By Ginya Carnahan, APR, CPRC
(Photo: Mark Lyons)
Kevin Chaffee thought he’d be grounded by his prostate cancer, but now he’s soaring again, and sharing his experience with others.
The oldest of five brothers, Kevin Chaffee was born and raised in Batesville, Indiana, a typical Midwestern town of 6,500 people. The town was built in the 1850s as a stop along the railway from Cincinnati to Indianapolis; the railroad still runs through downtown Batesville.
Kevin’s father was an elementary school teacher, and his mother had her hands full with five active boys at home. To this day, his 85-year-old mother prepares lunch daily for any of her boys (and their families) who stop in. This is a tightknit family, held together by love and their strong Catholic faith.
After graduating from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with a degree in Civil/Environmental Engineering, Kevin began a career in water treatment plant design and management, working in nearby places such as Gary and Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1985, he returned to his hometown and in 1989 formed his own company, now called Earthtek Environmental. Kevin and his staff now design and build water treatment plants throughout the USA and in a few foreign countries.
A Lucky Chance
One weekend when Kevin was 44 years old, he was out shopping with his wife for a new kitchen table, when he spotted an advertisement for a free PSA screening offered at the local hospital. (Funny the details you remember from a sentinel event in your life.) Although there had never been any cancer in his family, he thought it was a good idea to get checked. His PSA came back at 3.6. The staff at the event explained the results, and since it was under 4, encouraged him to just get it checked again in 5 years.
In the meantime, Kevin (who had earned a pilot’s license several years earlier) was looking for a new plane to use in his growing business. The specific model he sought was a Cessna Turbo 182 Retractable Gear. He saw an ad for a nice used one in Florida. Kevin and his son traveled to Sarasota to check it out. The plane was owned by a prostate cancer survivor and associate of Dr. Michael Dattoli, who casually invited him in for a tour of the Dattoli Cancer Center. Interesting, he thought, but the plane was his real focus and concern. After negotiating the purchase of the plane, almost as an afterthought, the plane’s owner presented Kevin with a copy of his book, Prostate Cancer: A Survivor’s Guide, “just in case” he might need it one day.
Fast-forward four years. Now age 48, Kevin scheduled a physician’s office visit for a general, overall health check-up. This time, during the digital rectal exam, the doctor noted a lump on his prostate gland and promptly referred him to a doctor in Indianapolis for a biopsy. The results of the 12-core biopsy were 11 positive cores, with cores containing up to 95% cancerous involvement and a Gleason score of 7. This was not good. He was offered surgery and hormones … “until they stopped working.”
Kevin felt like he had been sucker-punched in the gut.
Dealing with The Diagnosis
Back at home he shared the news with Pam, the woman he had met in college and to whom he had been married since 1982. Pam was a homemaker and a teacher. Their young family consisted of a son and three daughters. His mind raced with impossible thoughts. He was just approaching his prime. This couldn’t be right!
Somewhere in this desperation, Kevin remembered the book he had been given…just in case.He pulled it from his bookcase and began to read. Out of the darkness, a light began to shine!
Like hundreds of other men fortunate who had learned about the Dattoli Cancer Center after being diagnosed, Kevin put in a phone call to the good doctor and had his records sent down.
And like many others, he was amazed that he received a return call from Dr. Dattoli immediately. It was a long phone conversation as the doctor reviewed his biopsy findings and explained how the Dattoli treatment protocol would approach his “high volume, aggressive” disease. Kevin cleared his calendar and made the first appointment available to travel to Sarasota for a complete evaluation.
Getting Down to Business
At his June 2008 appointment, Dattoli’s partner Dr. Richard Sorace welcomed him. “I’ll never forget what he said to me,” Kevin recalls. “We’ll treat you in the gland and treat your lymph nodes, since it is apparent that several are involved. Your disease could be anywhere.” This scared Kevin. He was quickly put on hormones to stabilize the advancing disease. When his PSA fell appropriately, Kevin returned to Sarasota in September to begin radiation treatment.
At that time the Chaffee family had a “fifth wheel” travel trailer, which Kevin brought with him for the 6-week treatment period. “I was able to have a little office right there and keep up with my business while under treatment – but I sure missed Pam and the kids,” he remembers. His family had come down with him to set up the trailer, but they had to return to Batesville after he was settled since Pam was teaching and the kids were in school.
“I’ll never forget how totally alone I felt as they drove away in a pouring rain storm. We were all crying.” He promised to keep busy and active. The daily radiation sessions were a piece of cake, after which Kevin would work out at the local YMCA.
Kevin took full advantage of all the Cancer Center had to offer, attending the weekly “Beamers” programs and hanging out in the lobby to chat with other patients. He made several good friends with whom he stays in contact to this day.
His last radiation treatment was scheduled on the day before his youngest daughter’s birthday; he was determined to be there, and he surprised the family by walking in the door just as the celebration was starting.
After his diagnosis, Kevin made the tough decision to sell the plane, anticipating losing his FAA pilot’s license medical clearance following a cancer diagnosis. He would just focus on staying healthy, building his business and supporting his family. He settled back into his activities, including playing adult baseball, attending church and volunteering in the Batesville community.
One evening at a Catholic Men’s Conference, he was asked to share his experience with prostate cancer. It was this event that inspired Kevin to openly seek opportunities to educate other men about the disease and the treatment that saved his life. He visited the Us TOO Prostate Cancer Information Group in Cincinnati and quickly found an outlet for his first-hand knowledge of the disease.
The group meets twice a month; its members have dubbed Kevin the “Knowledge Navigator,” as he would diligently research each member’s questions and provide educational presentations. Kevin even had Dr. Dattoli sharing his wisdom and answering questions via Skype at several packed educational sessions.
The Role as Counselor
In the 10 years since his treatment, Kevin has “counseled” dozens of men who were experiencing the same shock and fear that he had felt when diagnosed. Many of these men have taken his advice and traveled to Sarasota for treatment at the Dattoli Cancer Center. Sometimes, the group members even joke about Kevin being on the payroll for the Center!
Looking back on his prostate cancer journey to survival, Kevin recalls, “God has kept me alive for a reason.” He is intent on making his life meaningful by helping others. Not only is he active in the prostate cancer counseling arena, he was also elected to the Batesville Common Council in 2012 and now serves as its president. He remains faithful to the Catholic Men’s group, and he is a mentor to his son and daughters.
Kevin is grateful for the unusual path that brought him to Dattoli Cancer Center. Today he calls his health “perfect,” in every way: emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically whole and happy. Cured and clear of his cancer, he has restored his FAA license and bought another plane quite similar to the one that he believes saved his life.
“It gives me chills to think that I might never have known about the Dattoli Center if I hadn’t bought that plane,” Kevin concludes. “It is a place that treats you like a member of the family. These are people who are the best at what they do and who really care.”
Dattoli Cancer Foundation Journey magazine, Fall 2019