by Robert Marlin
Life is a journey, down a path filled with twists and turns impacted by heritage, altered by circumstances and occasionally obstructed by potholes. People lucky enough to begin life’s journey in a small town like Pittsburg, Texas, have advantages the rest of us may have missed during our formative years. They are likely to share more of the same experiences. It is only natural, when a person grows up surrounded by many of the same people, that they develop a familiarity and a high comfort level with those people. There is a bond among people living together in a small town that seldom exists in big cities. That is a characteristic that defines small towns everywhere: a place where you know everybody and everybody knows you. In small towns, your private business can become public knowledge—more than you might otherwise prefer. It is also a place where first-love can become lifetime-love.
When that happens, the journey is more satisfying.
Nancy Jones and Joe Cavender both grew up in Pittsburg. They were high school sweethearts. As such, they shared many of the traits common among high school sweethearts. They knew each other really well, a result of going through the angst of their teenage years together: watching one another grow into adulthood and maturing and learning from each other throughout their formative years. Sharing their small-town roots, they also knew one another’s families. There is little room for jealousy in their relationship because they have been best friends for most of their lives. They grew up making friends with many of the same people. They developed similar interests. They shared their hopes and dreams with each other. They fell in love.
Joe’s parents, Pat and James Cavender, were the founders of Cavender’s Boot City in 1965. Starting with three styles of Tony Lama boots in their first store in Pittsburg, the company would rapidly grow into one of the largest western wear chains in the country. After graduating in 1979 with a degree in business and marketing from East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas, Joe went to work in the family business. Today, he is the president of the company, which is headquartered in Tyler. Joe concentrates on boots. His brother Clay concentrates on clothing. Brother Mike, who lives in Houston, concentrates on the company’s real estate holdings. Together, the three brothers strive to operate their family’s business following the direction established by their parents: serving customers a quality product at a fair price.
Nancy and Joe were married on November 20, 1981. Together, they became the parents of four children, three girls and one boy. Their family has now grown to include four grandsons and one granddaughter. The values Nancy and Joe learned growing up in Pittsburg—reverence for God, hard work, ethical relationships with others, and giving back to the community—remain an important part of their lives together. Imparting those values to their children and grandchildren has always been a priority. It’s always been that way for this couple that does everything together and who spend as much time as possible together as a family.
Although Cavender’s Western Wear has been his primary occupation for nearly forty-two years, Joe has also been running the Cavender’s ranching operations for the past thirty years. Cavender Ranches was named Brangus Breeder of the Year early in 2021. Through his interest in raising Brangus cattle, Joe helped form Cavender-Draggin’ M and Partners (CDP). This long-term partnership includes Cavender Ranches, Draggin’ M Ranch, Johnston Brangus, and the Double W Ranch. The CDP partners employ breeding techniques, using proven genetics technology that is backed by several years of successful results and data, to ensure each succeeding generation is better than the previous. For Joe, creating better bred cattle is a major step forward for the beef industry as a whole. Helping work this initiative is one of the reasons he views working his ranch as more fun than work. Joe has a passion for improving the Brangus breed!
Nancy once thought her life’s journey would take her into the health care field. She attended Tyler Junior College and the University of Texas at Tyler, where she received a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She never worked as a nurse, however, choosing instead to be a stay-at-home mother. Nancy regarded motherhood as both a privilege and a responsibility. Raising her children became Nancy’s mission. It was important to both Nancy and Joe to pass on the values they had learned as children. They wanted to provide a safe and loving environment filled with experiences that would give their children happy memories as they grew into adults with strong, moral characters. Nancy was grateful for the opportunity to guide her children through their childhood.
By the time they celebrated thirty-eight years of marriage, Nancy and Joe had successfully navigated through many twists and turns on the path of their life’s journey together. Then, suddenly, they stumbled on a pothole. After a routine urology checkup, Joe was told his PSA numbers were high. Tyler urologist Dr. Joseph DeCarlo made the diagnosis that Joe had cancer of the prostate in 2019.
