Photos by J. Alan Paul and special to Bison Illustrated
Jeff McKinnon ran in the Fargo Marathon 10 times. After taking a break for a few years, he was preparing to run for an 11th time last fall when he got some unexpected news.
He noticed a slight ache in his lower back when exercising in November. He attributed it to general aches and pains from being in his 40s, so he waited for a month to get it checked out.
People at the walk-in clinic said he had a slipped disc and needed physical therapy. He underwent 13 PT sessions, but the pain kept getting worse. He was having a hard time walking and had a noticeable limp, but he figured it would get better soon.
In April he went to an orthopedic walk-in to get another opinion. He got an x-ray done, and the results showed that it was likely a slipped disc. After visiting different doctors throughout the month of May, his pain continued to get worse over the summer, and he wasn’t sure what was going on.
After getting an MRI, he finally figured out what was going on. After reviewing the results with his primary care doctor, he learned he had a tumor, which then led to a biopsy. On July 12, he received his official diagnosis of multiple myeloma.
“To tell you the truth, it was a surreal experience because you go through eight months of thinking it’s a slipped disc and you do all this work, and I don’t think anyone was prepared to hear you’re diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I’m 43-years-old, I’m relatively healthy, I was training for marathons. I didn’t think I’d be a candidate for cancer.”
When taking a mental break from all the news, he found a quote on Twitter that caught his attention: “Don’t get bitter; get better.”
“It was just like it was calling to me, and I truly embraced it,” he said. “I’m not bitter one bit about cancer. I truly and honestly do not care why I got cancer. I can’t sit there and dwell on that. It’s not an issue to me.”
“I’m truly focused on: How do I get better? I’m so grateful for everything everyone’s been doing, and that’s been my focus. I’m just staying optimistic and focusing on getting better.”
Now he’s working with the Fargo-based Lend A Hand Up program to raise money for his cancer treatments and awareness for the program in our community.
Lending A Hand Up
Forty-eight hours after McKinnon received his diagnosis, fellow Bison football player and cancer survivor Jason Boutwell visited him and his family.
They played football together in the early 90s, but they weren’t very close until cancer brought them together.
Boutwell was diagnosed with appendiceal carcinoma in March 2014, and the Lend A Hand Up program was a big help to him and his family. He didn’t know much about the program until he was diagnosed with cancer himself, and now he serves as a Lend A Hand Up ambassador.
“Once you’ve been exposed to Lend A Hand Up, only then do you recognize the impact that they have in the community,” he said.
Since its launch in 2008, Lend A Hand Up has partnered with community members to raise $14.7 million for 470 families. Dakota Medical Foundation guides the program and covers all administrative costs. Lend A Hand Up Director Jeana Peinovich said the mission of the program is to raise financial help for local families battling significant health issues.
“The program provides unique resources to facilitate generosity, as well as boost funding to increase the impact of donations by 20 percent per gift,” she said. “For every $500 raised to support an individual or family campaign, Lend A Hand Up will add a $100 boost gift, up to a total boost of $5,000 per eligible campaign. And unlike other fundraising sites, Lend A Hand Up doesn’t solicit tips or add on administrative fees.”
According to Peinovich, this means your gift goes farther to help a friend or family member during a challenging time.
“When comparing online gifts made through other fundraising platforms, Lend A Hand Up offers the best giving value,” she said. “For example, if you make a $100 gift on an online site that solicits a 15 percent tip, your $100 gift becomes $85. Whereas, when using LendAHandUp.org, a $100 gift is boosted to $120. That’s a 35 percent difference!”
The program also provides tools, templates and coaching to help people host successful benefit and online campaigns.
“So many people don’t know about Lend A Hand Up,” she said. “Can you host a successful benefit without us? Absolutely, but we can make a difference. With our free fundraising tools, personal help and boost funding, we make it easier and more impactful for people to share their time, talent and treasure to help their neighbors.”
“We are not a hand out, but a hand up that raises the impact of people’s generosity,” she added.
“Can you host a successful benefit without us? Absolutely, but we can make a difference.”
Boutwell felt an overwhelming debt of gratitude that needed to be repaid after surviving his cancer diagnosis, so he and his wife decided to save the money they usually use for going out to eat to instead attend and contribute to different Lend A Hand Up benefits around the community.
“Each benefit creates an opportunity to go out and show what cancer survivors are able to go out and do,” he said. “It’s powerful for me, too, because not everybody has this story to share. A pretty small group of people, as a matter of fact, so it’s a great way for me to give back.”
Boutwell believes he survived his cancer diagnosis for a specific reason, and he even calls it “the gift of cancer.” The words he hung on to when he was going through treatment were, “Trust your God and not your odds.”
“I believe I made it through specifically so I could do something like this, so I could pay it back and pay it forward and be there for others,” he said.
Having Boutwell meet with him and his family so soon after his diagnosis to explain the process was a huge relief. In fact, McKinnon calls Boutwell his cancer mentor.
“He’s really been walking me through the whole process, walking me through what chemotherapy is going to look like, he walked me through the process of what going to the doctors would look like, gave me some points on what kinds of questions to ask,” he said.
