John Klatt was relaxing at home with a magazine last February when he decided he wanted to go on a trip to Iceland this summer.
“My wife looked at me like, ‘You got chemo brain again or what?’ ” he recalled this week.
The magazine, Cure, is a patient-friendly publication that focuses on cancer research and treatment.
The vacation desire: a demanding three-day hike sometimes called "Fire and Ice" because at any given time volcanoes and glaciers forge a stunning landscape that also can include gorges, geysers and waterfalls.
Such a destination seemed an ideal tonic after a diagnosis three years earlier of multiple myeloma, which led to spinal surgery, a three-month course of chemotherapy and a novel stem-cell treatment.
“The word hell comes to mind” when describing the triple-drug chemo alone, said Klatt, 66, a retired pastor who lives in Lyndonville.
Two years into remission, a vigorous hike sounded pretty good, too — not only to him, but also his sister, Mary Schlabach, of South Wales.
“I was visiting John one day and he shared that this is a program for family and caregivers, as well as doctors and health professionals,” Schlabach said. “I caught his enthusiasm.”
The Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma trip will run Wednesday through next weekend. It is the 12th installment of a four-year-old fundraising venture for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation which also this year includes sojourns at Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Patagonia in South America. Cure Media Group and pharmaceutical giants Celgene and GSK also support the effort, with 100% of proceeds — more than $2.3 million since the start — going to multiple myeloma research.
“For some reason that I can't fully explain, I was really drawn to Iceland,” said Klatt, who spent his younger years in Orleans County and served for 35 years at churches in the Thousand Islands and outside Jamestown, as well as Hamburg, West Seneca and North Tonawanda. “Growing up in Western New York,” he said, “maybe you get used to snow.”
Multiple myeloma is a rare blood cancer that strikes plasma cells, clogging bone marrow with needless substances that crowd out red and white blood cells. It can lead to anemia, bone fractures and infections. There is no cure but Klatt and others hope research and new treatments will turn multiple myeloma into a chronic condition instead of a life-threatening one.
He thought he pulled a muscle while doing home remodeling in April 2016 and was diagnosed when the pain became unbearable. By that point, 80% of his bone marrow was impacted. Doctors told him he probably had 3½ to four years to live.
Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center saved his life, Klatt said, and the stem-cell therapy that was part of clinical trial has given him the chance of a longer life. Specialists removed and supercharged his stem cells, knocked out his immune system with a strong chemotherapy agent, then injected the souped-up cells in a process the pastor likened to a computer reboot.
Doctors expected he’d need four to six weeks at Roswell to grow strong enough to fight off any possible infection, but his longtime devotion to fitness kicked in and he was home in 16 days. Schlabach deep-cleaned his house to set the stage for his homecoming.
Klatt has been in remission since. He has spent most days in recent months making a 6-mile hike – with full gear – between his house and Lake Ontario as he prepares for next week’s journey.
Schlabach, 57, a stay-at-home mother of six and part-time home health aide, stepped up her conditioning at The Fit Stop in Strykersville.
“My gym family has donated quite a large gift to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation to support me,” she said.
Brother and sister met their traveling companions earlier this year during a preparatory hike in Asheville, North Carolina. Fellow trekkers will include a myeloma survivor from San Diego, his college roommate and his sister-in-law and a doctor from outside San Francisco.
Klatt is grateful to be part of the group – and that his wife, Bonnie, will join he and Schlabach in Reykjavik for a couple of days of sightseeing before the three head home.
“I think this is good spiritually, emotionally, physically for me to do this,” he said, “but also support ongoing research, which is so important right now.”
Klatt said cancer forced him to slow down in some very meaningful ways.
"Sometimes, you have all these appointments in life, and you have so many things to do that you forget what's most important," he said. "Cancer has given me the opportunity to think about issues like my own mortality, for instance, and deepen my sense of who I am in God's good creation, and my connections with family and friends and with God. And all of that has been really helpful. Along those lines, I've deepened my practice of meditation. That was a helpful way to cope with cancer."