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It Ain’t Chemo: A cancer support group with an edge

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Kevin Hoyt: founder of It Ain’t Chemo
Photo: Leila Navidi

Most of us have had rough patches in our pasts—painful but bearable series of events that draw out nonchalant comments like, “Hey, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” Then there are people who’ve lived through tragedies so deep that motivational bumper-sticker slogans about silver linings and God opening windows do not apply.

Kevin Hoyt is one of those people.

He survived testicular cancer, which had also spread to his lymph nodes; saw his mother paralyzed; was forced to make the haunting decision to take his own son off life support; and mourned the loss of more than a dozen friends and acquaintances on September 11—all in the span of less than two years. That amount of emotional and physical trauma can ruin a man, and it almost did.

“For years after, I was a miserable human being. My wife was a saint for putting up with me,” Hoyt says, explaining that he suffered from survivor guilt after beating cancer. He also endured a relentlessly recurring dream: his dead son confronting him at the top of a mountain peak, saying, “You let me die.”

The dreams stopped after Hoyt followed the advice of Dr. Laura, whose radio program he called from his car on a whim. She told him to challenge his son, to say, “I did everything I could for you.”

Time helped heal the rest.

A turning point came one day when Hoyt, who has worked in fire rescue for two decades (including four years in the Air Force), found himself literally burned and battered after work. He sat alone, dejected, when his fire captain walked up to him and asked if he was okay.

Without thinking, Hoyt responded, “Hey, it ain’t chemo.”

That was the moment Hoyt says he realized he’d already been through hell and back and that there was no reason to be so miserable, and that’s when he began committing himself to helping others whose suffering he knew firsthand.

It began small—a trip to Target for some blankets, because he remembered the nights he’d spent freezing between hospital sheets. Eventually it grew into “cancer talks” with patients, mostly children, who could vent their fears and frustrations to him better than they could with their own families, for whom they often feel the need to stay strong. Finally, a cancer patient Hoyt refers to only as Sissy threw the idea out there: Why not help even more people?

This was the beginning of It Ain’t Chemo, Hoyt’s nonprofit organization dedicated to helping cancer patients in their day-to-day lives by providing simple things like meals for their families, distractions like books and movies and a support network of people to listen and offer advice when they can.

Hoyt says this hands-on approach is rooted in his firefighting background: “When your house is on fire, you don’t want someone to come and research why fires start. You just want someone to put out the flames.”

It Ain't Chemo spokeswoman Stephanie Ann Cook models one of the company's T-shirts ... and not much else.

Masuimi Max poses with a guitar, which she donated to It Ain't Chemo to be auctioned off at a fundraiser event on October 2

The fact that IAC has surpassed Hoyt’s personal trips and expanded into a “we” consisting of a dedicated team of about a dozen volunteers still amazes Hoyt—though perhaps it shouldn’t. In its nine months of existence, IAC has made some notable connections, ones that set it miles apart from other cancer-related nonprofits.

One of those is fetish model Masuimi Max, whom Hoyt first met at the Fetish & Fantasy Ball and later reconnected with at the Adult Entertainment Expo. He says he asked her to be a part of the organization because he was drawn to her down-to-earth personality but also wanted to bring edge to IAC.

Her involvement sends a message that supporting people with cancer is a job for everyone, not just old grannies. Beautiful people with full back tattoos and pierced nipples are affected by cancer, too. Adds Hoyt, “Masuimi should have a right to be herself and help out at the same time.”

IAC’s strongest niche, however, comes from Las Vegas’ mixed martial arts community. Ryan Couture, professional fighter and son of Randy Couture, is one of the organization’s most dedicated volunteers—as is fellow fighter Jimmy Jones. “These guys come off as arrogant, and they should have some pride to them—their job is to fight,” says Hoyt. “But they’re the most caring people.”

And the parallel between these fighters and the “cancer warriors” they help is obvious. Both can take blow after blow without giving up.

Former UFC Octagon girl Natasha Wicks and Tuff-N-Uff ring girl Stephanie Ann Cook also became celebrity spokeswomen for the nonprofit, which raises money by selling IAC T-shirts, hats, booty shorts and even corsets. Cook will also be one of several local celebrities auctioned off during IAC’s first bachelor/bachelorette and silent auction, scheduled for October 2 at Stoney’s.

“We’re a little sexy,” Hoyt jokes. “I welcome it.”

Save for Hoyt, none of the core group of volunteers—which includes Jones, Couture and Cook—has battled cancer, and the young organization only very recently dealt with its first loss of a cancer warrior, a 12-year-old boy named Leonardo Russo.

With trademark compassion, Hoyt concedes that he feels a bit uneasy about dragging this group of 20-somethings into his mission: “I’ve been there before. They haven’t. Some of them haven’t even had a family member or friend die. I worry for them a little.”

IAC volunteer Joyce Valdes says Hoyt shouldn’t feel guilty. He didn’t force anyone to volunteer. “There’s just something about you,” Valdes tells Hoyt. “You just make people want to get involved.”

Valdes, whose day job is as a producer for RawVegas.tv, is working on a documentary focusing on IAC, which Hoyt hopes he might be able to parlay into more funding and a greater ability to make an impact. “I’d love to be like Extreme Home Makeover for cancer. I’d love to have the ability to fly someone’s grandparents in from across the country or provide more home care for kids.”

Even without funding, the group has managed to make a difference. In June, the group believed one cancer warrior—Dylan Woods—was nearing the end of his battle with cancer. Knowing the 13-year-old wanted to see Twilight but fearing he wouldn’t live to see the official release date, they began asking everyone they knew to help them find a way. They searched for bootleg copies. Then, they embraced Twitter, and through a grapevine of friends, they reached someone at Summit Entertainment, who personally flew a copy of the movie to Las Vegas.

Calendar

It Ain't Chemo Bachelor/Bachelorette & Silent Auction
Stoney's Rockin Country
October 2, 6-9 p.m.
ItAintChemo.com

Just hours before the movie executive was to land at McCarran, Hoyt’s wife, Barbara, bought a big-screen television for everyone to watch it on.

From inception to ending credits, all of this had happened in a weekend. When word of what IAC had done got out, the Make-A-Wish Foundation reached out to the Woods family and offered to grant him a wish. According to Hoyt, the wise teenager turned the offer down. “He told them he’d already gotten so much from people and that they should give it to someone who needs it more.”

Despite the grim diagnosis, Woods didn’t die that month. He continues to fight, as he has for years. Hoyt, Valdes and the volunteers of IAC get together to cook for the Woods family, because when your child is terminally ill you shouldn’t have to worry about dinner. They’ll continue to do so, until this battle’s inevitable end.

“That’s the thing. We don’t cure people—that’s for the other people with calculators and cool glasses,” Hoyt says. “We comfort.”

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