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Milwaukee Executive Battling Cancer, Rich Tennessen, Chooses Positivity And Shares Lessons Learned

Milwaukee Executive Battling Cancer, Rich Tennessen, Chooses Positivity And Shares Lessons Learned

While working at home after getting blood work done the week after Thanksgiving, Rich was napping on his basement floor due to fatigue at 4:30…

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While working at home after getting blood work done the week after Thanksgiving, Rich was napping on his basement floor due to fatigue at 4:30 PM. Forty-five minutes later, he woke up to his phone going off– it was his doctor, “You need to go to the hospital right now.” The next day after getting transfusions, Rich was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He then heard the word “cancer.”

Following our episode about Dry January (listen to the episode here→ http://bit.ly/3pnvq3Z), my friend, Rich Tennessen, reached out to me about how he appreciated my openness in sharing my love-hate story with alcohol. He let me know that this year he was participating in “Dry January,” but not by choice, and he let me know about his recent diagnosis. He was battling cancer and wanted to come on the podcast to share his story while also putting out a PSA to anyone who might be experiencing symptoms to get checked ASAP!

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I’m excited about this episode. We have Rich Tennessen, the President of EUA. Rich, welcome.

Thanks, Richie.

For those of you who don’t know. Rich is very involved in the community’s past share of the Zoological Society. He is the President of the third-best golf club in the Milwaukee area, Blue Mound Golf & Country Club. I dock to you to third-best because the numbers do have to put up with Big Mike or else you might be up there a little higher.

That’s the criteria, I can understand.

You reached out after I published that article opening up about my love and hate relationship with alcohol and how I had very positive early experiences in high school and college. A lot of people can relate to that, and it serves as a crutch throughout their lives. That told some funny stories but it was very relatable and raw. We were golfing with Big Mike at Blue Mound, and you were having a couple of drinks. I was like, “Don’t drink during the week,” which is difficult on the golf course because I love drinking on the golf course. It led to us having a conversation about some of the anxiety issues I had and battling. You opened up and shared a similar story and experience that you had when you were around my age. It was cool. I appreciated that conversation.

I appreciate how open you were, and then I read your blog on that. That’s what brought us hereafter those conversations. Sharing and seeing how people responded to what you shared and how talking about it helped others. That’s the whole pier.

It was cool to know from you because I have known who you were, and I looked up to you as a business leader in the community but it wasn’t what I was expecting. The more you open up, the more people reached out with stories, and you realize everyone is going through their own version of that. It was cool talking to you about those issues.

When you reached out, although you have never been a heavy drinker, you were doing Dry January 2022 but not by choice. In early December 2021, you were diagnosed with multiple myelomas. It’s a rare disease. There are less than 200,000 cases per year in the US. It damages the bones, immune system, kidneys, and red blood cells. You had your fifth week of chemo treatment, and you are battling through it.

None of us know whether we have cancer or not and how much time we have on the Earth, so we should focus on what's important. Click To Tweet

I wanted to share this story for a few reasons, and they sound similar. There’s the skin cancer there that you can get, which is myeloma. It is a form of blood cancer. One of the reasons why I want to share this story is we have a tendency, everybody, especially men. You get a symptom and put things off. Cancer is something that can disguise itself in a lot of different forms. I first noticed some things where I was laboring a little bit more like walking up a hill, and equated it to, “I really haven’t exercised since the end of 2021.”

There are always reasons. You can justify what happened. We get through the summer, a little more of that but you don’t think too much of it. It’s probably overdue for a physical but I can put it off a little bit. My wife and I went out. A client invited us out to Montana to fly fish in early October 2021. We went out, extended our trip, and did some hiking. We were 7,000 feet up. I’m fine on the flats, climb the hill in 10 yards, and I’m grabbing a tree. I could say that it’s the elevation but my wife is going fine.

She’s way ahead of me, waiting up for me around every turn. I knew something was up but still from a hard-headed standpoint, you are thinking, “I knew I had my heart checked earlier, and everything was great.” I wasn’t concerned about my heart thinking, “Is this something with maybe a long-term carrier COVID that’s affecting the respiratory system. I should call the doctor.” We get back home. We’ve got to drive down to Florida in November 2021. Excuses to put things off. Finally, a friend of mine, who’s my doctor, a Blue Mound member, Terry Hughes. I reached out to him and explained what was going on.

