Leukemia survivor Van Winter still grateful, still 'paying back' town's support

Leukemia survivor Van Winter still grateful, still 'paying back' town's support

CUMBERLAND - Bob Van Winter, who endured a bone marrow transplant after developing leukemia as a 39-year-old in 1997, says today that he's given up trying to pay back all that was given to him during that ordeal.

Van Winter continues these days as a manufacturer's representative for plastics but devotes so much time to the Rhode Island Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that he refuses to admit how many hours a week that consumes. (Find him on Twitter at LLSinRI.)

"The more I give, the more I receive. I'm never going to give more than I have received," he says now.

Van Winter, who lives off Fieldside Drive, is chairman now of the Rhode Island Chapter of Leukemia & Lymphoma Society board of trustees after spending years as a volunteer working directly with patients at the most difficult moments of their lives as they faced unknown medical outcomes.

Valley Breeze readers likely remember him from 1997 when he reached out to the community with his thanks for all the support given to him and his wife, Marybeth, and three sons following his successful bone marrow transplant.

Sixteen years later, the oldest boy, Robert, is a new graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Nicholas is a junior at Duchense College.

Andrew, just an infant when his father was diagnosed, is a senior at Mount St. Charles Academy where he excels in academics, music and athletics.

And Van Winter and his wife celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this year.

Van Winter says the community repeated its support in 2005 when he developed a carcinoma on his tonsil that appears to have been successfully treated.

In both cases, a wide neighborhood of friends was there to back up him and his family "This is an amazing community," he says.

Van Winter's first foray into volunteerism started at Rhode Island Hospital when a nurse asked him to chat with a patient about to undergo a bone marrow transplant that he had recently endured.

Later, he was involved in First Connection, a patient support system that predated the Internet and saw him telephoning patients all over the world who were experiencing similar circumstances to Van Winter's.

"I loved it," he said, noting that these days, the Internet allowed for easier contact and online support groups.

It was two years ago he joined the Rhode Island Leukemia & Lymphoma board and just recently was named chairman.

It's a position that sees him heading up huge fundraising drives with a gusto, because he says research continues to pay off with new life-saving breakthroughs.

Van Winter's message to the community is one of great hope.

He points to research in the field of blood cancers that's making the fastest strides of any cancer research. Diseases that meant near-certain death to children several decades ago are now usually curable.

"In 1964, a child diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia had a 3 percent survival rate," he says. "It's now 90 percent."

Almost half of the new cancer therapies approved by the Federal Drug Administration between 2000 and 2012 were first approved for blood cancer patients. LLS invested $70 million in "cutting-edge research" just last year with 70 cents of every dollar raised going directly to research.

He says LLS "isn't on the tip of your tongue" as perhaps the American Cancer Society or American Heart Association.

Still, many have heard of Team in Training, started 25 years ago, that today is the single largest athletic training program in the nation. Rhode Islanders are training now for a January marathon run at Walt Disney World.

School children's Pennies for Patients coin collection program also benefits LLS.

It was Van Winter who reached out to Cumberland High School Principal Alan Teneiro to ask the Cumberland community to join the Light the Night Walk LLS fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 28, in Cranston, a challenge that prompted the principal to suggest a $25,000 fundraising goal to benefit the society this year.

Says Van Winter, "Light the Night Walk will honor the patients, family, caregivers and celebrate those who've survived and honor those who passed. Caregivers are the unsung heroes. It is a great coming together," he said.

To sign up for the Sept. 28 walk, go to register, go to this website: www.lightthenight.org, find the Sept. 28 Cranston event, and the Cumberland High School team.