It’s been nearly four years since local pastor and volunteer firefighter Robert Mitschke received news he had an incurable disease, but it wasn’t until this spring he started the treatment necessary to prolong his life.
Bethphage Lutheran Church’s head pastor since 2007 and an ordained minister since 1978, Mitschke has undergone chemotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) since March, when he took a turn for the worse, ending up in the hospital for a two-week stay, he said.
The specific type of cancer, which produces a high amount of abnormal lymphocytes, or white blood cells, is more common among older adults, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) website.
While doctors diagnosed him with the rare illness during the summer of 2009, treatment had to be delayed until medical officials witnessed a greater deterioration of his health.
A combination of pneumonia, anemia and kidney problems forced him into the hospital earlier this year, he said. His white blood cell count had also greatly increased.
Although the grandfather and father of two has medical insurance, he still had to pay $5,000 in medical bills last year out of his own pocket and fears learning about the financial debt he has already incurred this year.
“I got the bill,” he said, “I just haven’t had the courage to open it up yet.”
His unusual upbeat outlook about his current state of health is probably more rare than his cancer, which according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website, affects at least four out of 100,000 men and women per year, and specifically in 2013, will affect 15,600 Americans and kill at least 4,500.
In addition, the site noted the average age of diagnosis for CLL, which plagues more men than women, is 71.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Mitschke said. “Think of all the other things that there are no cures for.”
The ACS website said CLL patients have a nearly 80 percent chance of living five years after initial diagnosis. However, according to NCI stats recorded from the 1970s to 1990s, most CLL sufferers lived an additional eight to 12 years on average. However, each case is different, and some patients have lived as little as seven months or to a normal life expectancy following diagnosis.
Mitschke hardly gets discouraged about his illness, relying on his faith to keep him mentally and emotionally balanced.
Oftentimes, he said he drives out to the western end of the county, sits on the hood of his car and watches the wind blow through the wheat in the fields. The relaxation calms him and reminds him of “good people.”
But he hasn’t always maintained a peaceful state of mind. Upon being diagnosed, he questioned how he could simultaneously be so sick yet feel so good.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be right,’” he said.
Doctors told Mitschke it wasn’t abnormal to feel healthy and pain free during the early stages of CLL.
He said he had initially visited the doctor because Howards Creek VFD, an agency he’s been with since 2008, required a checkup. Mitschke has been a volunteer firefighter since 1979, he said.
During the checkup, doctors found he had an abnormally high white blood cell count and suggested he see an oncologist, who confirmed he had cancer.
Mitschke said each member of his family has coped differently with knowledge of the sickness, his son acting like nothing is wrong and his grandchildren too young to grasp the concept of cancer.
“I can’t say (they act) normal because I don’t know what normal is,” he said.
Over the last year, he’s experienced extreme fatigue, suffered random body aches and rashes and even lost his taste for coffee, one of his favorite treats, but has yet to stop preaching.
“I can have foot pains, knee pains and hurt all over, but when I get into the pulpit, I don’t feel anything except happiness,” he said.
Because he tires so easily, he has not only had to back off from responding to all the fire department’s service calls over the last year, suiting up for only one, significantly lower than the agency’s annual average response number of 30 calls, but has also had to downscale his number of community visits.
“I don’t visit as much as I want to,” he said. “Preaching, teaching and visiting are the three most fun things about being a pastor.”
His tendency to bleed more easily has also kept him from much firefighting.
He noted his unique passion for both preaching and first-responder work stems from is desire to “bring order out of chaos.”
“The best people in the world you are going to find in two places,” he said, “churches and fire departments.”
Set to end his chemotherapy rounds in August, Mitschke encourages those newly diagnosed with cancer to save their finances and embark on activities they’ve always wanted to do.
His personal bucket list, which he can’t complete until he gains more energy, includes bicycling, canoeing parts of the Yadkin River and hiking on the Appalachian Trail, he said.
Bethphage has stepped up on more than one occasion to help cover the cost of the pastor’s medical bills. They collected an estimated $1,500 in donations last year, and on Friday, the church will again raise funds for Mitschke with a BBQ sale 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
For more information on the fundraiser or to place an order, call Robin Huss at (704) 732-5645 or Margaret Heafner at (704) 735-9394.