day in his life,” Rhonda said.
Jeff was among the 10-15 percent of new lung cancer cases are among people who have never smoked. Approximately 60 to 65 percent of all new lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers, according to the LUNGevity Foundation.
The diagnosis was also difficult for them personally after Jeff first received a terminal diagnosis.
“We went from planning retirement to planning funerals,” Rhonda said. She added that had Jeff not had the rare genetic component to his diagnosis, he “would have only had months to live.”
Instead of undergoing traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation, Jeff underwent a different targeted therapy, taking a pill to address the genetic mutation.
“It basically turns off the mutations of that gene,” Rhonda said.
A problem arose as Jeff’s cancer progressed, fighting off the first round of medication by adapting and mutating once again.
“The cancer gets smart … and mutates in other forms,” Rhonda said.
While the nodule in his lung shrank, they later found that his cancer had spread to his bones and to his brain. In late 2016 and early 2017, doctors found seven tumors in Jeff’s brain.
Rhonda said that the doctors that they were using at that time did not know the proper procedures for how to monitor Jeff’s rare form of lung cancer, and when those doctors suggested that Jeff undergo whole brain radiation, Rhonda reached out to one of the leading oncologists for this genetic form of this disease, who was based at the Boston Massachusetts General Cancer Center.
“I just wrote her a desperate email, begging for help,” Rhonda said.
The next day, that oncologist called Rhonda and advised against whole brain radiation, instead suggesting a new medication and second line of targeted therapy.
“Within maybe 6 to 8 weeks, the tumors were completely gone from his brain,” Rhonda said.
In November 2017, the Meckstroths participated in a Lung Cancer Awareness Month LUNGevity event held at the city of Piqua, where retired NFL linebacker and lung cancer awareness spokesperson Chris Draft visited with the city and the fire department. Draft lost his wife to the disease several years ago. Together, they helped raise over $6,000 for the LUNGevity Foundation, a lung cancer-focused nonprofit that funds research, education, and support.
The event also helped connect them with others fighting lung cancer and to the Kettering Health Network, where local oncologists are working on Jeff’s case with oncologists at the Boston Massachusetts General Cancer Center.
Jeff’s cancer then progressed again, and there was no third line of medication readily available yet. Instead, they participated in a clinical trial with the Boston Massachusetts General Cancer Center. Throughout 2018, Jeff and Rhonda had to travel to Boston every four weeks in order receive the medication he needed.
Rhonda said that the medication just got FDA approval in November, so December was the first month that they did not need to travel to Boston in order to receive it.
Throughout the process of fighting lung cancer, Jeff and Rhonda have found ways to cope and support each other.
“Jeff wanted to focus on living,” Rhonda said.
Jeff, who still farms on 600 acres of land, said that he feels good enough with the medication that he’s currently on that he would not even know he had it.
Rhonda said that she focused on keeping Jeff here, researching his diagnosis and getting connected with doctors and support groups. They have also grown a support group locally with friends and families and across the U.S. with doctors, advocacy groups, and online support groups.
“It takes a team to survive something like this,” Rhonda said.
Rhonda has also gotten involved in advocacy, working with ALK Positive Outreach, the Biden Cancer Initiative, and the American Cancer Society on an educational campaign for biomarker testing.
Rhonda wants to educate the medical community and others so that other patients will be aware of other treatment options if they have a genetic component to their lung cancer diagnosis. Rhonda wondered if the genetic mutation that Jeff has really was that rare or if not enough people were getting that genetic testing.
Jeff and Rhonda have stayed in contact with Draft, recently taking part and winning third place in Team Draft’s fifth annual Lung Cancer Survivors Super Bowl Challenge, a fundraising campaign for lung cancer awareness and research. As third place winners, they will be attending the Pro Bowl on Jan. 27, in Orlando, Florida.
The Meckstroths are not done raising funds, though, as the fundraising campaign will continue up until the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. If they raise over $5,000, then 80 percent of the funds they raise will stay locally with the Kettering Health Foundation, with the remaining 20 percent going to support Team Draft’s mission. They have already raised approximately $3,450 of that goal.
To support their cause, visit www.crowdrise.com and search for Jeff & Rhonda Meckstroth.
Team Draft is an initiative of the Chris Draft Family Foundation. For more information about Team Draft, visit www.teamdraft.org.
For more information about the LUNGevity Foundation, visit lungevity.org.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jeff Meckstroth retired from the Piqua Police Department. He actually retired from the Piqua Fire Department. Miami Valley Today regrets this error.
Reach Sam Wildow at email@example.com