Charles Van Kirk February 2008
Pastor Charles Van Kirk enjoyed lifelong health. In the spring of 2007,
however, he noticed shortness of breath when going on lunchtime mountain
bike rides with a friend. His normal route, which he could easily do with
minimal exertion, left him with a painful stitch in his side.
He decided to follow up with his family doctor for a check-up. A chest
x-ray revealed scarring or thickening in the lung. , Dr. Elwood Cohen
of Lake Arrowhead, California, then ordered a CT scan with contrast. Charles
suffered an allergic reaction to the iodine and was hospitalized for over
a week. The CT, however, confirmed the presence of an abnormality in the lung.
Charles was next referred to a pulmonologist, Dr. Jason Linn, in San Bernardino.
Dr. Linn diagnosed a pleural effusion and drained the fluid surrounding
Charles's lung with a thoracentesis. The fluid returned, which required
a second thoracentesis to remove it. Unbeknownst to Charles, this was
the classic pattern for mesothelioma. Fortunately, his pulmonologist was
concerned about the recurring fluid and referred him to a surgeon, Dr.
Dr. Gibson decided to surgically remove the mass from Charles's lung,
but when Dr. Gibson entered the chest cavity, he realized that the tumor
was very big and actually encasing the lung. The planned procedure couldn't
get the tumor, so he took the opportunity to cut off a slice of the tumor
for lab analysis. Pathology analysis of the tissue resulted in a diagnosis
of malignant pleural mesothelioma. That was the bad news. The worse news
was that the cellular subtype of the tumor was biphasic, or a mixture
of epithelial (40%) and sarcomatoid (60%) cells. This type of tumor is
especially resistant to chemotherapy and to surgical treatment.
Surfing for a solution
Charles and Diane with their daughter Christa and her husband in Santa
Monica, California. May 2006
Fortunately, Pastor Van Kirk had a secret weapon: his two daughters and
their use of the Internet. As they meticulously searched through the countless
web sites purporting to provide medical options for mesothelioma patients,
they finally located information about the best treater for pleural mesothelioma
in California, Dr. Robert Cameron at UCLA's David Geffen School of
Medicine and director of the UCLA mesothelioma program.
Dr. Cameron ordered a PET scan and requested that the UCLA pathologists
be provided with the tissue slides in order to confirm the diagnosis.
If the pathology report indicated that Charles's tumor was epithelial
rather than biphasic, he would be able to perform the lung-sparing PD surgery.
Unfortunately, the UCLA lab confirmed the initial reading from San Bernardino.
Charles had biphasic meso, and unless the tumor could be reduced with
chemotherapy Dr. Cameron would be unable to perform the lung-sparing surgery.
Given the refractory and aggressiveness of biphasicmesothelioma , the
promise of chemo seemed dim.
Ace in the hole
Dr. Cameron recommended that Charles consult with the leading researcher
and practitioner on the West Coast specializing in chemotherapy for sarcoma,
Dr. Sant Chawla of the
Sarcoma Oncology Center in Los Angeles. Dr. Chawla has treated several of Dr. Cameron's sarcomatoid
mesothelioma patients with many of the same drugs that are used to treat
sarcoma. Dr. Chawla is one of only two doctors nationwide who offers a
clinical trial for mesothelioma using conventional Alimta and Cistplatin, plus an
innovative anti-angiogenesis drug that has not been approved by the FDA.
Dr. Sant Chawla
Charles consulted with Dr. Chawla and enrolled in the Phase I/II trial.
In order to enroll, Charles had to meet several criteria: he had confirmed
biphasic pleural meso, with measurable disease greater than 20mm, staging
greater than equal to stage II using the IMIG system, ECOT performance
status less than or equal to 2, and an estimated survival time of at least
The regimen produced an unexpected tumor
response of sorts, although medically a "response" is defined by a uniform
reduction of tumor by one centimeter or more. Though the tumor did not
shrink, follow up scans performed by Dr. Chawla showed the tumor had
not expanded, which itself is rare for such an aggressive tumor.
At the earlier examination in April, Charles's tumor measured 55 x
36mm in diameter. Rather than the expected growth and spread of such an
aggressive tumor, the CT scan taken in late May showed that the tumor
size in spots was 49 x 33mm, which the reading physician evaluated as
"essentially no change in size since prior examination." As
importantly, the physician noted that there were no new masses.
Although Charles's left hemithorax demonstrated a decrease in overall
volume and a circumferential pleural thickening that was particularly
prominent at the base of the left lung, a medical comeback of sorts was
in progress: The lack of spread was enough to justify a second consultation
with Dr. Cameron, who was pleased. "First, I was surprised by the
lack of growth," said Dr. Cameron. "Second, I was pleased to
learn that Dr. Chawla had a new protocol that incorporated an anti-angiogenic
compound into the mix along with Cisplatin and Alimta. I had referred
many sarcomatoid patients to Dr. Chawla before, but Pastor Van Kirk was
the first to participate in this new protocol."
