SIOUX CENTER—Cancer changes everything. That’s been true for Rob Van Riessen, who’s been fighting cancer again since late 2017.
The 64-year-old Sioux Center native’s first confrontation with cancer came in 2008. He always had a birthmark on the right side of his chest, but it never gave him any problems. Then, at a golf game for a class reunion in 2008, he noticed it had started weeping.
He went to the doctor’s office to have it checked out. The doctor removed it and sent samples on to have it checked out, just in case.
As it turned out, it was a case of melanoma or skin cancer.
In a couple days, he was brought up to Sioux City to have more of the area removed. More scans were done to see if the cancerous spot had impacted any other parts of his body, and they performed surgery to remove the lymph nodes under his armpit.
That seemed to do the trick, as the cancer couldn’t be detected anywhere else in his body in any of the follow up blood tests and scans.
Life went on, and Van Riessen stayed busy with work at Northside Body Shop, the automotive body shop in Sioux Center started by his father and Herb DeVos back in 1955. It’s where he’s worked since his high school days.
Starting in October 2017, some things seemed off to him. He thought his speech was becoming slightly slurred, and he thought something was wrong with his eyesight. It was the slurring that worried him.
He shared his concerns with family and told them to pay attention to his speech, should it deteriorate further. They initially didn’t notice anything, however, but Van Riessen still felt something wasn’t right.
Then, Monday evening Nov. 6, 2017, his son, Bret, who also works at Northside Body Shop, noticed his father’s speech was becoming increasingly slurred.
“I thought, geez, am I having a heart attack or stroke?” Van Riessen said.
He had scans done at Sioux Center Health, which showed a dark mass on the side of his brain. He was then rushed to Sioux Falls, SD, where more tests were done. Spots in a lung were also detected.
The next morning, the doctor came into his room to deliver the news that Van Riessen likely had cancer, which was possibly linked to the melanoma he had back in 2008.
“Why it decided to come back again in 2017, I have no idea,” Van Riessen said.
Further testing confirmed it.
The spots on his brain were a major concern for the medical staff, but as a neurosurgeon told him, this case was too tricky to remove the spots on his brains by surgical methods.
“He said, ‘If I think I can get it out or do something, I’ll do that. But I won’t,’” Van Riessen said. “He says it’d be like me trying to take grapes out of pudding without disturbing the pudding. His next words were ‘I can’t do anything for you.’ That resonates. This was in November. ‘Can’t do anything for you.’ What does that mean? The mind usually goes more negative. The holidays are coming up in about six weeks. How much time do I have?”
Van Riessen and his family members did share tears as they faced those grim words.
But as the medical team told him, there were other ways of treating him beyond surgical extraction. Tools and techniques such as gamma knife radio surgery could be used to attack those brain spots and follow-up methods to keep the spots from growing again.
In total, he had 15 radiation treatments on his brain.
“It didn’t take more than two or three minutes each time, and away you went. By the end of it, you could feel the affects of it. They put a break on that for a while, and we started Keytruda in January,” Van Riessen said.
Keytruda is a drug used in cancer immunotherapy, and he’s been on it since January 2018. He still receives infusions of it once every three weeks.
The results have been encouraging. The spots in his lung have drastically shrunk and the spots in his brain have stopped growing.
“I’m feeling good, but it is the new norm,” Van Riessen said. Things aren’t quite like they were before the diagnosis, “but it’s a heck of a lot better than what it could be or could have been.”
He gave kudos to his son and employees for their work throughout all the treatments and recovery. He also expressed gratitude for the support of his wife through it all.
Van Riessen is also grateful for the support he’s found in the community. There have been aspects of life in Sioux Center that he hasn’t liked in the past and have caused frustrations, but he’s seen another side to the town.
“You don’t realize how lucky we are until you have something like I have,” Van Riessen said. “It’s amazing the support, the prayers that come. People who were acquaintances years ago were calling me.”
It’s a community that prays, he said, “and it gets me choked up when I see that and feel that. I think that’s a big part of the healing that’s happening.”
And there’s a tractor ride being organized by Harold Van Essen and Chris Garris to support and fundraise for Van Riessen.
That’s being planned for Saturday, July 20, starting with an 8 a.m. check-in at Carmel Reformed Church, with stops at Middleburg Free Grace Reformed Church and Maurice Reformed Church. One of the highlighted stops along the way will be Lyle Eason’s family farm to view his collection of Oliver and Hart-Parr tractors and hit and miss motors.
Those wanting to donate can write checks to Free Grace Reformed Church with “Rob Van Riessen” written in the memo line.
Those with additional questions about the tractor ride can contact Van Essen at 712-541-8375 or Garris at 712-441-1793.