If you've spent time around Dr. Rice Leach in the past few months you know this already: He has cancer.
He has talked about it at Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health meetings and at Rotary Club meetings. His hat of choice, a gift his son John bought at Cracker Barrel, reads "I'm having a no hair day."
Yet the 71-year-old health commissioner, who has overseen a tumultuous transition at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, was barely slowed down by multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
His very public reaction to this health challenge has inspired, but not surprised, people around him.
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"I've really admired his dedication to the job," said Geoff Reed, a senior adviser to Mayor Jim Gray who works closely with Leach. "He's just that kind of person who shows real passion in everything he does."
Leach draws inspiration from the example of his daughter Mary Leach Whitcomb, who handled her own battle with breast cancer with grace until her death in 2007.
The mother of two "had a good long cry about having cancer," Leach said, and then she proceeded to make the most out of her life. "If that 37-year-old can handle that big mess," he said, "you better believe I can handle this."
The diagnosis comes
It is fitting that Leach, a tall man known for his love of freewheeling stories that meander from topic to topic and back again, found out he had cancer in a way that makes for an interesting tale.
After attending a medical conference, he was reviewing information about lymphoma on the flight home when he reached up to feel the lymph nodes in his own neck.
"That one is a little bigger," he says he thought to himself. That was in mid-February, when the health department turmoil was at its public peak. He was in talks with Reed and the mayor to replace Dr. Melinda Rowe, who resigned from her post as health commissioner in March.
With all that distraction, he said, "I forgot about it."
But by April, the lymph node had enlarged into something the size of about half a lemon. The doctor became the patient.
Leach's wife, Mireille, said the discovery "was a scare-and-a-half."
A smoker of an occasional stogie, Rice Leach joked, "My biggest anxiety with this whole deal is that they would dig a little deeper and find a bunch of cigar butts in there."
This year was actually the second time Leach, who has since quit smoking altogether, found himself diagnosed with cancer. When he was 26, doctors found a melanoma and gave him a 10 percent chance of surviving five years. His daughter was just 2 weeks old at the time.
Obviously, he beat those odds. But this time, he hopes he doesn't: People with his diagnosis — large-cell, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — have a 90 percent chance of surviving 10 years.
"I think we got the best of the cancers, if we can put it that way," said Mireille Leach.
Still, Rice Leach went to Reed, the mayor's adviser, and said, "I understand if you want to get another captain for this ship" and not hire him as health commissioner.
Reed said he had complete confidence in Leach's abilities, but he offered extra leave time if it were needed. That offer was declined.
Telling his story
Leach told many of those with whom he works closest, like public health nursing manager Lois Davis, about his illness directly.
"I think it was wonderful that he laid it out on the table and he was open with everybody," she said. "I've been in the work force a long time and most people keep these things private."
But, she said, it's fitting with Leach's oversize personality.
"He likes to relate to people on a personal level," she said, adding, "Most people appreciate the honesty and openness."
Leach publicly acknowledged his cancer at a health board meeting this spring where he cited his own diagnosis as one of the many challenges facing the health department.
But, he said, he never thought about abandoning his post.
Leach's return to the health department this year followed his retirement last spring as head of the Primary Care Center over conflicts with Rowe. He was familiar with much of the staff and felt a responsibility toward them.
"I thought they needed me around here, and I thought I had something to offer," he said. "I was worried that the illness will slow me down some. That's a challenge, because I'm the guy in charge."
He handled the chemo, which lasted from May to July, with typical humor, showing off the port inserted into his skin for delivering the caustic drugs as "where they put the weed killer in."
He did suffer some side effects, mostly fatigue and an overall sluggish feeling that he says felt like a cold.
"I had to ration my energy," he said, and make sure that he got a full eight hours of sleep a night.
In a way, working helped, he said.
"I talked about it a lot, but I felt better sharing it with people than I would have not sharing it with people," he said.
His employees had helped him through the difficult months following his daughter's death. He still gets tears in his eyes thinking of that loss. The five months after her death were the hardest, he says.
But, as he heads toward the second of 18 rounds of radiation therapy, his attitude is positive. He's grateful for the many people who are praying for him.
"Something like this gets the whole family in it," his wife, Mireille, said. "It shows they care about you."
While he's hopeful for full recovery, Leach is philosophical about the whole thing.
Life "is all in the trip; and all the passengers, we are going to the same place." But, he said, "there are an awful lot of neat people in on the journey with you."