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Local man fights against illness


A small pair of boxing gloves hangs on the wall in Lee Mitchell’s faculty office at Mt. Hood Community College. The gloves were a gift from his department head, meant to encourage him to keep fighting after he learned four years ago that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.

Mitchell teaches biology, and before teaching he did laboratory research. Because of his profession, it was not difficult for him to understand what was in store for him and his family as a result of the diagnosis.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Biology professor Lee Mitchell has overcome the adversity of cancer and kidney failure, with the help of a new at-home product.

The boxing gloves are clearly a valued gift for Mitchell; although he does not practice the sweet science, he does practice karate, and in fact holds a black belt.

Ironically, it was his training and testing for the belt that helped him discover his condition. The 62-year-old noticed he was getting winded much more quickly than normal while performing the strenuous routines, and his instructor encouraged him to visit the doctor.

Mitchell has the cancer back on its heels, through an oral chemotherapy drug that he continues to take, and because of this he continues to teach and lead a normal enough life.

“Myeloma is a very wimpy cancer, so to speak,” he said. “And the treatment I’m taking happens to target the myeloma cells very well.”


While karate is the practice of fighting with “empty hands,” Mitchell found another complication, brought about through his cancer, requiring some assistance beyond his hands.

“This type of cancer tends to gum certain organs up,” Mitchell said, “because it’s really a water-hating cell and so it gets stuck in places.”

Mitchell said the cancer will attack one of three vital organs: the brain, the heart or the kidneys.

“When I first learned that I said, ‘Whoa, that’s like bullets whizzing by my head,’ “ Mitchell said. “I thought, ‘If it goes for the brain or the heart, I’m a dead man walking.’ “

Luckily, the odds fell in Mitchell’s favor, relatively speaking, and he found himself with failing kidneys.

“That was the best scenario,” he said, “because if it’s the kidneys, we have something we can do about it.”

What to do about it was dialysis, a time-consuming, recurring outpatient procedure that cleanses the kidneys and allows them to continue functioning.

“It was obvious at the beginning that my kidneys were slowly failing,” Mitchell said. “And I had a very good doctor, and he had me do the fistula operation very early on.”

The fistula operation is a preparatory procedure that beefs up a vein so it will be able to be tapped regularly without failing.

“When you’re dialyzing, you need a big, rough tough vein that can withstand repeated poking,” Mitchell said. “So what they do is they trick a normal vein into behaving like an artery. Arteries beef up under lots of pressure; veins stay wimpy for lack of pressure.”

The operation ties an artery to the vein, so the vein mimics the artery and becomes tough. Mitchell shows a large vein just under the surface on his arm, marked with an incision scar. Placing a finger on it reveals a pulsing, high-pressure rush of blood.

“That’s really strange feeling an arterial beat on the surface,” Mitchell said. “It’s supposed to be down deep where it’s protected.”

Mitchell is thankful his doctor had a sense that he was going to need dialysis.

“He had me do the fistula operation very early on, to my mind.”

Getting prepped for impending dialysis is one thing, but the life-interrupting and expensive realities of regular outpatient treatments are altogether different, especially for a busy professor who is accustomed to leading an active lifestyle.

The help Mitchell needed came in the form of a new at-home hemodialysis machine, created by a company called NxStage. Mitchell’s doctor suggested the product, he said, because he felt his background would give him an advantage in operating it.

“My doctor knew that I was a professor and highly intelligent, and so thought I would be able to handle the machine,” Mitchell said.

“It’s ingenious what they’ve done,” he said of the home equipment.

Mitchell said the machine can be daunting for some but that he has had little trouble with its operation.

“When I call for technical support, the NxStage technicians say they are impressed with my questions because I’m not calling for lack of understanding the instructions,” Mitchell said. “I’m usually calling to ask technical questions about the machine itself.”

The home hemodialysis machine is covered by Mitchell’s insurance, which he suspects is because it’s considerably cheaper for them. But another benefit to the home treatment is that he can do the treatment when he has the time and also can do it more frequently.

“The nice thing about the clinic dialysis is that you don’t have to do anything,” Mitchell said. “They put the needle in and watch the machine. But, they only do it three times a week, as opposed to the five that I do at home.”

Mitchell said the higher frequency allows for less of a roller coaster ride between treatments, explaining the fatigue and other side effects that accompany dialysis.

“And it gives me more control of my schedule,” he said. “Even though the home takes more time, it’s less constraining when you’re trying to work.”

Through his illness and with the advent of the home treatment option, Mitchell said he has come to appreciate things more, and to be better prepared for surprises.

“My wife likes to say, ‘If you’re expecting normal to happen, it won’t,’ “ Mitchell said.