By the time cancer started trying to knock him out, J. Kent Hutcheson had already accomplished enough to fill two lifetimes. But unfortunately for cancer, Hutcheson still had more left on his to-do list. So while Hutcheson’s 14-year battle against the most aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia may have slowed him down, it hasn’t diverted him from his life’s work. “I just want to help kids,” says Hutcheson, the founder of Colorado UpLift, a program that has mentored thousands of Denver-area children.
Waging war on cancer while remaining dedicated to Colorado UpLift, Hutcheson relies on two allies: his faith, and his physician, Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers hematologist Nicholas Di Bella, MD. “He’s always there, and not just because he has to be,” Hutcheson says of Dr. Di Bella. “He’s an amazing guy.”
A college football player who earned a PhD in Education and Human Services, Hutcheson’s first project was working with the International Ministry of Campus Crusade, establishing training centers and medical clinics in the Philippines. Along with his wife, Hutcheson also worked with World Vision in war-ravaged Vietnam and missions in India.
Back home in his native Colorado, he founded a program to help disadvantaged teenagers get jobs. But the program didn’t work – and often, the kids didn’t either. “We started getting calls from employers. They weren’t showing up, they were fighting, they had no idea how to dress for an interview, or a job. We were getting them too late,” Hutcheson says.
Hutcheson, though, isn’t someone who quits easily– which has served him well in his battle with leukemia. So, he switched course. The result was Colorado UpLift, a Denver-based non-profit that teaches character and life skills and provides mentors and life coaches who bring stability, tutoring, and guidance to elementary, middle, and high-school students. And one of the things Hutcheson is proudest of is how many Colorado UpLift alumni come back to mentor a new generation. Colorado UpLIft was hitting its stride when Hutcheson went to his doctor for a routine physical. A few days later, the doctor called, and after reading off normal test results, Hutcheson recalls, “He suddenly said, ‘Oops. Your white count is elevated.’ ”
Soon afterward Hutcheson was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow and moves into the blood. For many, CLL can be a chronic, managed disease. Hutcheson, though, has a very aggressive form of the disease.
Treatment — and the cycle of remission and recurrence — has taken a toll. And, more than once, Hutcheson hit a wall, with cancer marching forward and no new options available, only to have Di Bella finesse him into a clinical trial that wasn’t necessarily designed for patients like him.
“I just see one miracle after another,” Hutcheson says. Hutcheson, who has come to regard Di Bella as a friend and champion as well as physician, appreciates his doctor’s resourcefulness, and credits RMCC’s remarkable, caring health professionals, whom he calls “totally dedicated to the fickle nature of my disease.”
Hutcheson’s faith hasn’t wavered; neither has his resolve to stay positive. “I’m sure some people would succumb to bitterness, and to the ‘why me?’ mentality. But bitterness and victimhood can be as bad as the disease,” he says. “If you lose hope, you die. “
Hutcheson has plenty to live for. An offshoot of Colorado UpLift, Elevate the US, is launching across the country, and he and his wife of 50 years have three children and eight grandchildren. “Having a purpose in life lets you accomplish great things.”