The first time Carson City Deputy Kip Lee really understood chemotherapy kills everything was after a treatment when he developed sores on his gums. Then his lower eyelashes fell out. As did the hair on his head.
But the poison aimed at killing the deadly cancer cells invading his body did little to his spirit.
And aside from its intended purpose - attacking the multiple myeloma threatening his life - chemotherapy, along with tandem stem cell transplants, has given him something else: hope.
"The No. 1 thing I want people to know is I ain't dying from cancer," said the former Navy communications operator in his trademark Kentucky twang. "I'm overcoming it."
Lee, 43, is a playful sort. With nearly every good-natured barb he throws, there's a sly smile and a half wink.
It was that playfulness that drew his wife Penny, a Yerington native, to the sailor while he was stationed at Fallon Naval Air Station in 1993. In addition to two children each from previous marriages, the duo are the parents of 9-year-old Madison. And together they've undertaken the biggest fight of their lives.
Lee grew up in Kentucky, one of seven children. The Lee siblings all made it to adulthood, but then tragedy struck. His older sister Anita, 48, died of throat cancer in March 2009. During Lee's first visit to the Huntsman Cancer Clinic in Salt Lake City in September for his cancer treatment, another sister Michelle, 47, died from cervical cancer.
Lee doesn't ask why. What he does think of is how his sisters never went back to the doctor to get treatment after their diagnoses. He will not make that mistake.
"I lost two sisters to cancer. I'm going to beat it," he said.
"You're going to deal with it one way or another," said Penny. "We chose to deal with it right away."
Just before the Fourth of July Lee got word that tests during a routine physical for work revealed a high protein.
He was alone when the doctor told him that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow that is highly treatable if caught early.
He called his wife to tell her.
Penny teared up Wednesday as she remembered that conversation.
"It was like my whole world came to an end," she said. "When you hear cancer you think a death sentence."
A co-worker's husband had previously been diagnosed with the same illness, so Penny knew of the struggles ahead. The outlook seemed bleak. For both of them.
"Those were some dark days," said Lee. "In the beginning you're scared. At first, even though they say they can treat it, you don't believe it. You're like 'OK, whatever. I got cancer.'"
But the optimism of his doctors at the Huntsman Clinic and his gradual understanding of the graphs posted in his room showing his positive response to treatment lightened those dark days.
"When you look at those graphs, you know what's good and what's bad. Where I'm at now is, 'Oh. OK. Everything that the doctor said is coming to life.'"
Lee's first stem cell transplant of his own harvested stem cells happened Nov. 7. His second and last is scheduled for later this month. Lee returns to Salt Lake City on Monday to prepare.
"What they say now is his new birthday is Nov. 7," said Penny. "They basically built him all over again with brand new stems cell."
Penny said her husband's prognosis is good.
"Doctors say he's responding better than expected," she said.
She has been by his side as often as possible. The couple rents an apartment in Salt Lake when Lee is undergoing a transplant or treatments. And because he needs 24-hour care following the transplants, they rely on Penny's family, including her son from her first marriage, to fill in where Penny can't.
The Lees are grateful for the help. Otherwise, they'd have to pay for home care on a budget already stretched thin by medical costs and travel expenses and maintaining two households.
They've also received donations from the Carson City Sheriff's Supervisors and Deputies associations, the Nevada Corrections Association, and the Douglas County law enforcement association. All of the money is put into an account set up for Lee by his comrades in the Carson City Deputy Sheriff's Association.
Lee has enough sick leave and help from co-workers that his pay hasn't been impacted.
After talking with his surviving siblings, Lee decided to keep his illness from his mother. A revelation even Penny was surprised to hear Wednesday. Mom's been through enough losing two children already, he said. Why worry her?
Besides, from what the doctors have told them, the future looks bright.
"In a few months I expect to be back to work," he said with a wide smile and a shrug. "Back to normal."