Man lost his stomach to cancer, and it fed his spiritual growth

A charitable and God-loving person, Wauconda's Kevin Barnes was an active member of Life Bridge Community Church; worked with the Love Inc. charity that helps people with jobs, housing and spiritual needs; served as a board member for the Wauconda-Island Lake Food Pantry; and led a charity that builds beds for poor kids.

Then he got esophageal cancer, and everything changed.

“I see people different. I see life different,” Barnes says. “I've got more compassion for others. I've probably cried more over happy and sad since cancer than I have in the rest of my life.”

That's why the 54-year-old husband and father of two now is taking classes to become a biblical counselor and also makes time to volunteer with his newest charity: Cancer Fighters. A support group founded in 1990 by Cancer Treatment Centers of America patients, Cancer Fighters connects new cancer patients with people who have gone through the experience.

“When I got cancer, I talked to a guy in Ohio. Now, I signed up for that and I talk to cancer patients,” Barnes says, adding that he focuses on a single word - hope. “That's my core of what I'm doing now. I want to share hope. Not the hope that everything's going to be OK, but hope when things aren't OK.”

Working as a quality technician for a manufacturing company in Vernon Hills, Barnes realized something was wrong in March 2016.

“It got my attention because, all of a sudden, I had trouble swallowing food,” he remembers. “If I drank something, I could feel it sticking.”

He went to a doctor expecting something simple and was informed he had Stage 3 esophageal cancer.

“He told me on the phone,” remembers Cathy, his wife of 27 years. “It was shocking and scary.”

  A volunteer with several local charities, Wauconda resident Kevin Barnes stacks canned foods at the Wauconda-Island Lake Food Pantry in Wauconda. Gilbert R. Boucher II/

The couple, parents of son Chris, 30, and daughter Kelly, 24, and grandparents of three, looked at options. “If my faith is real, then God's in control and everything goes though his hands,” says Kevin Barnes, who notes that another member of his church was diagnosed with cancer at the same time. “He said, 'We're going to fight this together,' and he passed away. You may survive and you may not, but that hope doesn't change.”

Barnes ended up at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America's hospital in Zion. After six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, Barnes says his surgeon intended to remove most of his esophagus and part of his stomach. “But he found cancer in the stomach lining so he removed my entire stomach,” Barnes says. The healthy part of his esophagus now is connected directly to his large intestine.

“I found out how badly addicted I was to food,” says Barnes, who is athletic but had struggled with weight since he was a 204-pound wrestler in eighth grade. He avoids dairy products, cut back on meat and bread, and tries to eat healthier now.

Weight was an issue for Kevin Barnes, seen here on vacation with his wife, Cathy, in Mexico. He lost his stomach to cancer but feels healthy, runs again and even shaved strokes off his golf game. courtesy of Kevin Barnes

“I graze all day,” he says, explaining how he no longer can digest a lot of food at once, since his esophagus-to-intestine arrangement can't handle the portions his stomach once did. “I can feel it filling up.”

Barnes realizes the irony of a man without a stomach serving as vice president for the food pantry, but his involvement seems normal to pantry supervisor Marge Rucker, a Wauconda woman who volunteers three to five days a week.

“We have so many cancer survivors here,” Rucker says. “The ones who hide from the world don't do as well as the people who come here.”

Barnes says he is healthier than he has been in decades.

  His eating habits have changed since he lost his stomach to cancer, but Wauconda resident Kevin Barnes still volunteers with the Wauconda-Island Lake Food Pantry. Gilbert R. Boucher II/

“I lost 130 pounds,” Barnes says, noting that losing his stomach even cut strokes off his golf game. “There's a difference between swinging around your stomach and through your stomach. My slice is gone, and I've got a bit of a hook now.”

He and his wife also have a new hook to their daily prayers because of his cancer experience. “Lord, please help the people who are getting that news today,” Cathy Barnes says. Because of his cancer, her husband is “more aware” of the trials others face, she says.

Cancer took his stomach and gave him something in return, Kevin Barnes says.

“I'm half the man physically,” Barnes says, “but twice the man spiritually.”

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