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Persevering over ‘C’-word diagnosis

By Staff | Feb 3, 2014

Having not been sick a day in his vigorous 6 a.m. to midnight lifestyle, a bout of inflammatory pneumonia slowed but didn’t stop Marquee Cinema President/CEO Curtis McCall. The corporate executive mixed business and fitness with family activities such as coaching and spirituality.

But a follow-up doctor visit led to a blood test and a reverberating phone call that contained the dreaded “C” -word – cancer.

“You’ve got to get to the hospital right now,” the doctor said. “We’ve caught it in a very early stage.”

Within 24 hours, McCall traveled from his Beckley home to a Charlottesville, Va. hospital where he had his first dose of chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Chemotherapy outside West Virginia upset the close family’s normal holiday plans.

Dani McCall Englander, Curtis’ sister, explained, “We were still together, just in a hotel room in Charlottesville and Curtis was in the hospital.”

Unable to have much contact time, Dani, along with Curtis’ children, devised a shared media method of emotional support.

“We made our crazy family video (which was posted on YouTube) that made Curtis and Toni (his wife) laugh until they cried,” Englander said. Importantly, “the kids had fun despite the circumstances.”

As treatment progressed, the family visited McCall both at the hospital and at home during breaks in the chemo treatment.

Fighting brutal side effects, a critical decision still faced McCall. Chemotherapy brought remission, but the aggressive cancer had a strong chance of recurring. His chance of a longer, fuller recovery with greater life quality meant a risky stem cell transplant which itself had a 25 percent risk of death and 50 percent risk of complications.

All during the treatments McCall said he “kept the faith” and “stayed positive.” He walked mile upon mile (two miles a day!) with a rolling IV tube by his side.

Englander called him a “trooper.”

“I never heard him complain once. He was focused on getting home to his kids. Toni was a wonderful pillar of support and stayed with him. They both missed their kids, but they stood by one another and stayed strong,” she explained.

A former nurse and current filmmaker and cat rescuer, Englander, most recently seen as the First Lady in the Netflix production of “House of Cards,” explained that a combination of strong faith and social media brought support for what became Team McCall.

“An amazing network of family, friends (including Facebook friends from as far away as Germany) and coworkers “sent prayers, support and love his way,” Englander said.

“It’s amazing how many people have this disease,” McCall said, noting that while undergoing treatment a 13-year-old teammate of his son was diagnosed. “They found it early,” McCall said.

Social networking integrated with spiritual support became imperative during his three months at a Duke University hospital for the stem cell procedures, which required an in-hospital team of a dozen worker.

The transplant procedures utilize chemo and radiation to kill a larger portion of cancel cells along with good cells. New cells mature following the transplant, which is a period when the patient has a suppressed immune system and is most susceptible to infections and rejection. Actually, when he would be discharged to return home in August, the physician warned: No hugs. No kisses. No handshakes. His immune system remained infection susceptible.

“Caring Bridge posts kept everyone up-to-date. We were able to talk, email and text through everything. I’m sure we drove (Curtis) crazy sometimes but we wanted him to know how much we care and how hard everyone was pulling for him.”

Toni McCall wrote the nearly daily “blog” on Caring Bridge where friends and family received their updates during his immune system building period.

In one Caring Bridge post, Toni McCall stated, “Curtis has more determination in his pinky than most people have in their whole body.” During even the hardest times, Curtis (also known as “Puncher”) maintained Marquee (Cinemas) work and studies youth football coaching techniques so that his beloved Shady Spring Tigers who on Nov. 2, 2013 would again be Class C champions.

Toni also coordinated the Team McCall T-shirt campaign.

“Kids, sports teammates, church friends, family, coworkers, distant relatives, you name it, took pictures of themselves wearing them and Toni posted them for him on the tough days,” Englander beamed.

Prior to Curtis’ diagnosis, the supportive tables were turned.

In the fall of 2012, Dani had a “scare” of possible lymphoma, which turned out to be the animal rescuer’s bout with Cat Scratch Fever.

“He often called or emailed to check on me, and, in fact, we had just spoken on the Tuesday before he was diagnosed. When I got the call about him later that week, I was so angry that it happened to him and not me, as I don’t have children. I would have gladly traded places with him, but those are not the sort of decisions we get to make,” Englander said.

At the time of this interview, McCall was seven months past the stem cell transplant. He has about four months before he will be considered cancer free from the transplant.

During his stem cell recovery, one would hardly believe he has a compromised immune system. Instead, McCall’s busy coaching, getting back in shape, and stepping back into business activities.

He’s remained involved throughout the ordeal with the booking (i.e. movie choices) at the 18-venue circuit, which stretches from Connecticut to Florida, with West Virginia locations in Beckley, Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg, Summersville, Triadelphia (Wheeling), and Welch.

Looking back at 2013, Curtis McCall has found a deeper appreciation for “how short life is” and empathy for the many sufferers of cancer.

Reflecting on the tribulations of diagnosis, treatment and his on-going recovery, McCall refers back to his faith: “It just wasn’t my time to go.”

You hear nothing but positive praises from Curtis, but one of his wife’s posts underscored the seriousness of the transplant treatment: “Curtis and I had a conversation about how he was making it look so easy. It’s not,” she wrote. “Ask any nurse or doctor who works directly with these patients and they’ll tell you that transplant is risky. But, currently it is the only treatment for patients with this type of cancer.”

As his sister stressed focusing on the future and the family’s many blessings, she admitted, “We’re very fortunate. Things have gone remarkably well..”

On Dec. 6, Curtis celebrated his birthday. It had been one year since he received the phone call telling him that he had leukemia.