West De Pere family kicking cancer to the softball diamond
By Rich Palzewic
DE PERE – There’s more to life than sports – just ask West De Pere softball player Morgan Hansel.
Rightfully so, Hansel’s mind might have been elsewhere this past season when putting on her Phantoms uniform and catching gear.
Hansel’s step-father, Phil Resch, is battling Stage IV prostate cancer but has been handling things as well as can be expected.
“It’s been tough,” said Morgan, who recently finished her sophomore season and was named to the Bay Conference second-team. “Softball has kept my mind off things, and it’s nice to get away from it all when I put on my gear and be with my teammates. The softball family has been amazing in their support for us.”
Phil said a routine biometrics screening through his work early in 2018 showed some abnormalities in his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level.
“I noticed the PSA was more than 6.29,” he said. “I brought that up to my doctor, so I went through two rounds of antibiotics. A bit later, I went under anesthesia and 22 needles. I didn’t think I needed to worry, but the guy called back and said, ‘Twenty of the 22 needles were infected.’ Nine of the needles had Gleason-9, which is an aggressive form of cancer. I was a little startled for a guy my age – I’m only 53.”
Phil said when he went to the doctor initially, he felt no pain and felt fine.
“I hadn’t been to the doctor in years,” he said. “My company has caught three people with prostate cancer and high blood pressure. It’s cheaper for a self-insured company to catch it upfront.”
When a male is diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer, the outlook usually isn’t very positive.
“They’ll tell you there’s no cure,” Noel Resch, the wife of Phil and mother to daughters Morgan and Madelyn, said. “Phil was given five years to live. We had just bought our house, and the kids are in the prime of their youth. There were lots of unknowns.”
Noel, who is on the Community Advisory Board for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cancer Center, did her research.
“I’ve been serving for almost a year now,” she said. “Since Phil got diagnosed, I’ve been doing as much as I can to raise awareness for prostate cancer and advocate for patients. Research, read, get second opinions and be your own advocate – that’s my message.”
After his initial round of antibiotics, Phil’s PSA number increased.
“After the first 30 days, it went to 6.51 and then 11.5 after another month,” he said. “That’s when we went to the biopsy. In that short period, it doubled – that was scary.”
Phil then started radiation treatments.
“We didn’t miss any travel with softball, but I went through 39 radiation treatments starting July 11 and going through September 4,” he said. “It was every weekday for 39 days. I told the doctors, ‘Cancer doesn’t grow on the weekends.’”
After the radiation treatments, Phil’s PSA number showed marked improvement.
“In December 2018, we were told there was no evidence of the disease,” Noel said. “We celebrated by going to Chicago. We were excited and thought we had it beat. Everyone rallied around us.”
In April 2019, Phil’s PSA number rose again.
“I responded well to the radiation, and the PSA went down to 0.36,” Phil said. “Then, the number went up to 1.18. That’s still low, so we waited another month, and it went to 2.2. They did a scan in June and found a few lymph nodes had higher levels. It took lots of fighting to get a scan because the number was still low. Even though the number was low, I was concerned it was going up. A normal range for a male is .5 to about 4.”
Once a male gets radiation treatment on his prostate, surgery to remove the organ is no longer an option.
Meeting with a urologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Phil was told he needed chemotherapy.
“I had a port put in and had chemo once every three weeks for six cycles,” he said. “After the chemo, I got a PET (positron emission tomography) scan, and it showed the chemo didn’t help. I went under the care of another doctor, and he recommended much harsher chemo. The doctor was concerned and said, ‘You’re starting to get into big trouble here if we don’t figure this out.’ The five years went down to two – it was a sick feeling.”
Phil started his second round of chemo on Valentine’s Day 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That’s why both Morgan and Madelyn, a recent graduate of West De Pere, stayed virtual with their schooling all year.
“Phil is a father figure and a role model to me,” Madelyn said. “I missed about 15 days of school my freshman year because I wanted to be there with him during it all. Knowing what was going on helped me deal with things.”
Noel said her girls have taken everything in stride with the changes they’ve had to make.
