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Lung Cancer The White Ribbon Project

The White Ribbon Project | Rhonda and Jeff Meckstroth

Rhonda & Jeff Meckstroth

Background:Jeff was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given months to live, but his wife, Rhonda, fought for a specialist that led to biomarker testing and better treatment options
Focus:Education of biomarker testing for driver mutations, patient and caregiver self-advocacy

The White Ribbon Project Stories

Rhonda & Jeff Meckstroth
The Love Story

Story 5 of The White Ribbon Project Stories

This love story started at a fire station in rural Ohio. It’s where Jeff and Rhonda Meckstroth both worked in 1990.

“Instantly I was like, oh my gosh, he is the most handsome thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Rhonda about her now long-time life partner and husband. “He’s six foot two. He is 200 pounds. He’s built like a wall and these big, huge muscles that are bulging outside of his firefighter uniform. So I’m just like standing there, like stuttering, I’m here for an interview!”

She got the job and they became colleagues and friends. They didn’t actually start dating for five years. When they did, they kept it a secret.

“I definitely didn’t want anyone to know because I thought I could possibly lose my job and I had a great job and a great income.”

Their relationship started off with a bang – literally – when Jeff invited Rhonda onto his 2-seater plane for their second date. The plane malfunctioned. Jeff had to crash land the thing.

“And we land, and it just so happened that my door popped open when we hit the ground, so I’m literally now hanging on by the seatbelt that Jeff just tightened. We come to a stop. He asked me, ‘Are you hurt?'” Rhonda recalls.

“Neither one of us are hurt. He undoes my seatbelt and it tells me that he smells gas, going to take off running. And we’re both running, going up towards this little older couple that own the farmhouse. And there’s all these sirens. They were the ones that heard and called 9-1-1. And so needless to say, we were on the news that night.”

Jeff adds, “When we ended up on the front page of the paper, the cat was out of the bag.”

Thankfully, they were safe. The crash actually made Rhonda fall harder for Jeff. Despite the disaster, she says he never lost control of his emotions.

“That to me is like the perfect image of exactly how I see Jeff. He’s my caretaker, he’s my provider. He’s my safety, my security, my stability.”

Jeff – the caregiver, firefighter, family man, and farmer. Harvest season became doubly special for this farmer because it’s also when their romance began to grow.

“I would always, every harvest say, you know, we’ve made another harvest together,” says Rhonda.

But in 2015, harvest would become a different kind of season for these two.Jeff had a lingering cough that persisted for several months.  A few biopsies and scans later, the results came back:

Stage 4 lung cancer. 

“We would just lay in bed and just cry and just get as close as we could and just hold on to each other. And like At that time, they told us, Jeff really only had months to live,” Rhonda recalls through tears. “I remember specifically thinking to myself, like. you’ve finally given me that love story. And now it’s going to be taken from me. It literally – it crushed me… To see him cry, it was heartbreaking. I still remember those days like they were yesterday.”

The lung cancer diagnosis led to a role reversal. Jeff, always the caregiver, was now the one who needed more support. Rhonda launched herself into fighting for his life, especially when the cancer spread to his brain.

It wasn’t easy – she found herself going up against the medical team’s recommendation of whole brain radiation.

“I said, no, all we need to do is switch to this therapy that’s been developed that now crosses the blood brain barrier. And they literally told me, you’re making a decision that’s going to kill your husband.” 

Rhonda sought out specialists. She switched both the medical team and therapies. She says within a few months, the cancer that had spread to his brain was gone.

Rhonda’s search for kindred spirits in advocacy led her to The White Ribbon Project, a grassroots movement to elevate lung cancer awareness.

The group started small, but now supporters span the entire country and even the world. Their greatest message is that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, and it’s about time everyone unified under an umbrella of love and understanding to drive more awareness and research for lung cancer.

Rhonda’s own advocacy helped to save Jeff’s life. 

She wanted to do the same for others, including changing other people’s perception of life with lung cancer, especially stage 4.

“The only thing they know about stage 4 cancer is death. They don’t know about these new, new advances that’s been happening.”

Jeff remembers getting hit with the dire prognosis. “The first doctor only gave me like six months, and I’ve been around a lot longer than that now.”

That’s thanks in part to the biomarker testing he had to undergo before treatment.  Doctors took extra tissue samples to test for genetic (driver) mutations.

Jeff ended up testing positive for the ALK+ mutation, opening up more treatment options. In fact, they say biomarker testing helped Jeff several times.

“It’s helped us on three different occasions not only with diagnosis, but on each time that he had progression of his cancer, the liquid biopsy was able to say, here’s the mutation, here’s the new mutation, and here’s the direction the clear plot path that you need to take for survival,” Rhonda explains.

And that direction has led to more time together. It’s time Rhonda says she never takes for granted. She wants the same for others.

“We’ll save a lot more lives and a lot more families will have the opportunity to make the memories that Jeff and our family have been able to do with being able to have six more years and counting, you know, six more anniversaries, six more vacations, six more birthdays.”

Six harvests after his stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, Jeff is getting ready to finally retire. Both he and Rhonda are looking forward to the change, spending more time with one another.

They’re also hopeful they can and lift others around them through their voices, and show what is possible, through their love story.

“The most important thing is that people know that after diagnosis that there is hope,” says Jeff.

For Rhonda, this has been a journey of love for Jeff, but also one of growing love for herself.

“I need to be strong. I need to find my voice, my strength, my confidence to be able to carry on, and so I’m trying to learn from this process how I can be a better person and how I can help others. That’s what keeps me going.

Rhonda Meckstroth

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