HAWLEY - Thirteen years ago, the co-owner of Woodloch Pines, Bob Kiesendahl never in his wildest imagination would have expected to be told that he had leukemia. Kiesendahl was 28 and had been married to his wife, Jen, for a mere three months when he had a tremendous pain in his hip that led to blood tests which indicated that he had leukemia.
Kiesendahl said he was “blindsided” by the pain and then when he was diagnosed he was “blown away” because he knew nothing about the disease except that with any form of cancer there was a stigma of a “death sentence.” At that point in Kiesendahl’s life, with his wife, his thoughts were about his career at Woodloch Pines and having a family, but because of the diagnosis he says there was a “gavel of emotions from anger to shock.” But today, Kiesendahl says cancer has actually been a gift because the disease has given him a better “appreciation for all that I have; family, friends, support” with a “goal and mission in life to help others.” Kiesendahl had chronic myelogenous leukemia or CML which Kiesendahl says was aggressive and in a “blast phase,” because it grew rapidly, leading to some “pretty dark days” which he says he does not remember. Kiesendahl explains that the form of leukemia he had causes the bone marrow to over produce white blood cells and because the bone marrow is within the bone, he was “actually feeling bone pain from the inside because its putting pressure on the inside of your bone” which he says “sounds as bad as it felt.”
Eventually Kiesendahl was told his only chance of surviving depended on getting a bone marrow transplant and within a few months a match was found through the national bone marrow registry. Although he had been at Penn State Hershey, at that time, the hospital did not do unrelated bone marrow transplants and so Kiesendahl’s oncologist recommended he go to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle Washington. May 14, 1999, Kiesendahl received the transplant, which he says was actually a quick process. Going from feeling as though he was on top of the world with everything “going in the right direction to wholly crap, in a matter of 12 months” with all of that was happening in his life as well as those around him, he says was “was pretty unbelievable.” Kiesendahl’s mother and wife stayed with him when he was in Seattle, but still it was hard being away from his family and friends. Trying to make light of the situation, he says he tried to make it seem “pretty cool” to be in Seattle because that is where his favorite band, Pearl Jam is from. The most challenging part however, was being in isolation in the hospital because he was like “a boy in the bubble” because his immune system was diminished and there was “no escaping it, it was visual, everywhere around you, you knew if something happened you didn’t have much to fight with,” which Kiesendahl calls a “trying time” that was also “physically challenging.”
He calls the transplant “anticlimactic” because he went through tough things in the beginning, but when the “bag comes and it literally just drips into your port” and then it’s an emotional and psychological period because patients have to wait and see if the transplant was a success, he says. But, there was an inspiration for Kiesendahl because he had to stay on the pediatric floor which he says was “very sad and very emotional” to see the kids who were struggling with the same disease. He felt bad that he was feeling sorry for himself, when at 28, the kids “hadn’t even lived at all,” but at the same time, Kiesendahl says the kids were resilient and fantastic because they “had spirit that you just want to grab a hold of.”
Kiesendahl’s mother, Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years after his diagnosis, which he says “kind of reversed the roles” because he became her caretaker. Now though, with two positive outcomes, Kiesendahal says their successes are more motivation for their charitable efforts that will motivate them to keep moving forward.
While in the hospital, Kiesendahl thought about how he could try to beat cancer on a larger scale than just his own battle and through some resources that are available through the family business, Kiesendahl established BK Hope Cures. He says creating the organization was a distraction for him, while in the hospital because he was focusing on what he was going to do with his life once he beat cancer, “not if I beat it.” BK Hope Cures sponsored the first golf tournament only five months after Kiesendahl received the transplant. His wife and mother let him run with his ideas of making the foundation what it is today because it was “empowering” him which ultimately made him “want to control cancer” he says.
Hope, Kiesendahl says is important because it gives people something to look forward to and he believes it helped him through his battle. Before he went to Seattle, Kiesendahl’s wife told him she was pregnant with their eldest son, Zack and that added to his determination to get better. Kiesendahl had some side effects to the chemotherapy and radiation which made having his second son Luke Alexander difficult, but with time, his third son, Drew happened naturally. Drew was named after Kiesendahl’s donor “in honor of his sacrifice.”
Kiesendahl’s donor, Drew is two years younger than Kiesendahl, a police officer and lives in Florida with his own family. Kiesendahl met Drew after attempting to contact him several times and now, Kiesendahl said having Drew in his life is like having another brother. With the advancements in cancer treatments, Kiesendahl says its “mind boggling and fantastic” to think that BK Hope, a “little grassroots effort in Hawley, Pennsylvania” has been a part of contributing to the fight against cancer. At this point, he said the organization has given about $800,000 to help research studies, foundations and organizations.
BK Hope primarily works with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation. He says, “I’ve tried to take the fight on the larger scale as far as looking for a cure over all, or being a part of funding that research.” By the foundation’s 15th year, Kiesendahl says he would like to have raised over a million dollars, which he thinks is feasible, but really the sky is the limit.
In some ways, Kiesendahl says it does not seem like it’s been 13 years since his diagnosis. He says he thinks about how far he has come health wise and how he has been able to fully regain his life. “Physically, psychologically, emotionally it’s been pretty amazing” he adds.
Looking back 13 years, Kiesendahl says it “seems pretty hard to believe how broken I was 13 years ago and how far I’ve come. I’ve been very, very lucky.” Ultimately though, he says it does not seem that long ago because “there really isn’t a day that I don’t think about it. It’s not something that leaves you.” Having gone up against cancer and beaten it, Kiesendahl says the experience has “changed me in a way that has given me much more appreciation for life in itself in general and not taking everything for granted.”
For more information on BK Hope Cures, visit online at bkhopecures.org or call Woodloch at 570-685-8022. Donations may be sent to BK Hope Cures, P.O. Box 406, Hawley, PA 18428.