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Ellinwood man battles cancer with a smile

‘My philosophy of life is to make people feel good’

Managing Editor/Great Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is reprinted with permission from the Great Bend Tribune.
It’s 1:15 p.m. on a recent blustery Wednesday afternoon.
Joe Hickel sits in an easy chair watching the orderly chaos around him. He turns to look out the window at the gray spring day and then back at the hubbub.
“I love my time here,” the 80-year-old retired Ellinwood educator said.
This may sound like a strange statement, considering “here” is the Central Kansas Medical Center’s Heartland Cancer Center, and as he reclines, a pair of bags hanging above him drip chemotherapy drugs into his veins. He will be sitting in that chair for another four hours and 15 minutes.

“I seldom get to read the morning paper,” he joked. His weekly treatment sessions now give him ample time to do that.
While Hickel was hooked up to his IVs, the other beds and chairs at the center were filled with other patients. Wednesdays are among the busiest days at Heartland, which serves about 60 people each day.
This could be a story of irony — a cancer-free Hickel was the chairman of the first Relay for Life of Barton County 15 years ago. Now, as volunteers prepare for the 2010 installment of this cancer-fighting event, he sits inflicted with this insidious disease.
Or, this could be a story of tragedy and desperation — Hickel lost five siblings to cancer, had a sister and son survive and was, himself, diagnosed with throat cancer this February, shortly after his 80th birthday and his and his wife’s 55th anniversary.
The irony and history aren’t lost on Hickel, but he doesn’t dwell on them.
“The challenge has been great,” he said. “But, I’ve learned to look at life in a positive way.”
Hickel is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Ellinwood, and has been at the forefront of efforts to keep Sts. Peter and Paul Church in North Ellinwood a viable presence. The Church closed in 1986 in recent years and was severely damaged by a tornado.
These days, Hickel sees himself as the Bob Hope of the Cancer Center. Just as Hope entertained American service personnel overseas, Hickel entertains the other patients, and the nurses and doctors with conversation, wise cracks and poetry. “My philosophy of life is to make people feel good.”
Long before he was diagnosed with cancer, Hickel was an advocate for Relay for Life, an annual event designed to draw attention and raise money for cancer research. Last year’s Barton County relay was first in the state for cities’ relays of its size. It raised $112,000, or $4.06 for every person in the county. The goal this year is $115,000.
The Barton County event is set for June 11-12 in Jack Kilby Square in Great Bend.
Hickel focuses on what Relay has done for him, his family and everyone he sees at the center on Wednesdays. Normally very soft spoken, few things rile him like when folks say they won’t donate to Relay for Life because none of the money stays local.
“We’ve made tremendous progress with the money we raise during the second weekend in June (the normal time of the Relay),” he said. Glancing at the needles in his arm and at the others taking treatments, “we get money back.”
This comes in the form of the research helping to find cures and in the more direct services to patients.
As the largest source of nonprofit cancer research funds in the United States, the American Cancer Society, sponsors of Relays for Life, devotes more than $120 million each year to research. Currently, there are a number of researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center working on ACS grant-funded projects.
Since 1946, the society has invested approximately $3.2 billion in research. The five-year survival rate has almost tripled since 1946, and diagnosis and mortality rates have declined each year since 1990.
“ACS provides the most up-to-date information about cancer and guidance to local community resources,” said Linn Hogg, the 2010 Barton County Relay chairperson. “Programs, services and materials to cancer patients and their families are available at no direct cost through public contributions.” The society helps people with cancer and their families in every Kansas community through a toll-free number that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“No matter what questions, fears, concerns or needs, you can talk to a real-live person 24-7 and receive accurate up-to-date information in the mail,” Hogg said.
The Heartland Cancer Center, 204 Cleveland, opened in 2003 and has been busy ever since, said Director Jamie Hutchinson. In that time, it has served between 2,500-3,000 patients with laboratory work, and radiation and chemo treatments.
“I’m just glad to be involved” with Relay, said Hickel who is also part of Barton County Cancer Initiative, a group of health professionals that also offers assistance to cancer patients. “Remember, life is good.”
For more information about the Relay for Life, call chairperson Linn Hogg at 620-617-3640, Team Development Chairperson Kandi Wolf at 620-797-5651 or visit


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