Cancer survivor blessed with life
WORTHINGTON — Darin Rehnelt looks at every day as though it is a gift. He’s generous with his smiles and laughter, quick to share a joke and finds humor in some of the greatest struggles life has dealt him.
It took an almost terminal bout with cancer 16 years ago for him to improve upon what had already been a jovial outlook on life.
Darin will share his message of a positive attitude — even through the darkest hours — as the Nobles County Relay for Life’s 2014 Honorary Chairperson. The Relay is next Friday evening at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington. Rehnelt is scheduled to talk shortly after 7 p.m.
“I was honored and flattered,” said the Brewster man about his selection as honorary chairman. He and his wife, Gretchen, haven’t missed a Relay for Life event in Nobles County since it began 18 years ago.
Two years after that inaugural Relay — in early June 1998 — Darin learned he had cancer.
“I knew there was something wrong inside me,” he said, adding that he was young — he’d just turned 40.
During a trip to Winnipeg, Canada, with his family to attend his youngest son’s speech competition, Darin knew there was a problem. The eight-hour drive turned into a 10-hour ordeal because he had to stop so often to use the restroom.
“My bowel movements weren’t normal,” he shared.
Darin’s first visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of an upset stomach. He was sent home with medications that never worked.
He returned to the clinic days later and a sigmascope procedure was performed on him to see what was causing the problems.
The results of that test put him in a daze.
“The doctor was 100 percent sure I had cancer and he thought it was quite bad,” Darin shared. He was told that while the surgery could be performed locally, he might want to make an appointment in Sioux Falls, S.D., or Rochester.
Darin contacted both, and within four minutes had a phone call from Rochester.
“They had me lined up four days later to see a gastroenterologist on June 9,” he said. “The next day they did a colonoscopy, and I had surgery already on June 12.”
Darin had colorectal cancer, and what was planned to be a 90-minute procedure turned into a five-hour ordeal with three surgeons. They removed his rectum, two feet of his large intestine and 13 lymph nodes. Cancer was found in six of those lymph nodes, but the good news was the colorectal cancer was Stage 3 — the tumor hadn’t yet metastasized.
“They built a J-pouch inside my body,” Darin said, adding that a doctor at the Mayo Clinic had developed the equipment and installed it in just two other patients before him.
“I had over 600 stitches inside my body to rebuild this,” he shared.
After the surgery, Darin spent 13 days in Rochester’s St. Marys Hospital, during which time there were two tornado warnings issued in the community — on the same day.
“I was actually getting around pretty good by then,” he said, adding that he and all of the other patients had to get into the hallway for cover. It was the first time in more than 20 years that patients had to take cover for tornado warnings, he shared.
Darin was cleared to return home to Brewster on June 24 wearing an ostomy bag and scheduled for his first rounds of chemotherapy.
His arrival back home was short-lived, however. Darin had been home a day before he began having extreme pain due to an infection. His son removed the back row of seats from their van, and Darin laid in a fetal position in the back while his wife drove him back to Rochester.
Surgery was performed again on June 30, and the only thing Rehnelt has to say about that day is he had to give up his ticket for a Pearl Jam concert in the Twin Cities. His wife, son and niece were encouraged to go instead.
“We’ve seen them about five times since then, though,” he said with a laugh.
The surgery for infection delayed Darin’s chemotherapy treatments by a month; they started in August. He’d travel daily to Rochester for five days of chemo — his wife, parents and volunteers each taking a day of the week to get him there — and then he’d have three weeks off treatment.
“That’s when everything takes effect,” he said. “The only thing that tasted good was banana popsicles. Everything else tasted like acid. Water even tasted terrible.”
After two months of chemo, doctors wanted him to begin radiation.
Because of Darin’s positive attitude and age, doctors told him they were “going to throw the kitchen sink at me.”
“They don’t do that with everybody,” he said.
Darin had 38 treatments of radiation. Even then, one of his doctors — one he nicknamed Dr. Doom — said there was a 95 percent chance that the cancer would return in two years. The same doctor told Darin’s wife that her husband “wouldn’t last five years.”
Sixteen years later, Darin continues to prove Dr. Doom wrong.
He wrapped up his chemotherapy treatments by February 1999 and began a regimen of checkups, including a full body CAT scan every three months and a colonoscopy every four months.
“I’m a master at colonoscopies,” he said with a grin. Now, he undergoes the procedure every three to five years.
While doctors recommend patients begin getting a colonoscopy at age 50, Darin’s advice is not to wait until then. He recommends they start at age 40. Still, he realized something was wrong even before he had his first colonoscopy.
“If he had waited another week (to go in), he could have been dead,” said Gretchen. “By the time you get symptoms, it’s almost too late.”
Darin said at the time of his diagnosis, he wanted to live long enough to see his oldest son, Nathan, graduate from high school, and his other son, Derek, get confirmed.
“Now, I want to see my granddaughters graduate,” he said. “Sixteen years — that’s a great addition. I saw both my boys grow into men, and one’s a super dad. I have a daughter (Jennifer) I never had before and two beautiful granddaughters (Olivia and Emma).
“I’m blessed — and there’s my soulmate,” he said with a nod to his wife.
“You get a different look on life,” said Gretchen of a cancer diagnosis.
“I think I’m a better person, really,” added Darin. “My faith is better, too — but I’m not a saint!”
Doctors finally deemed him cancer-free about six years ago. Throughout his cancer journey, Darin continued to work at JBS — at the time of his diagnosis, Swift -— about five hours a day. In 2001 he became a union representative for UFCW Local 1161, and since 2005 has worked in the union office full-time.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.