He said, “We will get you in right after Thanksgiving because I was out somewhere else.” I put it off again. On December 4, 2021, I got a scheduled physical. He said, “The Monday after Thanksgiving on November 30, 2021, I want you to go get all this blood work because something is not right.” I went first thing in the morning, got the blood work, went back home, and worked from home remotely, probably about 4:30. I would also get in fatigued. The thing that tripped it, even after those other trips, was when I got back from Florida, I would walk up a flight of stairs, and I would be winded. Clearly, something is off.

Did you have COVID?

No.

This isn’t a lingering issue.

I ended up testing. I have never had COVID. I don’t have the antibodies. I did my blood work that day. I crashed. At 4:00, I slept on the basement floor. I wake up to my phone going off, and I look. It’s Terry, my doctor, and it’s like 5:15. I see that I had gotten a text from him half an hour earlier saying, “Call me stat.” He calls me. I pick up. He’s like, “Rich, you got to go to the hospital now.” I said, “What?” He said, “One of the tests came back, and your hemoglobin is at 4.6. For an adult male, it should be between 14 and 17.” It’s your body’s ability to carry oxygen and a cell count issue.

GGP 144 | Battle Against Cancer
Battle Against Cancer: We have a tendency, especially men, to put things off. Cancer is something that can disguise itself in a lot of different forms.

 

For instance, if your hemoglobin now is 15, if you drop tomorrow to 4.6, you would be dead. This had occurred over a long time, and my body kept adjusting. It was an extremely low score. I’m alarmed, like, “What does that mean? There’s no bleeding.” You look for an internal organ. That’s something where you are losing blood.

I went upstairs, and my wife was like five minutes away from dinner being done. I’m like, “I’m supposed to go to the hospital now.” She’s like, “Can we have dinner first?” I’m like, “If I’m going to be there, we probably should eat.” We ate dinner. She had everything set up. I went to the emergency room. I got transfusions right away. The next morning I woke up, and my score went up to 6.7. I walked the halls and the steps. I felt a lot better but still didn’t know what was causing it. Later that day, an oncologist came in, and they were doing blood draws and different tasks. He said, “I looked at your blood under the microscope, and I’m 90% plus percent sure you’ve got multiple myeloma.”

I had never heard that before and he said, “Cancer.” I’m like, “I wasn’t expecting that diagnosis.” They kept me and did a bone marrow biopsy to confirm. I ended up going back out for a PET scan. I’m home on Thursday, and immediately, I didn’t want to dive down the rabbit hole of doing all the internet research because there are a lot of different places that can go but I did do research on the experts. The one thing I would mention, and this goes to how blessed we are in this area of having Froedtert & the Medical College, Ascension Advocate Aurora, and ProHealth UWU. We’ve got an incredible healthcare system for general health.

We have an incredible system of a specialist in each of those organizations. It happens that Froedtert & the Medical College, cancer is their a major specialty and specifically blood cancer. They are the international repository, so people from around the world send in what they find, and they are at the forefront of what’s happening in this area. I researched and was able to connect with Dr. Harry, who’s considered one of the top eight multiplied myeloma oncologists in the world 5 miles from my house.

I was able to get an appointment scheduled that following Monday, started chemo that Wednesday, and was on the path to treatment. Now I’m almost halfway through chemo. I have been tolerating it well. The numbers are good. During the process, he described, “The first phase is chemo. In the second phase, there are three options a bone marrow transplant, stem cell immunotherapy or there’s a clinical trial on what is going to be and has become a cutting-edge, game-changer for cancer. That’s called CAR T cell therapy, where your T cells are what fight your cancer cells.

When cancer takes over your T cells, you can’t do that anymore. They will harvest your T cells, send them off to be genetically modified, and they come back as cancer destroyers. It’s early on. There have been some that have been approved by the FDA for leukemia. We are in clinical trials on the myeloma end but there was a twist. He said, “I think you are a higher risk. So far, most of the work in the last few years has been for people that have had multiple relapses that qualify for this trial. Now it’s opening up to people that are at high risk.”

My wife and I go home because we don’t know yet where I’m at because they are still doing their studies. He said, “It’s a double-edged sword. You don’t want to be high risk but if this therapy is good, if you can qualify, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” We came back at the next meeting and he said, “You are in the high-risk category because of X, Y, and Z. You would qualify for this study. Here’s the information.” I’m meeting with him again, that would take place in April 2022 if that goes ahead, and then you go into maintenance mode if all goes well.

What was it like when you first received that news mentally? Were you scared for your life? You realize you have cancer, and as you were saying, you didn’t want to go down the WebMD or the Google route because that’s going to give you a shitload of anxiety probably. What has it been like?

