Living with cancer in the country: Many Wyoming residents must leave home to seek the care they need
Author: Katie King
Bob Overton is all too familiar with the 140-mile stretch of land between Thermopolis and Casper.
He and his wife, Sherry, made the two-hour trip in their white pickup dozens of times while Bob was undergoing treatment for lymphoma in 2015. Even with the help of Alan Jackson and Martina McBride’s music, the hours still lagged, with nothing to stare at except endless grassy plains.
“That trip is pretty monotonous, and it doesn’t get any better with time,” he recalled.
But the couple didn’t have a choice. Their hometown of Thermopolis, population 3,009, doesn’t offer the care Bob needed.
And the Overtons aren’t alone.
As the least populated state in the country, Wyoming appeals to those in search of space and wilderness. But the peace and quiet comes with drawbacks: Services that urban residents may take for granted, like advanced medical care, aren’t readily available for thousands of people living in small towns and rural areas.
Many of those battling cancer in Wyoming subsequently end up seeking treatment in Casper, according to Rocky Mountain Oncology’s Patient Navigator Sam Carrick. She said the center is the only medical facility in the state that offers radiation, chemotherapy and Positron emission tomography scans.
Other areas may offer one or two of those services, but many prefer the convenience of a one-stop shop, she said.
About 15 percent of their patients are from out-of-town, added Carrick, who is responsible for guiding all patients through the treatment process. She said it’s often devastating for people to learn that they can’t get the care they need at home.
“First you are hit over the head with a diagnosis that you didn’t want, and then you can’t get treatment at home, so you have to travel and be away from your family members or pets,” she said.
Some patients drive back-and-forth, but temporarily relocating often becomes necessary during the more intensive treatment phases.
And that was the case with Bob. The 75-year-old initially remained in Thermopolis, only traveling to Casper for intermittent doses of chemotherapy. But he said that wasn’t possible while he was undergoing radiation, which he needed daily for 30 days.
Sherry remembers breaking down into tears when she realized they had to leave home. Already faced with the possibly of losing her husband, not to mention mounting medical bills, the thought of relocating for a month was overwhelming.
“That was just more than I could handle … I just thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’” she said.
Battling cancer is difficult for anyone, but those living far away from treatment centers need extra help, said Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care treasurer Kara Frizell. Finding the money for gas and hotel accommodations can quickly become a serious problem.
“It’s not something you can just come up with,” she explained.
Frizell said the Casper-based charity annually spends between $20,000 and $30,000 assisting patients with necessary travel expenses. The nonprofit also oversees a network of volunteers, called Angels, who help out-of-towners feel at home by delivering meals or dropping off gift baskets.
Robert Rasmussen also lives in Rawlins, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to grow attached to the town. He moved from Tuscon, Arizona, in search of peace and quiet. But about a year after moving, he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer last fall. It quickly became apparent that traveling back and forth to Casper for treatment wasn’t a safe option.
Sitting in his bed in January at the Shepherd of the Valley Healthcare Community — where he’s recovering from surgery — the emaciated 50-year-old removed his oxygen mask and explained that intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments left him far too nauseous and exhausted to drive.
Rasmussen temporarily relocated to Casper in October and brought along his dog, Piggy. The Australian Shepherd is family, and he couldn’t bear to be without her.
“She’s the only thing that keeps me together,” he explained.
Although Rasmussen was worried hotels wouldn’t allow animals, Carrick arranged for both patient and pet to stay at the Sleep Inn in Evansville. The patient navigator also connected him with the cancer foundation to help with the bill.
The hotel staff has since fallen in love with Piggy, according to general manager Carmen Bartow. Employees walk her each day, sneak her treats from the breakfast buffet and even take her to visit her dad.
“She’s our mascot,” said Bartow.
The manager said the inn annually receives about 15 guests who are in town for cancer treatments, likely because of their close proximity to the oncology center. The hotel offers discounted rates for its sick visitors and employees try to help them out in any way possible.
“If we can’t help one another out then there is something wrong with us,” she said.
Rasmussen greatly appreciates everyone who made it possible for Piggy to stay in Casper.
His condition is serious, and distracting himself from the possibly of death isn’t easy, he explained. Surrounded by feeding tubes and beeping monitors, it’s impossible to forget his situation.
“I try to read or watch TV or just focus on something different, but when I’m just sitting here by myself, it’s hard,” he said.
But Rasmussen said he can manage with Piggy by his side for support.
Although his former home in Tuscon was closer to advanced medical care, Rassmussen said he prefers living in small towns because its safer and more peaceful.
“I don’t have any regrets [about moving],“ he said. “City life isn’t for everybody.”