Bob Overton is all too familiar with the 140-mile stretch of land between Thermopolis and Casper.
He and his wife, Sherry, made the two-hour trip in their white pickup dozens of times while Bob was undergoing treatment for lymphoma in 2015. Even with the help of Alan Jackson and Martina McBride’s music, the hours still lagged, with nothing to stare at except endless grassy plains.
“That trip is pretty monotonous, and it doesn’t get any better with time,” he recalled.
But the couple didn’t have a choice. Their hometown of Thermopolis, population 3,009, doesn’t offer the care Bob needed.
And the Overtons aren’t alone.
As the least populated state in the country, Wyoming appeals to those in search of space and wilderness. But the peace and quiet comes with drawbacks: Services that urban residents may take for granted, like advanced medical care, aren’t readily available for thousands of people living in small towns and rural areas.
Many of those battling cancer in Wyoming subsequently end up seeking treatment in Casper, according to Rocky Mountain Oncology’s Patient Navigator Sam Carrick. She said the center is the only medical facility in the state that offers radiation, chemotherapy and Positron emission tomography scans.
Other areas may offer one or two of those services, but many prefer the convenience of a one-stop shop, she said.
About 15 percent of their patients are from out-of-town, added Carrick, who is responsible for guiding all patients through the treatment process. She said it’s often devastating for people to learn that they can’t get the care they need at home.
“First you are hit over the head with a diagnosis that you didn’t want, and then you can’t get treatment at home, so you have to travel and be away from your family members or pets,” she said.
Some patients drive back-and-forth, but temporarily relocating often becomes necessary during the more intensive treatment phases.
And that was the case with Bob. The 75-year-old initially remained in Thermopolis, only traveling to Casper for intermittent doses of chemotherapy. But he said that wasn’t possible while he was undergoing radiation, which he needed daily for 30 days.
Sherry remembers breaking down into tears when she realized they had to leave home. Already faced with the possibly of losing her husband, not to mention mounting medical bills, the thought of relocating for a month was overwhelming.
“That was just more than I could handle … I just thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’” she said.
Carrick quickly reassured the Overtons that they wouldn’t be going through the process alone. The center commonly works alongside patients to help find them find and afford lodging.
“She said ‘It’s handled, don’t worry about it, it’s taken care of, we got you,’” recalled Sherry. “Unless you’ve been there, you can’t know what that meant.”
Carrick arranged for the Overtons to stay at Masterson Place, a small motel in Casper that exclusively caters to those traveling for medical purposes. Although the facility offers low prices, the patient navigator pointed out that even affordable rates can add up during extended stays, which is why she also connected the Overtons with the Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care.
The nonprofit offers a variety of services for cancer patients, including financial assistance for travel expenses.
Bob, who has been in remission for more than two years, said he considers himself “blessed” to have received so much support from the community. But being away from home was still challenging.
The retired Burlington Northern Railroad employee said he especially missed his dogs, Jade and Buffy, who weren’t permitted to stay at the motel. The Overtons — who have lived in Thermopolis for decades — had neighbors who offered to watch the canines.
Everybody in Thermopolis tends to help each other out, according to the couple. It’s one of the the benefits of living in a little community where no one is a stranger.
“It’s just a real great place to live,” said Bob, explaining that he enjoys knowing all his neighbors and being surrounded by nature.
Battling cancer is difficult for anyone, but those living far away from treatment centers need extra help, said Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care treasurer Kara Frizell. Finding the money for gas and hotel accommodations can quickly become a serious problem.
“It’s not something you can just come up with,” she explained.
Frizell said the Casper-based charity annually spends between $20,000 and $30,000 assisting patients with necessary travel expenses. The nonprofit also oversees a network of volunteers, called Angels, who help out-of-towners feel at home by delivering meals or dropping off gift baskets.
Sixty-five-year-old Velena Grayswan said she sometimes called the Angels for help last summer while she was receiving treatment for colon cancer in Casper.
The Rawlins resident explained that she stayed at the Masterson Place during the weekdays while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy and then traveled back to her home on the weekends to care for her two cats.
Without any family in the area, Grayswan said she relied on former co-workers for transport. Even with someone else driving, the 2.5-hour trip was tough, especially when they drove over rough terrain.
“It felt like my guts were falling out,” she said, explaining that treatments left her insides raw and sore.
She wouldn’t have been able to make the drive every day, but staying in Casper would have been too expensive without help from the Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care, Grayswan said.
The former custodian was laid off a month before she was diagnosed with cancer in May. She has since been too sick to find a new job. Paying for gas and motels was out of the question.
“It takes every cent I have just to pay [my bills] here,” she said.
Grayswan, who is currently recovering from the flu in Rawlins, will eventually be returning to Casper for surgery. Despite having to travel for care, she still enjoys many aspects of country life.
She never liked all the rules and regulations that came with urban life like when she lived in Seattle. One of her neighbors in the city once got in trouble with a homeowners association for painting his house lavender. Grayswan she appreciates having more freedom.
“I like independence...I don’t like having somebody always telling me you can’t do this or you can’t do that,” she said.
Robert Rasmussen also lives in Rawlins, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to grow attached to the town. He moved from Tuscon, Arizona, in search of peace and quiet. But about a year after moving, he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer last fall.
It quickly became apparent that traveling back and forth to Casper for treatment wasn’t a safe option.
Sitting in his bed in January at the Shepherd of the Valley Healthcare Community — where he’s recovering from surgery — the emaciated 50-year-old removed his oxygen mask and explained that intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments left him far too nauseous and exhausted to drive.
Rasmussen temporarily relocated to Casper in October and brought along his dog, Piggy. The Australian Shepherd is family, and he couldn’t bear to be without her.
“She’s the only thing that keeps me together,” he explained.
Although Rasmussen was worried hotels wouldn’t allow animals, Carrick arranged for both patient and pet to stay at the Sleep Inn in Evansville. The patient navigator also connected him with the cancer foundation to help with the bill.
The hotel staff has since fallen in love with Piggy, according to general manager Carmen Bartow. Employees walk her each day, sneak her treats from the breakfast buffet and even take her to visit her dad.
“She’s our mascot,” said Bartow.
The manager said the inn annually receives about 15 guests who are in town for cancer treatments, likely because of their close proximity to the oncology center. The hotel offers discounted rates for its sick visitors and employees try to help them out in any way possible.
“If we can’t help one another out then there is something wrong with us,” she said.
Rasmussen greatly appreciates everyone who made it possible for Piggy to stay in Casper.
His condition is serious, and distracting himself from the possibly of death isn’t easy, he explained. Surrounded by feeding tubes and beeping monitors, it’s impossible to forget his situation.
“I try to read or watch TV or just focus on something different, but when I’m just sitting here by myself, it’s hard,” he said.
But Rasmussen said he can manage with Piggy by his side for support.
Although his former home in Tuscon was closer to advanced medical care, Rassmussen said he prefers living in small towns because its safer and more peaceful.
“I don’t have any regrets [about moving],“ he said. “City life isn’t for everybody.”