When it seemed likely that Durangoan Tom Riesing had pancreatic cancer in 2013, one of his doctors apologized profusely to his wife, Mindy Iris.
“He was basically shutting the door on any hope,” she said.
At the time, Iris thought to herself, “You don’t know who Tom is,” she said.
Only 26 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive a year, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Of all the major cancers, pancreatic has the highest mortality rate. But Riesing, 80, has not only survived four years after his diagnosis, he has thrived, his friend Jamie Matthews said.
Riesing was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer in December 2013. Since then, he has sought the most effective blend of allopathic and naturopathic treatments, traveling to Europe for testing and Canada for hyperthermia treatments. He has also focused on having a healthy diet, taking supplements and bolstering his immune system, which is weakened during cancer treatments.
His goal is to fight the cancer until there is no evidence of disease, he said.
Riesing attributes his tenacity to seek treatment to his natural curiosity and somewhat irreverent attitude toward authority.
“Each person, will, of course, vouch for whatever they are comfortable with. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something else,” he said.
Riesing and Iris have made decisions about his cancer treatment as a team and have asked doctors about what treatments they would recommend to their own family members.
Iris describes the cancer as a dark cloud of stress that comes in and out of their lives. It first entered a year after the couple was first introduced to each other.
A mutual acquaintance introduced them through email and they connected even before they met face-to-face, Iris said.
“Tom’s a unique sort of man; he is very open, he is a great communicator,” she said.
They spent the year before his diagnosis traveling, going to music festivals and dancing, she said.
She was interested in him in part because he has re-created himself several times. He earned a doctorate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at Harvard Business School before working for banks on Wall Street.
After he moved to Durango in the late 1990s, he founded the Oakhaven Permaculture Center in Hesperus, which focuses on agriculture education. After the sale of the center, he started to study energy medicine, an alternative type of medicine focused on ensuring the energy in the body is in balance.
“I’ve never let myself not do something because I was too old, because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Riesing said.
After his diagnosis, Iris said she felt depressed and hopeless. But Riesing did not go through the fear and panic many cancer patients experience, she said.
He discovered he had pancreatic cancer much earlier than many others, because the tumor closed his common bile duct, preventing digestive fluid from being released, he said.
“I turned yellow, so I knew that something was wrong,” he said.
He had the tumor removed in February 2014 at the University of Southern California and was released within five days. The minimum stay is usually six, he said.
“Within the first week I was out hiking, resuming my life,” he said.
He attributes his quick recovery to his energy medicine practice and treatments.
He knows it works because he can feel the difference it makes, but he acknowledges many people doubt the practice.
“Some people can’t deal with it because our society is built around concrete things, and energies are a subtle thing,” he said. “The only way of knowing that it’s working is that you do things because you’re feeling bad and suddenly you feel better.”
After his surgery, Riesing was treated with chemotherapy, but he sought an oncologist who would use a combination of the chemotherapy drugs gemcitabine and Abraxane, because his research showed the combination increased his chances for survival and reduced the chances the cancer cells would spread.
When he started the chemotherapy, Riesing also started to work with Stacy Mulkey, a naturopathic doctor at Namaste Health Center in Durango, who has guided his decisions.
After the chemotherapy, he went into remission for about three years, although he knew he had tumor cells circulating in his blood after having medical tests done in Switzerland.
About a year ago, doctors discovered three tumors on Riesing’s lungs. To treat them, he has undergone a combination of chemotherapy, hyperthermia treatments and high-dose vitamin C infusions – and he has responded well to all of them.
In February, Riesing started 12 weeks of a nontraditional chemotherapy regimen developed by Dr. Nick Chen at the Seattle Integrative Cancer Center. His tumors reduced in size after receiving high-dose vitamin C infusions and lower doses of chemotherapy for a longer period of time compared to traditional patients. Vitamin C severely stresses cancer cells because they don’t have the enzymes to break them down, Chen said.
Chen said he has seen other pancreatic patients have success with his combination of treatments, so he is starting clinical trials of the treatment.
“Many of our patients are living two years or more,” he said.
The treatment also has lower toxicity levels than traditional treatment, which helps Riesing and others to tolerate it better.
Riesing has also undergone hyperthermia treatment. That treatment uses high temperatures to damage and kill cancer cells without harming healthy tissue, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Hyperthermia treatments can improve the effectiveness of other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, Mulkey said.
“There are certain types of cancers that respond really well and better than they normally would to just chemo alone or radiation,” she said.
Riesing received localized hyperthermia treatments on his lungs at the Integrated Health Clinic in Vancouver, B.C.
He also had full-body hyperthermia treatments beneath infrared lights. The treatments require him to bake beneath the light for 4½ hours to bring his body temperature into fever range (100 degrees or higher) for 2 to 2½ hours, he said.
The high temperatures heighten the response of the immune system, in the same way a fever would, Chen said.
While Riesing’s body temperature is heightened, he stays hydrated through an IV, and a doctor monitors his vitals.
In June, he stopped his chemotherapy treatment and continued the other treatments to help determine if the hyperthermia treatments and other strategies are effective on their own, he said.
Many of the treatments Riesing has received, while effective, are not covered by Medicare, and his friend recently set up a GoFundMe page to help with his debt.
“If Tom was just doing what Medicare covered, we don’t have any question that Tom wouldn’t be alive,” Iris said.
His quest for treatment has preserved his ability to pursue his hobbies, including Nia, a mix of dance and martial arts, and to work with clients jointly with his wife, who is a massage therapist and a counselor.
While thinking about the future can make Iris nervous, Riesing is optimistic.
“I’ve never seen him beaten down by any of this,” she said.
You can read more about Riesing and Iris at agingwellwithiris.com.