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Friday, Apr. 18, 2014

With positive attitude, Ellens beating cancer

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

But former Tornado cager has plenty of support

Storm Lake native Steven Ellens can't remember the source of that quotation, but it's one of his favorites.

He says he has come to understand its meaning with a depth few people could fathom.

Ellens, a 1992 Storm Lake High grad who went on to star in basketball for Simpson College in Indianola, was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia in 2002 called CML.

Ellens' body was producing more than five times the number of infection-fighting white blood cells than the normal person.

"When I was first diagnosed, my white cell count was about 50,000, while 4,000 to 11,000 is the normal range," he remembered.

"For the first few weeks, I wondered whether this was the end for me, and why this had to happen to me," he said. "The thought of being diagnosed with Leukemia really never left my mind during that period."

A few weeks after the diagnosis, Ellens' extended family and friend trekked from Minnesota and Iowa to Phoenix, and he said that made all the difference.

"I was concerned about how my family would react," he said. But his family's attitude was the same as his.

"Steve's always been a positive person, and more than anything, a real fighter," said his mother, Rhonda Vredenburg.

Ellens, his girlfriend Joyce Klassen and his family formulated what he calls 'a game plan' to beat CML.

"We all decided that (CML) was what we were facing" he said. "The question was, what are we going to do about it?"

He said in formulating his 'game-plan" for fighting his disease, his sports background served as an effective metaphor.

"That mentality, of fighting back against things you can't always control is really something that I learned through basketball," said Ellens, who was a three-year starter at Storm Lake High and a three-year starter at Simpson College. The 6-foot-5 forward was an all-Iowa Conference pick his senior year.

Ellens was always close to his college coach at Simpson - Bruce Wilson. He remembered that Wilson always told his teams things out of its control would happen during a game. The key he said, was how a team responded.

"I can remember Bruce telling us, 'how are we going to win anyway?'" Ellens said.

Ellens' path to fighting back successfully against CML started when doctors told him about Gleevec, a drug approved by the FDA on May 10, 2001, a year to the day after Ellens was diagnosed.

Gleevec was made specifically to fight CML, and it works by reducing the number of white blood cells the body produces.

Ellens started taking two Gleevec pills a day shortly after his diagnosis, and the results were nothing but positive.

Within 45 days of starting his Gleevec treatment, his white blood cell count was normal. By February of 2003, the drug had nearly eliminated the mutated chromosome in Ellens' body that was causing the white blood cell overproduction and ultimately, the disease.

That sounds like a cure, but according to Ellens, Gleevec is so new that doctors can't yet call it that. Since the drug has been in use for just a few years, it has little clinical history.

Theoretically, it might just quit working one day.

"In a sense, everybody with CML taking Gleevec is like a guinea pig," said Ellens. "Doctors say they just can't predict how long it's going to keep working because it's so new."

Ellens added that doctors won't officially say he's 'cured' until the drug has been working as it has for ten years.

That means eight more years of waiting for Ellens. But just as he has in the past, Ellens is going to do more than just taking his two Gleevec pills a day and hoping.

He says he devotes four to six hours per week surfing the web on new research about CML, and he's been active in raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Ellens is also fighting for all who have, have been or will be diagnosed with Leukemia,.

There are three other forms of the disease and with all three, a bone marrow transplant is the only cure. He has been active in recruiting donors for the National Marrow Doner program and it's ever-expanding computer bank.

"Not everyone with leukemia has had the opportunity I had with Gleevec," he said.

Meanwhile, Ellens' career and personal life has started to blossom. In August of 2002, Simpson's Wilson offered Steve a job permanent head assistant coach of the Storm's traditionally strong men's basketball program.

"Coaching college ball had always been a dream of mine," added Ellens.

He moved to Des Moines a few weeks later and in April of 2003, married Joyce Klassen, his long-time girlfriend.

According to Joyce, the pair were "talking engagement" at the time of Steve's diagnosis. But she has remained with him and helped him fight his disease while joining the battle against Leukemia.

"He's the love of my life," Joyce said Sunday night. "We've both learned a lot about the human spirit by going through this together.

"There were days where we were scared and cried together, but now, we just go one one day at a time and deal with it. I've found that one of my favorite quotations is 'ten percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent of life is what you do about it.'"

Together, Steve, Joyce and their extended families and friend aren't standing still in the fight against Leukemia.

Each fall, Steve and Joyce gather friends and family into teams to raise funds during the "Light the Night" walk held in major cities each year. In Des Moines in 2002, 1400 participants overall joined in to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Ellens had either friends or family walking in Minnesota, Arizona and California.

Meanwhile, Steve's younger brother, Scott, also a former Storm Lake High cage standout, is a sophomore at Simpson and a starter on the Storm basketball team.

The younger Ellens is also involved in the fight against Leukemia. He had his friends recruited over 200 people last fall to become bone marrow donors.

And as Ellens has commented, change is the only constant in life. Through his ordeal, he has gained a new perspective.

"I've learned that as human beings, we really have no control over what can happen to us," he said. "But my biggest lessons is that I now treasure every moment of every day. You have to remain hopeful through adversity and live every day to the fullest."

Note: To obtain more information about Ellens' battle for a cure for Leukemia, go to the following web address http://steven.ellens.home.att.net. That address has links to both the National Marrow Doner Program and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.



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