Who you surround yourself with makes a huge difference because you are influenced by the environment and the people you choose to be with. Click To Tweet

He was reassuring in that he said, “Don’t quit your job. Don’t sail the world. It’s not curable but you can live with depending upon how this treatment goes.” That gave my confidence a boost, plus although my kids wouldn’t call me more on the younger, healthy side because when you look at nobody is the average and nobody is the mean. We are all different in terms of how we handle these things. I made a decision to stay positive through it all. Everybody goes through it differently. I wasn’t given, “You’ve got two months to live,” or anything like that. I was given a good prognosis. It seems odd to say but I felt relief that I’d lived a good life.

I certainly hope that I can live a long life but to have this time, if I would compare myself to somebody who got their life taken away in an instant, in a car accident or something like that, I’ve got time. I have been able to maintain a positive attitude. Those are three factors that are critical no matter what you are battling. You’ve got to have a good care team and I’ve got a phenomenal care team, family, friends, a great support network of people that are positive, and then your own attitude. All those things factor into how I’m going to get through this.

You said it’s not curable. Is this something people can live with until they are 90 or either at? How does this go?

It depends in terms of what are the mutated cells and how quickly they can it come back. One of the exciting things about CAR T cell therapy is the ability to keep it at bay longer because somebody can go through a bone marrow transplant, and there are complications that can occur right away on that. Also, it takes five years before you are considered in remission but there’s always a chance that things can come back. You have to have this maintenance check-in afterward and try to keep it in check but there’s no guarantee that it won’t come back.

What has it been like for you? You are a dad, a family guy, very involved in the community, and the President of a relatively large company. How’s everyone taking it around you?

I would say this and others that have gone through similar things, it’s tougher on others. It was tougher on my wife. It’s easier to go through it than to be the loved one that’s impacted. The toughest thing was calling the kids because you don’t know the reaction and how they are going to take it. I was able to explain everything with a positive outlook and share everything. Transparency is critical in sharing the information with them. It was an easy decision. I’ve got the EUA work-family. We do weekly communications about what’s happening in the firm because most of us are still remote. We’ve got people in the offices but it’s a mix.

I shared the exact story of how things happened, where things were at, and the plan to get through this. I’m still engaged. I’m still working remotely after a little bit of shutdown in April 2021. I said, “Be careful because now I’m probably going to be more involved with this.” If there was a time to go through something like this with most people remote, this has been very easy in that regard. The support, the feedback, and the appreciation you get from people by being open and honest, that’s how we run our firm was great.

That also was shared with clients that I work with, many of whom have become good friends over the years. With the outpouring of support from people and appreciation of the updates, I will give a lot of people a text update, Wednesday is my chemo day. I will do a song of the week, a little message, and keep people updated. That has been fun. It has been a journey.

GGP 144 | Battle Against Cancer
Battle Against Cancer: If you have things that don’t seem right, get them checked out sooner.

 

It has been a fast journey. It’s the beginning of December 2021.

My first month of chemo treatment was December 7, 2021.

I remember you started feeling the effects in October 2021 but anyone would have mistaken that for COVID. When I had COVID, I had lingering breath issues, being out of shape or whatever that might have been. How has this changed your perspective on life?

It’s an almost instant appreciation for everything, slow down and more patience. None of us know, whether you have cancer or not, how much time we have on the Earth. This brings a little bit more finality that, “It may be sooner rather than later or maybe later.” It’s a little more hard-hitting to really focus on what’s important in terms of family, friends, and certainly, work has been very important in terms of staying engaged because the last thing you want to do is just sit around and think about it. Doing positive things, whether it affects the community, your business or your relationships, takes on a different and more impactful meaning. It’s interesting. It shouldn’t take something like this to do that.

That’s the thing. A lot of times, it does, though. I’m even thinking of myself during this conversation and how stressed I can get if things are going wrong at work. If you are trying to get a company to the next level, there are many stressful things or I play like shit in a golf tournament. I’m all pissed off at myself, and here you are, battling cancer. That stuff does not matter in the big scheme of things. You seem a relatively calm level headed guy, to begin with, at least for me, knowing you. Has your day-to-day outlook changed? Are there overarching pieces of advice that you would give to the other people on how they go about their daily lives?