When Boutwell first visited McKinnon, he hadn’t started treatment yet so he was feeling and looking pretty rough.
“The fact that they were able to see Jason healthy and laughing helped them see that there’s really a lot of hope and optimism with this,” he said.
Getting Help From The Bison Family
Boutwell isn’t the only Bison who’s supported McKinnon during his tough time. Both of them are involved with the Bison Football Players Association, which serves as an organized way to help more than 400 alumni stay connected in both good and bad times.
“We’ve been through battle together, and that doesn’t stop just because you left the football field,” Boutwell said.
Former players from each decade back to the 1960s have reached out to McKinnon to show their support. His former coach, Rocky Hager, checks in with him every week. Twice a week, people bring over meals, and he said it’s a “who’s who of Bison past” who come to visit.
His Bison family has also been helping him mow his lawn, drive his kids to practice and more. McKinnon goes to chemotherapy appointments twice a week, and other former Bison players have been showing up to support him there as well.
“[My wife] was going for the first sessions, but she’s got to get back to work. There’s only so much time she can take off, and she doesn’t need to be there because a lot of cancer treatment is sitting around waiting,” he said. “That’s the reality of what cancer treatment is.”
“We’ve been through battle together, and that doesn’t stop just because you left the football field.”
He said asking for help and being open to accepting that help can be one of the biggest challenges when going through a difficult time.
“You kind of want to buck up and say, ‘I need to do this all on my own, I don’t need anything else,’ but Amy and I had a conversation and said, ‘we just need to step back and if someone wants to help, we need to be appreciative and just accept that help,’” he said.
McKinnon works for the State of North Dakota as an addiction unit supervisor at Southeast Human Service Center, and he’s been working with people who chronically use illegal substances and are severely mentally ill for nearly 20 years.
Last year he was awarded the Heritage Award for Customer Service by Governor Doug Burgum for his work “as a tireless advocate for access to substance use disorder services and creating and implementing programs and training that address emerging trends.”
He said he’s used to giving and assisting others without expecting a lot in return, so it’s a bit of a foreign experience to accept assistance for himself.
“Chemo and radiation… everything that they say about it is exactly what it is,” he added. “They don’t sugar coat it at all. They tell you what the side effects are going to be, and they come true, so the reality is I wouldn’t be able to mow my lawn right now even if I wanted to. You just kind of accept that this is what it is.”
McKinnon said that everyone, but especially Bison, genuinely want to help, and he’s humble and appreciative of that. All of this support has helped him stay positive through this journey.
“I’m optimistic and I know I’m going to kick this thing in the butt, but the only thing I’m going further than the next day on is how am I going to pay this forward?” he said. “Because I’m not the last person who’s going to be diagnosed with cancer, and there’s going to be all these people who go through these same emotions with all these different questions, and having a resource like Lend A Hand Up makes it so much more simple.”
Being diagnosed with cancer has changed his outlook on life. Now, he enjoys the little things more and focuses on one day at a time.
“Two weeks ago, I got done with my first cancer treatment, and I was halfway through my radiation, and I was finally getting enough relief where I could walk without pain,” he said. “That was the first time I took my dog for a walk in seven months. It was amazing how happy I was. I barely made it around the block, and I was beat.
“Two years ago, I was running the Fargo Marathon, and I was only a minute and a half away from qualifying for [the] Boston [marathon]. I was so close, and here I could barely make it around the block, but I couldn’t care less. I felt just as elated as finishing a marathon by walking that damn dog around the block.”
Multiple myeloma affects plasma cells in bone marrow, which results in holes in the bones. McKinnon said they did a PET scan and “it lit up like a Christmas tree.” Now that he’s starting to heal from the cancer treatments, he said he feels like a 14-year-old boy going through growing pains again.
“It’s almost like I can feel my bones growing again because I’m healing, but gaul damn does it hurt,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to 2018 being over with,” he added. “2018’s been a rough year, so I’m really looking forward to moving on. I just want to see how tomorrow goes and go from there.”
McKinnon and his wife are self-proclaimed tailgating junkies, so fundraising at tailgating events seemed like a natural fit. They have a BFPA tent that anyone can come and visit before any of the games. They wanted to have a place where people could reconnect with others locally and around the country, for both the regular games and fundraising efforts for a few of the September home games.
“Our goal is to use that spot as a rallying point and get some silent auction items put together and continue to show that love,” Boutwell said. “That’s really what it’s about is giving people that opportunity to show that and do something.”
Starting with the second game of the season, there will be some silent auction items up for bid, including:
- 2 – 40-yard line tickets for the FCS Championship Game + Passes to the VIP Hospitality Suite
- 4 – 50-yard line tickets to the Southern Illinois Game on 11/17 + Four Sideline Passes
- An Autographed Carson Wentz Jersey
- Trip and tickets for two to the ESPYs
- Day of Magic for two at the Masters 2019
The items will be on display in the BFPA tent before the games on Sept. 15, 22 and 29. All bidding will be done electronically, so people can bid from anywhere in the country.
To pre-register for the silent auction, text “Bison” to 79230.