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He almost had to give up his passion for water skiing, but a new surgery saved him from cancer

Beloved shop teacher crosses finish line of career

Kelly Bolender, an engineering design teacher at Kopachuck Middle School, is retiring after 35 years in education. On his last day, he presided over his final CO2 car derby, a popular class project where students engineer and build small race cars
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Kelly Bolender, an engineering design teacher at Kopachuck Middle School, is retiring after 35 years in education. On his last day, he presided over his final CO2 car derby, a popular class project where students engineer and build small race cars

After surviving colon cancer in 1996, Kelly Bolender was sure he was back to peak health.

For 20 years, the Gig Harbor man raised his family, enjoyed living on the peninsula and became a local water ski champion.

A routine doctor’s visit changed all that last year when Bolender was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the likeliest type of cancer in men over 40.

“That hit pretty hard,” he said. “It was all pretty overwhelming.”

A second fight against cancer wasn’t something Bolender wanted to face, but a new type of robotic surgery to remove cancerous tumors from the prostate gave him hope.

“Robotic surgery has revolutionized our expectations,” said Dr. Dan Willis, a urologist with St. Joseph Medical Center who offered to perform the surgery.

The operation is tricky because the area around the prostate hosts many necessary organs, Willis said.

“We are trying to remove the prostate while keeping the urinary tract intact,” he said. “Bolender was a gem of a patient though.”

“I felt like I was family with Dr. Willis,” Bolender said.

Bolender has a family history of cancer. His father and grandmother contracted cancer in their 40s. Bolender was 40 when was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He beat the disease and was able to continue teaching shop, woodworking and other technical classes at Kopachuck Middle School. He retired in 2017 after 30 years of teaching.

Along the way he also found a passion for water skiing.

“I mostly ski at Rainier Lake in Yelm, where we have property,” Bolender said. “Or Ski Park Lake, in Orting. Each lake has a great group of people to ski with. The water ski community is a fantastic group of people.”

Bolender has competed in the American Water Ski Association’s Western Regional Championships, which draws skiers from 13 states. He received a couple of third-place finishes in the overall category, which includes slalom, trick and jumping.

“I have always enjoyed competition where you are trying to beat your previous best scores, or times,” Bolender said. “In skiing, for me, I’m really just competing against my previous best self. I’m just enjoying the process of striving to improve.”

Bolender’s life and hobby took a hit in April 2017 when his wife decided it was time the couple saw a doctor. Their last regular check-up had been two years earlier, before their family doctor retired.

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Bolender had his prostate checked and a biopsy showed he was positive for prostate cancer. The disease is the second leading deadly cancer, behind lung cancer, Wllis said. One in nine men will be diagnosed with it and one in 41 will die from it, he said.

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“Luckily, if caught early, prostate cancer is treatable,” Willis said. “Many times people die with prostate cancer, not from it.”

Each situation involving cancer is different, which is why regular exams and early detection offer the best shots at survival, he said.

“I’d encourage men who are at risk for prostate cancer or have any symptoms to be screened,” Bolender said. “They will either have the peace of mind knowing their clear of cancer, or the opportunity to address it early.”

Despite the risks of surgery, Bolender opted for an operation. He worried he would not be able to compete again on the water.

“I worried about being incontinent,” he said. “I worried it would hurt my relationship with my wife, and would bring me a lesser quality of life.”

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Braden Anderson, 13, works with teacher Kelly Bolender to make his sure his carbon dioxide-powered race car was within the weight allowance to compete in a derby. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com


After the operation Bolender took part in therapy and continual checkups with Willis. He’s now cancer free, he said.

“If it comes to surgery, I can say that I would absolutely do it all over again the same way, no regrets,” he said. “Treatment has advanced a significant amount in recent years, it’s improving all the time.”

As for his hobby, Bolender recently took eighth place at the 76th Goode Water Ski National Championships in Kansas.

“Skiing helps me, in that if I’m making gains, I feel like I must be beating the cancer,” Bolender said. “It’s like cancer just washes away in the water.”

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie
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