The best defense
Dr. Robert Cameron in surgery
Dr. Cameron decided to operate, another "first "of sorts. He
scheduled Charles for the lung-sparing
pleurectomy / decortication (P/D) surgery. The surgery was grueling, lasting over twelve hours. Once
inside the chest cavity, Dr. Cameron found something even more promising
than the "no growth" of the preliminary CT scan. He found extensive
scar tissue surrounding the tumor, something he'd never before seen
from a biphasic patient on a chemotherapy protocol. He couldn't be
sure until after the pathologist reviewed the specimens later, but at
the time Dr. Cameron's impression, in so many words, was "Wow,
the chemotherapy regimen must have helped."
A week later, the pathologist issued his report, which further stimulated
Dr. Cameron's interest. About 75% of the tissue was scar tissue and
25% was tumor. What did this mean? Did it mean that Dr. Chawla's cocktail
had killed 75% of the cancerous mesothelioma cells?
Not necessarily. "We don't know if the treatment was solely responsible
for the pathologic finding that only 25% of the tissue removed was tumor.
The scar tissue could be a natural biologic result of the tumor itself.
We need to follow up on this very intriguing clinical result," observed
So much to live for
Shortly after the difficult surgery, the robust and hard charging pastor
was back on his feet. The best defense had truly been an aggressive and
innovative offense. A miracle? That depends on who you ask. For Pastor
Van Kirk and his family, the remarkable response, and the successful surgery,
was more than random luck. "There are all kinds of miracles,"
says Charles. "Mine happened to be the kind that comes from great
science, lucky timing, and the best mesothelioma doctors on the West Coast."
Charles officiating at his daughter's Lindsey's wedding in June of 2006
Charles and his wife have three beautiful daughters who have given them
three lovely grandchildren. Their happiness and rejoicing at seeing their
family grow is a special kind of love and joy known only to grandparents.
As Charles says, "Few moments compare to a father walking his daughter
down the isle to give her to a deserving young man, and fewer moments
still compare with the joy of being blessed with grandchildren."
For the last eighteen years, Charles has served as the pastor of the Rim
of the World Community Church located in Running Springs, California.
Running Springs is a mountain community located near Lake Arrowhead and
Big Bear Lake. "As a mountain preacher, you wear a lot of hats,"
Charles says with a big grin. Charles has a congregation of approximately
130 and is involved in the church's men's group which performs
home repairs, shovels snow, and chops wood for widows and others in need
of assistance. Charles and his church provided extensive shelter and assistance
to families who were displaced as a result of the wildfires which ravaged
the area in 2006.
"I love my work and have kept up with my responsibilities as pastor
despite the symptoms and the treatment. Of course, I've had lots of
help from my family and congregation."
Charles has always lived the healthy and active lifestyle. As a veteran
who served during the Vietnam War and as a state champion swimmer in high
school, an excess of strength and energy have characterized his life.
It's an excess he has always put back into the community and into
the lives of people in need. Since moving to Running Springs in 1985,
Charles has taken full advantage of the numerous recreational activities
available in his mountain surroundings. Before the onset of his symptoms,
he and his wife Diane would go for hikes virtually every morning. Charles
was also fond of going out for exercise at lunch. In the winter this involved
going snow shoeing and in the summer this involved going mountain biking
or jogging. He and Diane also enjoyed skiing at many of the nearby ski resorts.
Charles Van Kirk family
Charles is a man who is loved by his family and by the community which
he serves. He is used to being the one that others turn to for strength
and support in their time of need, and is grateful for the outpouring
of love and support he has received since being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
His optimism about the future has been tempered by concern for the well-being
of those who have grown to rely upon him. "I put my faith in God,
my love in my family, and my trust in my doctors. What we've been
able to get as far as extended life from the treatments so far is more
than we ever hoped for at first. We're not giving up."
He can't give up now. Charles is the poster boy for what hopes to be
a breakthrough treatment plan for sarcomatoid mesothelioma patients.
*** POSTED NOVEMBER 20, 2008 ***
An Update --
Since undergoing the pleurectomy/decortication surgery with Dr. Robert
Cameron at UCLA Medical Center in September 2008, Dr. Cameron has continued
to monitor Charles closely. Charles has been seen once every three months
and undergoes CT and PET scans before every visit so Dr. Cameron can determine
whether the tumor is recurring. On January 9, 2009, Dr. Cameron found
that the scans did not reveal any recurrence. Scans taken prior to an
April 24, 2009 visit revealed some activity in the cells which Charles’s
oncologist characterized as “suspicious” for recurrence, but
Dr. Cameron concluded that the activity was part of the normal healing
process from the surgery and post-surgical radiation treatments. The most
recent visit with Dr. Cameron occurred on July 24, 2009, during which
Dr. Cameron concluded that there was once again no evidence of recurrence!
