Greeley resident Jim DeMersseman,
75, is coping with multiple myeloma. (Michael Brian.)
Early in 2018, a doctor at the Orthopaedic and Spine Center of the Rockies
in the Greeley Medical Clinic walked in and posted the image from Jim DeMersseman’s MRI in front of both of them.
the doctor said, “this isn’t a death sentence.”
“Oh, —,” thought DeMersseman.
For a moment,
he assumed that’s exactly what it was.
“You see all those black dots on your spine and your ribs?” asked the doctor.
“Yeah,” said DeMersseman.
“They’re not supposed to be there,”
the doctor said.
DeMersseman had guessed that. When we talked last week, he couldn’t recall the doctor’s name. He did
remember the impact of what the doctor said and what happened next.
Within an hour, massive blood samples and blood work already
were in motion and a couple of body scans were taken over the next few days.
The diagnosis: DeMersseman, an English teacher at Greeley
Central High School from 1971 until his 1998 retirement, had multiple myeloma.
“I’ve always been a pretty positive
person,” he said. “I knew I was sick and all that, but it’s hard to vision yourself dead.”
He quickly hooked
up with Dr. Doug Kemme, an oncologist at the UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic in Greeley, who for the most part
plotted his treatment.
“He was in pretty bad shape when we first met,” Kemme told me. “His cancer had really
weakened him and was causing a lot of bone pain. I recall that he came in to us in a walker or a wheelchair even. When these
folks come in, they’re in such horrible pain and shape that it’s just hard to baby them through the first couple
of months to get them responding and improving.”
The Mayo Clinic site explains that multiple myeloma is a cancer
that forms in plasma cells within white blood cells, and takes up residence in bone marrow, with the malignant cancer cells
shoving out healthy cells. “When they become cancerous, they grow too much and take up space in the bone marrow,”
Kemme said. “That can cause all kinds of problems, including weakening and even fracturing on the bones.”
Oncologist Dr. Doug Kemme
has been Greeley resident Jim DeMersseman’s primary physician as DeMersseman battles multiple myeloma.
At various points
in a weekly regimen, DeMersseman has been treated with non-chemotherapy drugs, including the powerful Revlimid in pill form
for cycles of 21 days on and 7 off, and Velcade administered in a subcutaneous shot to the stomach; plus bone strengtheners
“The doctors’ job is to try to cure you but also see what the body can tolerate,” DeMersseman said.
“That’s the key phrase. I could only tolerate the Revlimid for about four cycles. Then I said I was getting this
massive rash all over. Doctor Kemme saw it and said, ‘You’re done.'” At that point, Kemme replaced Revlimid
with another drug.
Just this month, DeMersseman was able to cut back to infusion visits only every other week.
That was progress.
DeMersseman makes occasional trips to the UCHealth Hematology Clinic on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, to visit multiple
myeloma guru Dr. Peter Forbserg. (No, he is not the former Colorado
Avalanche hockey player.) DeMersseman also visits the Cancer Rehabilitation Institute program on the University of Northern
Colorado campus, communing with other cancer patients.
Multiple myeloma is not the most insidious of cancers, but threatening
enough. The statistics fluctuate on how early it is detected, but the five year survival rate is about 50 percent.
is a success story, not a miracle.
Jim DeMersseman of Greeley
is among those holding the U.S. flag on the ice on Fight Cancer Night at the Colorado Eagles-Tucson Roadrunners game last
weekend. He’s the sixth person down from the top right corner. (Ashley Potts, Colorado Eagles.)
He was part of a UCHealth-organized
celebration of northern Colorado cancer survivors, their families and supporters at the American Hockey League Colorado Eagles’
annual Fight Cancer Night at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on Jan. 19.
Multiple myeloma doesn’t disappear, but
the black dots can go away because of healthy replacement bone growth. In the best-case scenario, it is under control and
doesn’t wreak havoc. Any remaining cells can grow and divide, leading to relapse.
Officially, he is considered to be in the “maintenance”
stage of treatment.
The point is, it was caught and aggressively treated, and now is being held at bay.
For how long?
The best answer is this: For however
long that is.
DeMersseman isn’t fooling himself.
“There’s remission, which means you don’t have it any more,”
he said. “I won’t be that.”
He said of the chances of a relapse: “It’s not a question of if;
it’s a question of when.”
So, yes, there is an on-borrowed-time element to this.