“My first reaction was that I hated hearing the words,” Nancy remembers. “I know that many men get prostate cancer, and my thought was, ‘We’ll get it taken care of.’ It was when I heard the word ‘aggressive’ that I got upset. I think it is fairly typical when people are first told someone they love has cancer that a feeling of panic sets in. Immediately, we started talking about going to M.D. Anderson in Houston.”
The couple traveled to Houston in March 2019 and met with surgeon Dr. Brian F. Chapin. A biopsy indicated that Joe had a Gleason Score of nine. The Gleason Score is the grading system used to determine how aggressive the prostate cancer is. A score
of nine indicates tumors are comprised of cancerous cells that are likely to grow and spread quickly. While the Gleason Score is useful for predicting the behavior of prostate cancer, there are other factors used for determining the cancer’s stage of progress: the PSA levels; findings from a rectal exam; the number of biopsy core samples that contain cancer; the percentage of cancer making up each biopsy core sample; if whether cancer is found in one or both sides of the prostate; and if the cancer has spread outside the prostate.
“I was told that Gleason 9 is the most aggressive form of prostate cancer,” says Joe. “I was also told that they found the cancer had spread beyond the prostate and it was recommended that I have surgery. I felt fine. And that is one of the problems with prostate cancer, many patients have it without knowing it; until it’s too late. That is the reason it is important for all men over forty to have their PSA numbers checked yearly. It is one of the first indicators that you might have cancer. Although what I had was extremely aggressive, the doctors felt there was an excellent chance they could treat it successfully.”
The surgery was performed on May 7, 2019. Dr. Chapin was certain they had removed most, if not all, of the cancerous cells in the prostate. Because the cancer had already spread outside the prostate, a seven-week program of radiation treatments was begun. These treatments were done daily for seven weeks. Similar to having an X-ray, the treatment involves shooting concentrated beams of radiation, aimed at the prostate and the surrounding tissue areas affected by the cancer cells. The treatment itself only requires a few minutes, although it takes longer to prepare the patient and to aim the device at its intended target. Radiation has proven effective in killing the cancer cells in most prostate cancer cases. However, in many cases, microscopic cells can survive, which will result in a recurrence of the cancer at a later date. For that reason, patients who have radiation therapy need to have regular follow-up exams to keep up with the status of their condition.
When his radiation treatments were completed, Joe was pleased that he had no ill side-effects from that treatment. “It took about a month to get my color back, and I had vertigo for about three months,” he says. He started physical therapy immediately. “My legs were weak. It took a while to get my strength back; but that was from the surgery, not the radiation. I started lifting weights in 2014, so I’ve started those workouts again. I work out thirty minutes at a time. The owner of the gym comes in twice a week and pushes me for an hour for the past nine months. I need someone like that to push me; otherwise, I won’t do it. I am currently at the lowest my body weight has ever been.”
Just about one year after he was first diagnosed, the Cavenders found themselves as one of the main sponsors for a fundraiser in which all the profits were donated to cancer research at M.D. Anderson.
“We provided Lucchese boots and Resistol hats to sell. The goal was to raise $150,000, and we had it raised before the night of the fundraiser, which was March 5, 2020,” says Nancy. “On top of that, we added a personal check,” Joe adds. “It was one of the last events before the COVID pandemic shut everything down.”
Cavender’s Stores, Ltd. have been major sponsors for the Livestock Shows and Rodeos held in Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston for many years. All of those events were canceled in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns. The Cavender’s stores were allowed to stay open during the shutdown as they were deemed essential services because of the steel-toed boots and other work clothing they sell. “A few of our stores were closed temporarily. The in-store volume was less than normal during 2020, but our online business increased during the pandemic. In fact, our web staff began getting product from our stores in order to fill orders. We sold a lot of ladies boots online during the pandemic. As the year closed out, we started to see a steady increase in traffic at the stores. Since December, I’ve been trying to trend where the business is going. Right now, we have 20% less inventory, but our core business is up 30% above our projections. Our issues now have to do with supply chain problems. We need more inventory than we originally planned for and we’re having trouble getting new product delivered. It’s a good problem to need more inventory, because that means sales are good!”
