Santa’s helper spreads cheer year round

You may have heard: Santa Claus has come to town, and he’s been at work, complete with white beard and Santa hat, at a phone service provider in Pierce County.

Keith McClements isn’t the real Santa. But the Kaiser Permanente member from University Place is a professional Santa’s helper.

McClements’ beard and white hair makes him a natural for the job. “About 10 years ago, I started wearing a Santa hat to work after Thanksgiving,” the 62-year-old recalls. “I was surprised at how many people stopped to say hello.”

Things snowballed from there, and McClements signed with a talent agency especially for Santa’s helpers. He stands in for the jolly elf at 15 to 20 appearances each Christmas season. It’s a job he loves – and plans to continue doing, despite ongoing treatment for melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

He’s currently receiving immunotherapy at Kaiser Permanente Tacoma Medical Center. Immunotherapy is an innovative type of treatment that harnesses the body’s natural immune system. The immune system is powerful and is able to tell the difference between normal and abnormal cells. It sends killer T cells to attack abnormal cells, and often patients get better.

But melanoma cells are sneaky. They hide from the killer T cells. That means the cancer cells can grow and spread throughout the body.

Traditional chemotherapy is designed to help kill cancer cells. But it often attacks healthy cells at the same time, like the ones that help grow hair. That’s why many people being treated for cancer lose their hair.

Immunotherapy, on the other hand, helps the body’s immune system fight the cancer. In the case of melanoma, intravenous immunotherapy drugs eliminate the cancer’s ability to hide. This allows those killer T cells to find and attack the melanoma cells.

If there’s one thing having a serious illness has taught McClements, it’s to enjoy life. And being Santa’s helper is a big way that he does this. There are 2 Santa appearances he finds especially heartwarming: one for low-income kids, held at Pacific Lutheran University, and a special meet-and-greet for children with autism.

“That’s the one I love the most,” McClements said of the autism event. “Sometimes we spend 30 minutes with the photographer to get a shot, but I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

His attitude these days is to embrace life and to say yes to invitations and opportunities. “If somebody asks me to have a beer, go fishing, go camping, whatever – I’m saying yes. And I’m going to make sure people know I love them.”

Sounds like something Santa would say.

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