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Milwaukee exec battling cancer chooses positivity and shares lessons learned

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Rich Tennessen talks with the GoGedders Podcast about his battle with cancer, what he's learned and what others can hopefully learn from his experience.

While working at home after getting blood work done the week after Thanksgiving, Rich Tennessen was feeling tired and took an uncharacteristic nap on his basement floor at 4:30 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, he woke up to his phone ringing. It was his doctor with an unsettling request, “You need to go to the hospital right now for a transfusion.” The next day Rich was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, followed by the word cancer. 

After our episode about Dry January, my friend Rich reached out to me about how he appreciated my openness in sharing my love-hate story with alcohol. He let me know that this year he was participating in Dry January but not by choice, and let me know about his recent diagnosis. He was battling cancer and wanted to share his story through the podcast in an effort to create a PSA to anyone who might be experiencing symptoms to get checked ASAP.

Rich has a lot going on in his life right now. He is President of Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA), a successful firm that focuses on architecture, planning and interior design; he is a husband and a father of three; he is the President of the Blue Mound Golf and Country Club; and he sits on the boards of M7 and the Milwaukee Development Corporation. 

Rich started to notice that he wasn’t 100 percent last spring when he was getting fatigued easily, which he could have chalked up to a lack of exercise. Then things really progressed this fall. Activities like walking up hills or stairs became acts of intense labor, hikes with his family became more difficult, and his fatigue led him to crash at the end of his days with no energy left to carry out any other tasks. His body couldn’t keep up with his usual activities.

“There is always a reason why you can justify what happened,” Rich said, referring to how he would overlook the signs as something not serious. “We have a tendency, especially men, you get a symptom and you put things off. Cancer can really disguise itself in a lot of different forms.” 

Rich ended up putting it off through the summer and the fall, too hard-headed to make the appointment with his doctor. Once things got worse, fearing that it may be something like a lingering effect of COVID, he made the appointment for a blood draw. That same day, he woke up on his basement floor to a call from his doctor to get to the hospital ASAP. His blood work tests came back and his hemoglobin levels were at life-threatening levels. 

But this is only phase one of his journey to recovery.

“There are three options of bone marrow transplant, STEM cell immunotherapy or there is a clinical trial on what is really going to be and has become a cutting edge game changer for cancer, and that is called CAR T-Cell therapy,” Rich described.

CAR T-cell therapy works by taking a patient's T-cells – an immune system cell that helps fight diseases and infection – and modifying them in a laboratory so they will attack cancer cells. Then the gene for a special receptor that binds to a certain protein on the patient’s cancer cells is added to the T-cells in the laboratory. The special receptor is called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). Large numbers of the CAR T-cells are grown in the laboratory and given to the patient via a blood infusion.

The CAR T-cell therapy for multiple myeloma has only been available to patients who have had multiple relapses until now; an extremely limited study is available for high-risk patients, who Rich is among. If he chooses this option, he will begin the treatments in April.

Rich’s main message is that he wants everyone who is feeling any symptoms to go and get checked as soon as possible instead of waiting until it is too late. Despite multiple myeloma not being curable right now, Rich is maintaining a positive outlook on life.

“I wasn’t given, ‘Hey, you have two months to live’; I was given a good prognosis," he said. "So I actually felt relieved that I’ve lived a good life. I hope I can live a long life, but to have this time, if I compare myself to someone who got their life taken away in an instant ... I truly feel blessed that I got time.”

Listen to the full episode.

Richie Burke

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