The cattle business is also doing well. There is a tremendous demand for beef now as the shortages during the pandemic depleted much of the supply that was available. The CDP partnership held their 16th Annual Female Production sale last November. This past March they held their 1st Annual Spring Bull Sale. Both sales were rousing successes, due in large part to the increasing demand for beef at restaurants and grocery stores. Their next sale will be held in November 2021. “Right now, we have about 60 head of cattle that need to be mated. By next spring, we should have several young calves ready to be sold to other producers,” says Joe.
In the two years that have passed since Joe had the surgery and radiation treatment, he has been diligent about keeping an eye on his health. He goes to his physician regularly for checkups. He has known since the surgery that there was a possibility the cancer could return. They knew when they did the radiation that he had cells that were outside of the prostate. It is likely that the radiation killed off the majority of the cells. The statistical probability of a recurrence is also there.
In January of this year, Joe had a checkup that indicated his PSA numbers are going up again. There are still cancer cells present but no new treatments have been started. The doctors will take more advanced scans in the coming months. “At the moment, the PSA is not changing very fast, which is a good sign. Some people get lucky and don’t need additional treatments for five or ten years. It’s lucky they found these cells now. We don’t know when I’ll need to go through another treatment. It could be in a few years, or it could be in three months. We don’t know. It just depends. Friends are always asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I tell them I feel fine. I feel 100% normal now. If I didn’t know I had it, I couldn’t tell you because I feel great. I know the cancer cells are there, but right now I have to stay busy and follow doctor’s orders.” That they discovered new cells early is another vindication of the importance of regular checkups.
This latest news is yet another pothole. The Cavenders face it as just another twisting turn in their path. Their strength of faith tells them to leave it in God’s hands. As they reflect on where the path led during the past two years, it is their faith that has sustained them. “It takes your breath away when someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer. From the very beginning, we prayed, and we wanted God to be glorified through this. Because, we believe in the power of prayer, and we believe in God’s power to heal,” Nancy says.
“We have been blessed with support from family and friends since this illness began. Everyone has been so kind. There have been times when I have cried and worried. Joe is the one who has been strong through all this. He is the one who has maintained a sense of humor. He set the example the rest of family needed to see.”
“I admit that it was a shock when they said this cancer is incurable,” says Joe “My reaction was to concentrate on what we could do to fix this thing. It’s like when a business situation comes up, my first reaction is to figure out what to do to correct it. That was my reaction with this. I have cancer. Now, what do we do? If they had said, ‘You have five years,’ I might have reacted differently. I’ll tell you this, since this started, I’ve been finding other things to do. I want to spend more time at the ranch.
Maybe vacation more. Play golf. Spend time with the grandkids.”
As a man who has been active all his life, who has displayed a boundless energy for work and play, letting prostate cancer change his outlook on life is not likely to happen. It may affect how he prioritizes his life. “Something that has changed, is that I don’t want to be at the office grinding every day. I think it is time to cut back to three or four hours a day. I still enjoy doing the planning, and analyzing what the business is doing; but I want to do less of it. We have a great team here. Our employees are like a family. I’m at the stage where I want to let them do more of the day-to-day activities and let me concentrate on the things I do best. For instance, I have the relationship with our suppliers, and I enjoy working those relationships. It’s time to let other people develop their abilities.” As with any family, there comes a time when you have the let chicks out of the nest. Joe has always known that. He remembers how his father prepared him and his brothers to take over the reins of the company. He knows the business will go on without him, just as it did when his father left the business. As long as he can make a contribution, he wants to do that. “I’ve been working in merchandising since I was thirty-two. It’s hard for me to quit!”
What Joe has recognized over the past two years is there are other aspects of his life that need his attention.
Not the least of which is Nancy, their children and their grandchildren. Next November, Joe and Nancy will celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. Add in the years before they were married, and you have a relationship that has lasted longer than most marriages. Much longer. In the United States, the average marriage only lasts 8.2 years. Fewer than 7% of all married couples reach their fiftieth anniversary. While no one knows exactly what the future holds, Joe and Nancy are comfortable in the knowledge that they have each other, just as they always have. And while their journey through cancer is not over, they know their faith in God will continue to sustain them. Cancer has been just one more part of their life’s journey together.
And for Nancy and Joe Cavender, “together” is the operative word.