Story and photos provided by the Daly Hospital Foundation
Zach Cheetham has many dreams – the most recent involves rib eye steaks and juicy ribs. He hasn’t been able to enjoy his favorite foods since beginning his chemotherapy treatments to stave an 8-inch tumor that is growing in his esophagus.
Cheetham’s journey as a cancer warrior began last year during the riots protesting the death of George Floyd. He was on an unexpected road trip from McAllen, Texas to St. Joseph, Missouri to deliver a piece of original fine art that had been misdirected to the wrong address and damaged in transit. He drove through riots in many of the larger cities, including memorable scenes in Austin, all the while treating his acid reflux with prescriptions and over-the-counter remedies. The buyer of the art piece happened to be a gastroenterologist and was open to Cheetham’s sheepish request for medical advice.
“We’ve never had a mix-up with a crate order,” said Cheetham’s wife Nicole. “The whole thing seemed like a divine blessing because the doctor heard his symptoms and told Zach to demand an endoscopy. That’s when they found the tumor.”
Zach added, “We were already behind because my symptoms were not severe, but just to find it at all and be able to start treatments was so important.”
Since then, Zach has endured 11 months of chemotherapy and three months of immunotherapy as well as two doses of trial drugs.
Nicole explained that esophageal cancer is on the rise in the United States. “It used to be caused by too much smoking and drinking,” she said. “But now there’s so much stress in our society that our bodies are responding with acid reflux, and in some cases it can be so much more than medications can treat.”
Since then, many of the Cheethams’ dreams have been put on hold or definitely slowed down.
In 2006, they opened an art framing business called “Bitterroot Frames.” Two years ago, they opened a gallery on U.S. 93 just north of Corvallis that houses their frame shop in the back and a fine art gallery in the front. The Cheethams did much of the work themselves to design, build and finish the details so they could open for business. They’ve hosted several shows for the renowned Western artists they represent and they’re fortunate to have two solid employees that keep the frame orders going.
“It’s hard to work that hard for so long and then not be able to enjoy it,” Zach said from his home south of Hamilton. “Just as you’re getting going, sometimes God puts you to the test.”
The Cheethams were private about their struggle at first, but once word got out to friends and their art community, they have been the recipients of an outpouring of love and support.
“We have buyers who are willing to come to the gallery instead of having us deliver their art,” Nicole said. “Customers are patient with us when we have to close the gallery while we are at the hospital. We’ve received cards and letters and thoughts and prayers. It’s been amazing.”
Zach was working full-time just six weeks ago, but his treatments inflamed what little space he had open in his esophagus and required hospitalization and a feeding tube. He’s lost a lot of weight, strength and muscle mass in only a few short weeks, but has also enrolled in a trial treatment plan at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.
“People take for granted their ability to eat, drink and swallow their own spit,” he said. “I haven’t been able to taste anything and didn’t react well to the formula they gave me for my feeding tube. So it’s been very difficult.”
Zach and Nicole’s hope is anchored in their religious faith as well as their faith in modern medicine and the trials being conducted for cancer research. They’ve also sought naturopathic treatments, practices for mental health as well as replenishing vitamin depletions in his weakened body.
They are encouraged by the announcement of a new cancer and infusion center proposed to be constructed at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and would have been able to receive some treatments much closer to home. Zach had a few infusion treatments at the hospital in Hamilton, but unfortunately hasn’t been able to avoid some trips to Missoula for even simple things, like blood tests required by his current oncology team. He and Nicole leave for Salt Lake City for another 10-day treatment on Sunday.
While many struggle with the financial burden of cancer treatments, the Cheethams feel blessed that the insurance they purchased through Obamacare a few years ago was brokered and randomly landed them with a program through the University of Utah. As a result, many of their expenses and co-pays are vastly reduced when receiving care in Utah.
“We don’t know how that happened, but it’s been very fortunate,” Nicole said. “Our insurance has been amazing and our trials are paid for, including travel and hotel. Everything is reimbursed and I don’t have co-pays there.”
The annual Colors of Cancer campaign by the Daly Hospital Foundation has added “Team Burgundy” to its list of cancer colors this year and is represented by fundraising efforts and supporters. The American Cancer Society recognizes the colors burgundy and white for cancers related to the head and neck. The Hamilton High School girls soccer team has been wearing their burgundy shirts during warm-ups before games to recognize the new color team. Other area high school athletes are also teaming up with the Colors of Cancer campaign to bring awareness to all the different types of cancer and to honor local cancer warriors.
Zach could probably sport several color t-shirts during his battle – either for the origin of his first tumor or for the additional tumor doctors found recently on his liver.
Nicole quipped, “When it comes to cancer, you want to be like everyone else, but Zach is all kinds of special and has had several mutations.”
Zach admits his journey has been difficult, “But even more difficult is the isolation. We need a cancer center, but we also need local support groups for cancer patients. We can learn so much from each other,” he said.
Nicole concurred, “We’ve never had to go through anything like this. We need to be able share resources and information so that we don’t have to spend a week on the phone trying to get formula for a feeding tube delivered to Hamilton, Montana. If we could hope for anything (by sharing our story), it’s to help people get together to talk about the fear and the solutions and the hope. We have to talk about the mental aspect of the disease and how helpful readings and meditations can be for the fight.”
Zach said camaraderie has helped him through the last few weeks, with family, friends and the new friends they have met at the cancer center.
The Cheethams are also using their business to help the cause by featuring four pieces of art by Montana artists that will be sold with proceeds supporting the construction of a new cancer and infusion center. They have two oil paintings by artists that they have represented for years – Brooke Wetzel and Michele Usibelli – as well as two bronzes by Tim Shinabarger and Ott Jones.
Nicole said she will be in the gallery for the rest of the week before their next trip to the cancer center to meet with interested buyers. You can also find the pieces featured on the social media accounts for Colors of Cancer and Bitterroot Frames. For more information on purchasing these pieces, contact Nicole at 406-381-8476.
Colors of Cancer fundraising efforts continue at many grassroots events hosted by local businesses and generous individuals. To donate for the new cancer center, go to MDMH.org/GIVE or call the Daly Hospital Foundation at 406-375-4674.