How Do You Stay Positive When Your Wife and Kid Have Cancer?

Rick Worthington is a diehard sports fan.

Baseball, football, basketball — it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s an Oakland A’s game or his kid’s basketball game, he’ll watch it.

One of the most memorable speeches Rick ever heard was that of the late North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano. Valvano is best known for the line, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

After a tumultuous 2017, Rick and his family are living by that motto.

Rick’s wife, Kristen, was diagnosed with breast cancer last February.

Five months later, his 14-year-old son, Nikko, was diagnosed with stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma, a bone cancer, in his back.

Rick, a former KOH News Talk 780 news director who was born in Elko but went to school at TMCC in Reno, is traveling a difficult path through fatherhood after back-to-back blows to his family.

But, he has maintained his positive outlook in the face of adversity. He’s choosing to find joy in 2018 and to find happiness in the good days while he has them.

The Worthington family

“My role is that of a provider for this family,” Rick said. “While I would love to stop doing everything to just stay with Nikko, that’s not something I can do right now. I still need to function as the head of the family, and even more so now that Kristen is sick, too. So, my job is to go to work, and when I come home to try to fill in for Mom the best I can.”

Kristen’s Diagnosis

Rick and Kristen met in Elko, Nevada, about 290 miles east of Reno, in the late 1990s. Kristen, who was home from UNR for the summer, worked as a tour guide with Barrick Gold. Rick was a DJ for KELK/KLKO Radio. They met while Rick was the host/MC of a local comedy show and soon began a bond that led to marriage.

Kristen Worthington

The couple has four kids (Payton, 16; Nikko, 14; Bella, 6; Abby, 3). Rick is a big sports fan (Oakland Athletics in baseball, Raiders in football) and has coached football and wrestling. After working at KOH, and as one of the stadium announcers for the Reno Aces during its first season, Worthington took a job at KBOI in Boise, Idaho, to be closer to Kristen’s family.

In February, after a self-examination, Kristen discovered a lump on her breast. After a mammogram the following week and a biopsy a day after that, Kristen was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

“It was so scary for everyone, especially the kids,” Rick said. “The girls don’t really understand cancer, but the boys sure did.”

Doctors performed a mastectomy to remove the breast. Two surgeries were needed after a minor setback. Luckily, it was caught early.

“Ten years ago, this could have and probably would have killed her,” Rick said. “But science has helped identify and kill this type of cancer. Again, we have a long way to go with treatment, but the prognosis is very good.”

The family bonded well Kristen’s diagnosis and prepared for the chemotherapy that is expected to go on for a few more years.

It was just a speed bump in life, they hoped.

‘Nobody is that Unlucky’

After Kristen’s diagnosis, a Facebook post to concerned friends and family read “We have some hard days ahead, but will meet them head on.”

That was the sports side of Rick kicking in.

The post was squashed in between videos of his kids’ basketball games, old photos of him and his wife, and his daughters on a swing set.

On June 16, a Facebook post changed the mood.

“Dear Friends,

There is no easy way to say this.

My son Nikko has been admitted to the St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital in Boise. They have given us a room in the Oncology wing, which may give you a clue as to why where are here.”

The post described some “really scary words” being thrown around. It ended: “I am at a loss for words to describe the grief I feel in my heart.”

Nikko and Kristen Worthington

About a month prior, Nikko complained of back pain. Doctors took x-rays and found nothing.

Unsatisfied with the results, and after Nikko could not eat and was losing weight, Rick demanded more tests. Those tests did not provide happy results.

Doctors found tumors in his back, which caused several vertebrae to fracture. His kidneys were on the verge of failing and it took three weeks for his vitals to return to normal.

“The diagnosis at the time was… laughable,” Rick said. “Cancer hits twice in the same family only five months apart? I mean, nobody is that unlucky. And then the reality sets in and it was crushing. It continues to be crushing most days.”

Rick continued, “I was in my foxhole. The suffering that goes with chemo is what I find the hardest to deal with. You are just so helpless to do anything to make him feel better.”

Overwhelming Response

The Worthingtons have a tight-knit network of family and friends, both in Reno and Boise. And the response was overwhelming.

Nikko was on the sideline at a Denver Broncos game and got a shoutout on the video board. Boise State football players visited him in the hospital. The cast of the CW show The Flash, his favorite program, even sent him an autographed poster.

He also received a Nevada Wolf Pack football jersey. He took a picture with it. In the picture, Nikko has a huge smile, despite having no hair from the chemo. Behind him are support stickers that say, “Cancer Sucks” and “Kick Cancer’s Butt.”

The head coach and players from the Rocky Mountain HS Baseball team, including his brother Payton, visiting Nikko in the hospital – June 2017

Countless friends have reached out to provide meals, mow the grass at his house, provide vouchers for house cleaning services and even hung up Christmas lights. A GoFundMe.com account has raised nearly $50,000.

“It’s all so nice, and very humbling,” Rick said. “There have been several other people that have done some nice things for Nikko and his mother.”

Finding a Happy Place

Trying to keep a child with cancer happy can be difficult considering the pain he’s going through. Rick will break out video games. Nikko loves playing the football game, Madden. But what does he enjoy even more?

“He loves beating his dad at Madden!,” Rick says, with a laugh. “No kidding. He loves it!”

Nikko is also a huge Star Wars fan. The family went and saw The Last Jedi in December. Nikko’s favorite character is Chewbacca, as you can see when the two recently shared a photo on Facebook with an image filter that had Rick as Darth Vader and Nikko as Chewy.

Rick and Nikko Worthington

Rick goes out of his way to find a happy place for himself and his entire family. Naturally, Nikko and Kristen will need assistance as they go through treatment. He also works hard to give attention to his other three children. Rick is not a complainer and not one to sulk in his unfortunate circumstances and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

“Well, I am not always positive, to tell the truth,” Rick said. “I think I have to project a certain amount of positivity most days for the sake of others. But the old saying is true: you really can only control your attitude and effort. You have to control those two things.”

Path Forward

Chemo, doctors appointments and the horrendous side effects of cancer are just the way it is now for both Kristen and Nikko. Doctors and the family remain cautious, as there are more hurdles to clear. Rick and his family are hoping for a better 2018.

Updates on the family’s Facebook page contain ups and downs.  Last week, the bad news for Nikko was that his feeding tube got pulled out of his abdomen; installation of the replacement tube hurt like hell. Kristen, meanwhile, had to reschedule chemotherapy because she’s been sick for three weeks.

But there was good news: Nikko’s chemo is showing progress. The tumors are decreasing drastically and his bone marrow is regenerating and filling in where some tumors used to be.

Nikko and Rick Worthington

Valvano, the North Carolina State basketball coach who died of adenocarcinoma, a type of many glandular cancers, provided many memorable lines and many apply to Rick and his family.

“Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities,” Valvano said as he battled cancer. “It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.”

Rick simply won’t let himself or his family give up.

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