CLIFTON — Ed Kimpel and his 12-year-old son, Jack, recently touted their matching tattoos — and joked that Jack was once the only student in his rural elementary school to “get some ink.”
But the permanent, ladybug-sized marks in various parts of their bodies didn’t come from a tattoo artist. They came from radiographers marking injection points to line up machines for radiation treatments.
For the past five years, Jack and Ed have endured simultaneous bouts with cancer, undergoing countless tests, treatments, surgeries and periods of remission and recurrence.
The journey has consumed roughly half of Jack’s life and put the family on a rollercoaster of hardship, relief and uncertainty.
It’s also given the father and son glimpses into each other’s ongoing struggle with life-threatening diseases.
“We’re definitely in it together,” said Ed, who is one of Jack’s teachers at the West Side School District’s Beutler Middle School.
‘We were terrified’
It was 2015. Jack was in first grade when spells of dizziness, nausea and weight loss captured his parent’s attention.
After an episode of “babbled speech” at the doctor’s office, Ed and Andrea Kimpel took Jack to the ER, where scans revealed a tumor between his brain stem and cerebellum, the region that coordinates sensory inputs with muscular responses.
“We were terrified,” said Andrea.
Within hours, Jack was at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, where doctors removed the tumor.
Surgery was a success, but Jack’s long bout with cancer had only begun. Thirty-one days of radiation treatments and six weeks of intense chemo therapy at Salt Lake’s Huntsman Cancer Center left him extremely ill and tired.
To be close to her son, Andrea and Jack’s two younger brothers moved into her parent’s home in a town just north of the city. Ed hung back at the family home in southeastern Idaho so he could keep teaching. The family met up in Utah on weekends.
‘Just to be safe’
Two months before Jack’s diagnosis, Ed took out a family cancer insurance policy. Andrea’s mother was a cancer surviver, and purchasing a policy felt like the “smart thing to do,” he said.
The coverage absorbed many of Jack’s mounting medical bills and helped with 15 months of ongoing treatments after he returned to Idaho.
Ed didn’t know at the time that he too would soon have to tap into the policy. One year into his son’s initial recovery and treatments, he began experiencing symptoms of his own.
He was convinced he had hemorrhoids, but he agreed to follow his doctor’s advice and get a colonoscopy, “just to be safe.”
The results shocked the family — and their community of some 800 people. At just 35 years old, Ed had colon cancer.
One family — two cancer patients.
While Jack still received treatments for a brain tumor, Ed prepared for surgery. It wouldn’t be his last.
Feeling ‘gross’ together
Just months after his first surgery, Ed’s doctors found that cancer had metastasized to his liver.
Within weeks he was back on the operating table, this time to remove one-fourth of his liver, an organ that, fortunately for the Kimpels, can regenerate itself — “like a lizard’s tail,” Ed said.
Afterward, he joined Jack in receiving chemo therapy while living at home.
The chemicals made Jack sick and tired and Ed sick and pale, Andrea recalled, flashing a photo of the two sleeping on the family’s couch together.
It was a tough time, Jack said, but going through it with his dad helped.
“If you’re the only one who breaks a bone, you’re the only one who knows how it feels,” Jack said. “With Dad going through all of it with me, we could feel gross together.”
‘A ton of bricks’
Things got better. By May 2017, the two were both in remission.
“It was great,” Ed said. “I figured we were doing well.”
Then the family relearned how unforgiving cancer can be. After months of clean MRI scans, doctors noticed several tumors in Jack’s brain and spine. A month later, they identified a resurgence in Ed Kimpel’s liver.
“It felt like a ton of bricks,” Andrea Kimpel said, adding, “We learned how fast life can change.”
By March 2020, Jack had undergone his second brain surgery and doctors had removed another one-third of Ed’s liver.
Today, Jack is coming off another intense round of radiation treatments. Ed receives weekly chemo treatments.
Signs of their recoveries are good — for now.
Both are back at school, with permission from their doctors, as two of a handful of students and teachers in their district who choose to wear masks. Being back in the classroom, despite the coronavirus pandemic, gives the two some sense of normalcy, Ed Kimpel said.
And normalcy is a good thing with so much uncertainty, he added. “We still have a long way to go.”