Even with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, it is impossible to remove
all of the cancer cells from Charles’s chest. It is for this reason
that Dr. Cameron will continue to monitor Charles’s condition closely
so that prompt action can be taken at the first sign of recurrence.
For now, “Pastor Chuck” (as he is known to his parishioners
at the Rim of the World Community Church) is healing from the effects
of the cancer and all of the treatments needed to kill it. He remains
encouraged by the continued good news and the answer to his prayers that
his current status represents. He is now "back in the saddle"
at Rim Church, giving the Sunday messages, attending or presiding at a
full schedule of meetings, and doing counseling and administrative work.
We join with Pastor Chuck’s family, friends and parishioners in asking
for the Lord's continued grace in keeping the cancer from returning.
A Holiday Message and Theological Response to “The Median Isn’t
the Message” from Meso Survivor Pastor Charles Van Kirk
November 30, 2010
By John Caron:
A few days before Thanksgiving, I came back across the insightful and inspirational essay
“The Median Isn’t the Message” written by Harvard and NYU evolutionary biology professor Stephen Jay
Gould shortly after he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1982.
In the essay, Professor Gould discusses his reaction to the median survival
statistics of only eight months for patients diagnosed with his disease.
Rather than resign himself to this fate, Professor Gould explained that
statistics are merely abstractions which do not encompass the full range
of variation and concluded that he should be in the favorable half of
the upper statistical range because of his age, positive attitude, early
diagnosis and the fact that he received the best available medical treatment.
Professor Gould proved to be correct, surviving 20 years following his
diagnosis with mesothelioma before passing away due to an unrelated condition.
I thought some of my mesothelioma clients would enjoy reading this timeless
and optimistic piece and forwarded it to them along with a Thanksgiving
greeting. Once such client was Thurl Charles Van Kirk, Pastor of the Rim
of the World Community Church in Running Springs, California. “Pastor
Chuck” has himself defied the statistics by surviving almost three
years since his diagnosis with biphasic mesothelioma—and counting!
Knowing that Pastor Chuck received degrees in theology before serving 30
years as a Pastor, I was eager to receive his perspective on the evolutionary
biology professor’s essay about statistics and survival. Pastor
Chuck certainly did not disappoint.
Printed below with his permission is Pastor Chuck’s eloquent and
thoughtful response culminating in a timely and valuable prayer for this
Please enjoy and pass along to others.
Thanks again Pastor Chuck!
Thank you for the article, “The Median Isn’t the Message”
by Stephen Jay Gould. It reminds me of a passage in Luke 16.8,
“…There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and
this steward was reported to him as squandering his
And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I
hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for
you can no longer be steward.’
And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
since my master is taking the stewardship away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from
this stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.’
And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors,
and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my
And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said
to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’
Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’
And he said, ’A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him.
‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
And his master praised the unrighteous steward because
he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd
in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
Professor Gould shed some light upon a gloomy topic. Statistics, ah, in
college I spent a year deriving formulas by hand just in case our computers
crashed. Through all the exercise of tangent and co-tangent, designing
experiments and penning down conclusions, never mind their significance;
we learned that Professor Gould was right. Statistics can be so stretched.
And there is that mystical point where truth gives way to lies and lies
fade into truth. “It’s all relative? To what? To whom?”
My answers came from the study of theology.
What appeals to me in the above scripture appears in its preface, “this
steward was reported to him as squandering his possessions.” Professor
Gould dazzles the reader with his understanding and definitions. But the
point in Luke’s account is that there shall be a day of accounting
where the mean and the median will be required for each of us.
Yes, attitude is everything. At times my hardest struggle is just to get
up in the morning. Deep, throbbing pain in my side demands attention.
So I pop some pain meds and lay back down pondering what heaven will be
like when we receive new bodies that never break down, get sick, wrestle
with illness or suffer!
So thank you again. I’ll be seeking to be in the distribution of
those who thrive even in the midst and realities of diseased bodies. The
steward was wise in how he finally got those uncollectible accounts to
pay up. It wasn’t the full measure but something is better than
nothing. I suspect his employer had been trying to receive payment for
years from his debtors. This shrewd servant found a way to endear himself
with his master and those who owed him money.
My prayer for you and yours this holiday season is that you make time to
celebrate the little things, the kindnesses and tenderness afoot from
strangers, friends and family. Perhaps we as sons of light might advance
those in our sphere of influence to reconsider the glory of Christmas,
the cheer of Thanksgiving and fulfill the goals our master bids us do in 2011.
Charles Van Kirk
*** Pastor Van Kirk passed away on May 25, 2012 ***