“We old guys are tough,” said Mercy Fort Smith patient Richard Russell. He should know: He’s proof you can go through multiple bouts with cancer and still be an inspiration to others.
Russell’s journey began roughly a decade ago with a diagnosis and surgery for basal cell carcimona, a type of skin cancer. He still carries the scar from that ordeal, but for Russell, his first cancer diagnosis was only the beginning.
Around Christmastime in 2014, while suffering from kidney stones, Russell was told there were suspicious “shadows” on his CT scan that needed to be checked. Turned out, Russell had meseteric carcinoids, tumors that would require surgery. His operation took place Jan. 20, 2015.
Ten days after his surgery, Russell met with Mercy Fort Smith oncologist Dr. Isam Abdel-Karim, who was amazed by the results of Russell’s blood tests.
“I thought we were meeting to talk about when we were going to start chemo or radiation,” Russell said. “He came in looking down at the chart and was shaking his head. I said, ‘Doctor, please don’t do that. I just went through cancer surgery. Please don’t come in shaking your head.’
“He said, ‘I just don’t understand it. Some of the lymph nodes came back positive, but your blood work is just perfect. We don’t need to do chemo or anything.’”
Russell credits this to his faith.
“The Lord has just blessed me and blessed me and blessed me, more than I deserve,” he said.
Things went well for Russell during the next few years, but a follow-up appointment at Mercy Fort Smith Oncology in November 2017 would place another obstacle in Russell’s path. Bloodwork showed cancer had returned, this time in his liver. The cancer is inoperable.
At this point, Russell met Dr. Daniel Mackey for the first time. Russell compliments Mackey and his staff at Mercy Fort Smith for making his care a team effort.
“Dr. Mackey said, ‘Look, here’s the game plan, and I believe we can combat it,’” Russell said. “’I’m going to do what I do, and I think I can do it pretty well.’ When I found out he was a man of faith, that really is important because it lowers your stress level. You have to have faith, obviously, in your doctor … and I have total confidence.”
The months and years since his most recent diagnosis haven’t been easy, but Russell believes his positive attitude and a fighting spirit have helped him get to a good point in his cancer battle. He returns to the Mercy Fort Smith Infusion Center once every 28 days for treatment. He also has nuclear scans every six months. Each report so far has been good, and each visit is made easier by the care he receives.
“It’s their attitude,” Russell said. “You’re not just the fourth scan of the day. It’s Richard Russell. And they care. They care how things are going.
“If you ask (Dr. Mackey) questions, he looks you straight in the eye and gives you an answer,” Russell continued. “You never feel like you’re just a chart to him, or you’re the person he’s going to see at 10 o’clock.”
Russell spends a lot of time at Mercy Fort Smith’s Infusion Center and praises the staff there for making his cancer fight easier.
“Again, I could call them and say, ‘It’s Richard,’” Russell said. “They’re just fantastic. Nobody I’ve run into has a holier-than-thou attitude. They genuinely care that you’re getting better.”
Russell said the cancer treatments are costly, but Mercy staff worked to set up payment through Novartis, which covers any out-of-pocket expense for the medicine he takes.
“How can you not brag about people who do that?” Russell said. “They’ve helped me financially also.”
Russell likely will have to have treatments for the rest of his life. Treatments, including embolizations, a treatment using injected blockages to cut off blood supply to the tumors, have gone well, but they are hard on Russell. However, he likes to keep his journey in perspective, especially when he sees children waging their own battles with cancer.
“How can somebody like me, with the piddly thing I’ve got to go through, be down?” he said. “I’m not going to have a pity party.”
Russell credits his family, including sons Scott, Christopher and Nathaniel and former stepsons Jared and Caleb, as well as their families, for being his prayer warriors throughout his ordeal. He calls his sons “great men of faith.”
Russell is a Van Buren resident but was born in New York and lived in Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., before coming to the University of Tulsa in 1969. He’s lived in the Fort Smith area for about 28 years. He previously managed Fink’s Jewelers in Fort Smith and also worked at Service Merchandise before coming to Rhodes Chevrolet in Van Buren. He’s been with Orr Chevrolet for about a year and a half.
Each morning, Russell puts on a bracelet given to him by a friend. The scripture, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future,” have special meaning for Russell, especially during his cancer fight.
Russell’s advice to patients on World Cancer Day on Feb. 4 and beyond is to become educated after a diagnosis – and have faith.
“I’m pretty good proof that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence,” Russell said. “I hope that word gets out. It has proven to be crucially important to me – that short word, faith. Not just my faith in the Lord, but faith in your doctor, your oncologist, your surgeon … the nurses. ... Having faith in that team, which Mercy has proven to me, that they care that you get better.
“They’re my health-care team. We’re all in this together. They’re convinced that they’re there to help me fight it.”
For information about Mercy Fort Smith's Oncology Department, visit www.mercy.net/practice/mercy-clinic-oncology-fort-smith.