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Monte Bona was "raised to be a cowboy." Born in Payson, Utah, he grew up in a small farming community with his parents and five siblings. "My dad was a horse trader and I had my first pair of cowboy boots when I was probably three years old," he says. Beyond the boots, Monte exemplifies other aspects of a traditional cowboy: self-reliance and individualism, with the ability to dust himself off when times get tough and get right back in the saddle.
In March 2009 at the age of 71, he had a health check-up which included blood work. He received a clean bill of health. Everything looked good. Only a month later, Monte noticed a lump in his groin and visited his doctor. His doctor suspected it might be an aneurysm, but a biopsy confirmed follicular lymphoma—stage I grade 3, the earliest stage a cancer can be found, but a grade showing an aggressive form of the disease.
"Other than a lump, I had no symptoms," Monte says. "I didn’t panic because even though they told me I had cancer, I hadn’t been sick. It wasn’t until later that I realized how serious it was."
Follicular lymphoma is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma—cancers of the immune system that begin in white blood cells called lymphocytes. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can be fast- or slow-growing and develop from either B-cells, as in follicular lymphoma, or T-cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is also a recognized "downwinder" cancer—one that may result from exposure to radiation released into the atmosphere during the Nevada nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s. Monte suspects his cancer is connected to being a downwinder.
After being referred to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), Monte met with Martha Glenn, MD, oncologist at HCI and professor in the Division of Hematology at the University of Utah. "When I asked what would happen if I didn’t treat the cancer, I was told I’d have three months to a year to live," Monte explains. With the encouraging news that his stage and grade of follicular lymphoma typically responded very well to treatment (not to mention the insistence of his wife and grown children), Monte opted in. He had a two-month regimen of chemotherapy followed by a month of daily radiation.
Other than losing his hair (his salt-and-pepper grew back thicker, curly, and silver) and occasional bouts of tiredness and nausea, Monte’s treatment went well. He believes proactive nutrition played a role, along with being in good physical shape, taking vitamins, and regular health check-ups. In addition, he says, "I felt I really lucked out. I had the benefit of early detection."
The year 2020 marks more than 11 years since Monte’s diagnosis and treatment. Now in his 80s and after more than a decade of follow-ups with Dr. Glenn, he’s still in the clear. "I remain hopeful and optimistic—probably because I feel so good!" he says. When asked what insight he’d have for others diagnosed with cancer, Monte says, "Don’t panic. Seek to be someone who places a high premium on quality of life and being able to contribute. I did that."
And he continues to do it. Monte and his wife Jackie split their time between Salt Lake City and Mount Pleasant, Utah—a small town that reminds him of his boyhood. There, he is active in government and advocates for historic preservation throughout the state. He has spent much of the last decade as director of the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area (MPNHA), a federally designated collection of highways and byways that intersect with historic U.S. Highway 89. Through securing grants and raising awareness, Monte has helped restore historic buildings and homes and has shared stories of people who have shaped these areas through a T.V. program called Discovery Road. He even dusted off his boots.
"One of my buddies—I’ve known him for a long time—tells me I put on my boots and spit death in the eye!" Spoken like a true cowboy.
Learn more about what it means to be a downwinder and find information about cancer screenings for people subjected to radioactive nuclear fallout from the Nevada Test Site in our downwinder FAQ.