“It’s under control,” said
Kemme. “This is a cancer we cannot cure, but we can control. Every year, thankfully, we’re getting more
and more treatments and the prognosis keeps on getting better. The prognosis now is in the four-to-five year range, but that’s
data that’s four to five years old. We would hope it keeps getting better. … We talk about partial remissions
because we can’t cure it. We can’t make it go away.”
Kemme agrees DeMersseman has perhaps five more years. He
also emphasizes he’s basing that on averages.
Those would be five years DeMersseman wouldn’t have had if the cancer
hadn’t been diagnosed when it was.
DeMersseman turns 76 in March and is feeling so much better than he was a year ago,
he is playing tennis again.
“The only reason to tell the story is you don’t realize how many people have had cancer
until you have it,” he said. “Then people tell you things they wouldn’t tell you otherwise. . . I don’t
want to be some kind of star. But you need good care, you need good support and a positive attitude. You can’t just
sit back and play, ‘Woe is me.’ If you play, ‘Woe is me,’ you lose. That’s my message.”
is familiar to many in Greeley because of his teaching career and eclectic interests, including directing productions of the
Stampede Troupe community theater group and playing competitive tennis.
Born in Rapid City, S.D., he didn’t know his real
father, Clyde Williamson, an artillery officer who was killed in action in the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge. His
mother, Billie, a nurse was left as a widow with two children, Jim and his brother, John.
Jim’s stepfather, C. Joe
DeMersseman, was a decorated war hero in the Pacific Theater who met Billie while being treated in Utah.
After he and Billie married, Joe
eventually became an Aurora banker, and the couple had five more children. Then a horrible sequence of events culminated
in Joe pleading guilty in early 1962 to second degree murder in Billie’s death. He was sentenced to serve 10 to 60 years
“I was a senior in high school,” Jim said. “The kids were farmed out to relatives.”
his tie in the testing times to his younger siblings, to whom he was (and still is) close, Jim changed his name from Williamson
to DeMersseman. “I was never adopted,” he said. “When I was 18, I went to a judge to change my name to DeMersseman
so I’m part of this extended family.”
Jim eventually graduated from the University of Colorado in 1966, majoring
in English. He got his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins, taught junior high in the Cleveland area for four years,
then landed the job at Greeley Central.
At GCHS, in addition to teaching English all along, he also was the head of the school’s
theater program for about 10 years and also served as the student newspaper sponsor. In 1974, he was a co-founder of the Stampede
Troupe and remained involved in that for many years.
He loved teaching, but retired from the school system in his mid-50s.
he has been an NCAA Division I tennis official. Also, at the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre in Grand Lake, he was on the
board of directors and served as chair of the education program.
His wife, Sheryl, was a high-ranking administrator for the Boy
Scouts of America, and during the early years of Jim’s retirement, her job took the couple to Colorado Springs for four
years of the Los Angeles area for four more.
“Then I said, ‘It’s time to go back to Colorado,'” DeMersseman
said. “That was in ’06, and she didn’t come back until ’07 because her contract wasn’t up, but
I came back and bought a house in ’06.”
Early last year, he was in pain when he played tennis.
“My back had gotten bad and
then it got better,” he said. “I never could figure it out.”
When he clearly was struggling during a mixed
doubles match, his partner said, “Jim, let’s quit.”
DeMersseman said he insisted it was just a sore back.
the match, we won, and that was the last time I played tennis for a long time,” he said. “That was Jan.
8, 2018 … not that I’m counting.”
DeMersseman had first followed the usual procedures for back problems. Physical
therapy. Chiropractor visits. X rays. He had gone through similar trials with bad knees, eventually undergoing two knee replacements.
But this time, there was no easy surgical solution.
At his 75th birthday party in March, his family and friends told him he looked
He said a back specialist finally told him, “There’s nothing wrong with your X rays, Jim,”
and suggested an MRI. His high protein count in his blood was suspicious, too.
Then came the diagnosis and the treatment protocol.
the happiest boy who ever lived, though,” DeMersseman said. “To give you an idea, I lost 35 pounds. My children
all thought I was dying.”
But he has made progress.
“I have blood drawn almost every week,” he said, then gestured
at his left shoulder. “I have a port right here, so they can keep an eye on the protein count. The myeloma never go
away. If (relapse) sets in, it’s not an overnight thing. It’s a slow progressive thing.”
He brought up former New York Yankees
pitcher and major league pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who died at age 77 recently.
“He’d had multiple myeloma for
20 years,” DeMersseman said.
DeMersseman probably would accept matching that.