“We were terrified,” she said. “Phil’s immune system is compromised, so we have to be careful. We did the first few chemo treatments in one trip. We’d leave at 3 a.m., have the treatment and then drive back home. Mayo wanted to do a scan halfway through the chemo, but because of COVID, they were shut down. During Phil’s last treatment, that’s when the (George Floyd) riots began. We were six miles away from where that took place.”
The second round of chemo shrunk some of the cancerous lymph nodes, but targeted radiation was still needed.
“We stayed in a hotel for a week while the radiation was done,” Phil said. “It was every day for five days. No cancer has been found in my prostate since, I have no bone issues and it hasn’t traveled to any other organs – it’s just been found in some lymph nodes.”
A scan earlier this year showed one of the lymph nodes needed more targeted radiation, so the family went back to Minnesota for another round.
“It was special because the first day of Phil’s radiation, it was also the first day of high school softball tryouts,” Noel said. “The girls stayed home – it was stressful.”
Since the targeted radiation, Phil has been on a chemo drug to “keep the foot on the pedal.”
“Mayo is proactive in what they do,” Phil said. “They don’t mess around. Noel has been a great advocate for the family. With the dealings of insurance, you have to be persistent.”
Phil has another PET scan scheduled for July 29-30 in Mayo, and he said he’s hoping for more good news.
“They’ll tell us where we’re at,” he said. “The chemo drug zaps my energy, but I’m hanging in there. We want to get to the point where I’m cancer-free for two years. There are lots of side effects with the medication I’m on.”
Through it all, Noel said the softball community, not just at West De Pere, has been “amazing.”
“I can’t thank everyone enough,” she said. “People have donated more than $2,000 worth of gift cards for gas, hotels and lodging for the dog. When we got home from one of our first chemo treatments, we had balloons on our counter. There are families from Manitowoc, Bay Port and New London we’ve gotten to know.”
Fun during COVID-19
Even though Phil and the family have gone through lots, it didn’t stop them from having some fun during COVID-19.
“We each wore numbered jerseys counting down Phil’s treatments,” Noel said. “We needed to find creative ways to help.”
One time while buying chocolate at Seroogy’s, Morgan came up with an idea to help raise the family’s spirits.
“I saw this day-by-day calendar to celebrate a unique day,” she said. “We started this Jan. 1, 2020. We used the calendar to celebrate every day. A lady we didn’t even know put all of our days together and made a book for us.”
Madelyn said doing all the activities – which the family did daily for 500 straight days – helped keep her mind off things, too.
“Like Morgan had softball, this helped me get through it all,” she said.
There was a fly-a-kite day in January and tennis day in February with snow on the ground, but the family put on warm clothes and headed outside.
“Some of the days I didn’t feel like doing a thing, but I always did it,” Phil said. “It helped my mental state of mind. We had days dealing with sushi, yodeling, yoga, flamingos and dancing like a chicken.”
Noel said COVID-19 brought the family together.
“Obviously, we had more time on our hands,” Noel laughed. “We didn’t want to quit after 365 days, so we kept going. Some days were awful, but I cried when we stopped. I’m thinking about writing something on it. There were so many lessons learned, and it was about commitment.”
Phil came home from chemo one day and played kickball with the family.
“We played kickball outside when I was bald,” he said. “I didn’t feel good that day, but it helped.”
Morgan said her favorite day was playing wiffle ball.
“My friends mow a base path into their grass, have a scoreboard, a snow fence and foul poles,” she said. “We did boys versus the girls, and Phil had a pinch-runner because he couldn’t run.”
Phil said he loves hamburgers, so his favorite day was traveling around the Green Bay area sampling burgers.
“We hit about six burger joints that day,” he laughed. “We’d buy two and cut them in half. We ate burgers for every meal. We ate well during the streak.”
Phil also said ride-your-bike-to-work day was memorable.
“I work from home, so my office is at the end of the hallway,” he said. “Noel played ‘Ride Like the Wind,’ and I biked down the hallway without falling, all while on chemo.”
Madelyn said a few days stick out in her mind.
“We went to the NEW Zoo in January for meet-a-penguin day,” she said. “I’m an animal lover. We also had a cow day and went to a farm. I’m creative, so I also loved the artistic ones. I painted a dolphin and made it look like an aquarium. It kept us occupied during the lockdown.”