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East County Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009 8 years ago

Palm-Aire pro battles rare blood cancer

by: Jen Blanco Sports Editor

PALM-AIRE — Steve Yates can no longer move his toes.

Diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, he struggles to move his feet and has become accustomed to the tingling sensation that continues down his legs. He’s been forced to walk with a cane and is overcome with fatigue more often than not.

But even the most persistent of symptoms couldn’t keep the Palm-Aire Golf and Country Club Head Golf Professional from hitting the dance floor with his wife Mandy’s grandmother during Steve Yates Appreciation Day Dec. 5.

It was a moment Yates, and the nearly 500 family members, friends and colleagues who packed the community’s clubhouse in honor of Yates, will never forget.

“He’s very graceful and funny; and even though he’s walking with a cane these days, he went on the dance floor after the program and was dancing with his wife’s grandmother,” Palm-Aire resident Woody Wardlow said. “He was leaning on his cane and shuffling around quite a bit.”

Yates knew there was something wrong when he began to lose feeling in his lower extremities in the summer of 2008. After an initial misdiagnosis, Yates was diagnosed with POEMS Syndrome, a blood cancer that affects the nervous system and a person’s ability to walk.

“I thought to myself, ‘OK, what do we do next?’” said Yates, who joined the staff at Palm-Aire in 1993 before becoming the Head Golf Professional in 1997. “There were a couple of diagnoses on the table, so then you’re playing the spin the wheel game to find out what you have. Out of all of the choices on the table, this was probably the best (scenario)."

Yates has two plasmacytomas, or malignant plasma cell tumors — one in his pubic bone and one in his spine — that produce protein that gets into bloodstream. After his diagnosis, Yates underwent a stem cell transplant in April with the hope of stopping the cancer before it spread to other parts of his body.

During the two-day transplant, Yates endured intense chemotherapy, killing nearly all of the cells in his body. Yates was then infused with a healthy set of stem cells — only Yates’ prognosis still remains unclear.

“It’s not a cure — it’s a treatment,” Yates said. “They don’t know what causes it, and there’s no exact way to fix it. It’s still active and the neuropathy is still there.”

Throughout his initial diagnosis and treatment, the residents of Palm-Aire continually showed their support for Yates and his family. And when Yates returned to the club in June following his stem cell transplant, the members began talking about holding a fundraiser for Yates to help pay for his medical bills.

Yates, who appreciated the members support, wanted to make sure that if the club decided to do something small for him, he wanted to be there. But little did Yates know just what the members had planned.

“He’s a very nice, likeable and cooperative fellow,” Wardlow said. “Everyone at the club was very supportive of the idea, and as it went along it, just gathered steam.”

On Dec. 5, nearly 500 people packed into the clubhouse to show their support. After inclement morning weather forced the cancellation of the day’s golf events, residents gathered on the driving range for the helicopter ball drop and a chance to win $5,000.

Later that evening, Yates, his family, including his wife and 14-year-old son, Logan, and hundreds of Palm-Aire members enjoyed dinner, dancing, raffles and a silent auction with all the proceeds from the event going to Yates. At the culmination of the event, the club presented Yates a check for $68,557.

“I was so flabbergasted,” Yates said. “Our heads were spinning. You can’t soak it all in until it’s all over. We’re just now starting to get our mental picture.

“It’s nothing I ever anticipated or expected,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked by how many people came out.”

On Dec. 9, Yates flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a series of appointments. During his visit, Yates is hoping to figure out his next path whether it be another form of treatment, radiation, medicine or another stem cell transplant later on down the road.

“It’s such a rare disease, and there’s a lot of hope associated with it,” Yates said. “But with the support of everyone at the club — it kind of takes your mind off of it. I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and feel sorry for myself. It’s all been OK.”

Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].

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