It’s interesting in that regard. The other good news about this type of cancer is it’s not hereditary. It’s not being passed on to my kids. It’s either from a natural occurrence in the body or different things that have impacted the environmentally that would cause this. That was good. I am the youngest of eleven kids. I had a brother that passed away from complications of colon cancer, so I started getting tested at 40 but it’s amazing how many people still don’t do preventative testing. Part of this, as we talked, was a public service announcement. If you have things that don’t seem right, get them checked out sooner. I could address this six months earlier.

You brought this up earlier. Especially, as men, and you brought this up earlier, you are taught to sack up, play through the pain and fight through it. That’s how a lot of us are wired. Going to a doctor is the last thing I personally want to do. I want to stay as far away from that as possible but that’s a good public service announcement.

Those symptoms are masked to say, “I must have strained the muscle or I must have done this.” You can make excuses all day long. If you do go to the doctor, be a strong advocate because there may be some doctors that say, “You are having this. Take some Prednisone, do this or do that.” For those who can do it and can afford a more robust annual workup for physical and blood work, keep ahead of it. They can prevent so much.

What you feed your mind consciously and subconsciously makes a big impact on how you view the world. Click To Tweet

Is there anything else that you want to say or leave to people that you’ve learned through this or that you want to get out there?

For everybody, if you are facing something like this, whether it’s anxiety, cancer or whatever you may be going through, it’s an individual journey. Some people may want to reach out to a lot of people and learn different things. I had a sister who had breast cancer, and she’s a survivor. She called and said, “I know some people that have this. Do you want to reach out and talk to this person?”

It was interesting because my initial reaction was, “I don’t because while I think there may be some things that are helpful, I don’t know how that person dealt with it. I’ve got a clear path on how I’m choosing to deal with it.” If somebody is going to be, “This was terrible. My friends wouldn’t talk to me,” I don’t want to hear any of that. I’m truly staying down the positive path and a big believer that’s going to help. Everybody, it’s their own journey, and everybody is going to be different.

What are you doing to stay positive? In the beginning, you said you are consciously making a choice to be positive. The mindset in life is so important. You are obviously going through a difficult situation now. Are there things you do on a daily basis?

There are a couple of different things. First of all, it’s how you are wired individually. I’m a big believer that you can surround yourself with people that give energy or take energy. I only want to be around positive people. I don’t want to have to develop a friendship with somebody who’s complaining all the time or, “Whoa is me.” Who you surround yourself with makes a huge difference because you are influenced by your environment and the people you choose to be with.

Your friends, family, and work.

I’m blessed with great people at EUA, a great family, and support networks. That, first and foremost, helps tremendously. It’s a matter of how I choose to greet each day. It’s not to say it won’t happen along this journey but I haven’t been brought down into negative thoughts and things like that. It may happen in the future but the other thing that I have done over the years is I will listen to some subliminal tapes that I have on attitude, health and wellness, and achievements. I’m a big believer that what you feed your mind consciously and subconsciously makes a big impact on how you view the world.

In the beginning, you said you have been lucky and lived a good life up to this point. What are you most proud of?

GGP 144 | Battle Against Cancer
Battle Against Cancer: For those who can do it and can afford a more robust annual workup for physical and blood work, keep ahead of it. They can prevent so much.

 

Certainly, it starts with family. I’ve got a wonderful wife of many years. We have three beautiful kids. Julia is 25. Nicholas, who’s going to be graduating from Madison, 22, and then Natalie, our youngest. My wife is out in New York. She’s going to Fordham Lincoln Center for global business. She did remote learning. I have a great family, getting involved in the community and trying to make a difference in everything we do, whether it’s through our work and being able to create spaces for people to be their best or reaching out and helping those in need in the community. Those are the important things. What do you leave? What’s your mark on this world, and how do you make an impact on others?

Thank you so much for coming on. I’m grateful you came on. I’m inspired talking to you. I appreciate everything you do for the community. You will definitely be in my thoughts and prayers as you continue this journey. In any way I can help out, I’m here for you.

I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Thanks so much for tuning into this episode. I feel lucky to have this platform, The GoGedders show, and all you guys that read to it. I feel lucky to put out all the episodes but there are some that come out and they are on a different level. I’m grateful that Rich gave me the opportunity to put this story out, come in, and have an open, transparent conversation.

Everyone should have got some great takeaways out of that, no matter where you are at in life or what you are struggling with, the way that he’s taken this news that is new, that just happened out of nowhere and how he’s intent on approaching each day with positivity and staying strong through this. I hope everyone can apply that to their lives. Thanks to Rich for coming on. Thank you guys for all your support with this show. I genuinely appreciate it. 

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