Cancer walker, doctor, patient.
Gordon Klatt has been a practicing oncologist in Tacoma for 35 years, and for the first time he can remember, he took three weeks off this summer and stayed home.
Id sit and look at the water in Gig Harbor, think of my three kids, think more about my five grandkids and what Id like to tell them, Klatt said. You look back at your life and wonder if there are things you havent shared with them yet.
Now 69, Klatt has much to share, some of them legacies most folks only wish they could pass along to their families.
An Army surgeon for three years, he went back to school after the service and became a colorectal specialist and went into practice. In 1985, as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, he single-handedly changed the way that agency is funded.
I decided to try to raise awareness and money by running and walking around a track at the University of Puget Sound for 24 hours, Klatt said. People could make a contribution and walk or run with me.
My first goal was to finish. For the first 18 hours, I ran one lap, walked one lap. The last six hours I walked I couldnt get my legs high enough to run. My father, Roy, was a big walker at the time and was in his late 60s. He walked 25 miles with me.
The result was called Relay For Life. Klatts first 24-hour marathon covered 83 miles and raised $27,000 to fight cancer.
Today, Relay for Life is held in more than 5,000 communities across the country. Since 85, only the American Red Cross has raised more money for charitable health organizations.
My grandchildren will see a day when there is no cancer, Klatt predicted three years ago.
Klatt wont. In March, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and there were complications.
Id had symptoms for about six weeks, Klatt said. Id go out to eat and eat about a tenth of the meal. I was belching a lot, and those are two signs of gastric cancer. I got myself up to the Seattle Cancer Center, and they found a tumor in my small bowel, too.
My response was the reaction everyone has, and I was cognizant of it, he said.
First, denial. Then depression although it didnt last long because Im not a person who is down much then determination to fight. I think I went through them a little more quickly because I knew them so well.
His physicians set up a program Klatt was familiar with, one hed prescribed for his patients over the decades.
The plan was three cycles of chemotherapy, the surgery, then three more cycles of chemotherapy. Im in the fifth cycle now, Klatt said. They took out the entire stomach.
Thats when he took his three weeks off, on doctors orders.
One might suppose Klatt, knowing all he knows about cancer, would have despaired.
One would be wrong.
Ive always told my patients cancer is one of the most curable diseases in the world, he said. One in three people will get cancer, and Im not naive. Now Im one of them. When I started practicing in 1968, 30 percent of cancers were cured. Today, that rate is 65 percent.
I have tremendous support from my wife, Lou, my family, my staff, people from the Relay for Life. Theyd have Relays around the world and sign these giant cards for me. Theyd send them to me, Id read them hundreds of names from people I didnt know.
The professional irony is not lost on Klatt.
I can think of five surgeons, five Tacoma oncologists, who got cancer. Four died, one is a survivor, he said. Theres no explanation.
Since the diagnosis, he has dropped from 230 pounds to 175.
Thats the same weight I was when I ran the first Relay for Life, he said.
It helps to know, medically, whats been done and what I have to do. I have to eat differently. Theres a discipline to eating and, frankly, it takes the fun out of it, Klatt said. I eat a lot of small meals during the day, I cant eat much at any one time.
Spicy foods? Not even in small amounts. He paid the price for eating a friends chili verde.
But some old standards havent lost their appeal.
Apples taste awfully good to me, he said.
His wife also is his office manager, and she keeps him working in large part because his patients inspire him. Theres a lot Klatt has left to do.
Id like to see Europe again, especially Germany. When I was a boy, my mother would play the concertina a lot of German folk songs, and Id play the accordion with her.
I still play, but the accordion weighs 40 pounds, and I have to be careful lifting it. Music always soothes me. I played in a polka band once.
I can still play a good polka.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638