'Live like you were dying' seems to be modern Huck Finn cancer patient's plan

Kelly Phillips

He’s was given three months to live. Eighteen months ago. 

Kelly Phillips, 50, a Wisconsin native who calls New Jersey home, was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 when doctors discovered a tumor imbedded in his sinuses.

The former owner of a number of industrial laundry businesses, before the diagnosis and treatments that followed, Phillips said he could afford to do whatever he wanted.

“I worked my butt off every day,” he said. “I owned five businesses at one time, but when I got sick, everything just fell apart and I lost everything.”

The treatment for his cancer was not only expensive but brutal. Phillips said it’s cost him most of his teeth, his sense of smell and his vision got much worse.

Finally, he said he’d had enough.

Phillips headed to Wisconsin, put what few assets he had left in a brother’s name, bought a houseboat and planned on living in it on the Mississippi River until he died.

“I got on the boat Mar. 16, 2017, and I’ve been on it ever since,” he said. Phillips motored up to Minnesota near the Mississippi River’s headwaters, then returned to Wisconsin, expecting to stay docked there until the inevitable end.

While he was there, the cancer made him really ill and he was hospitalized for a while. “The doctors there only have me three or four months to live.”

“I stayed in Wisconsin until it got too cold,” Phillips said. “I got up one morning and started to go down the river.”

Somewhere along the banks of the Mighty Muddy, he got frozen in and conditions turned dire. He ended up stuck long enough to have burned off all the driftwood he could find and all the gasoline for his houseboat.

Always generous, always a giver, Phillips said he did not want to have to turn to charity.

“At first, I didn’t tell anyone about my cancer,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”

But being trapped in the ice for an extended period forced him to call for help. Phillips called the police department nearest his location and he said, “Whoever I talked to was fantastic.”

The police department brought him gas for his houseboat motor and the townspeople brought wood for him to burn.

“It’s all about the people,” Phillips said, a statement that has held true for the year and a half he’s spent drifting down the river.

“The people have taken care of me,” he said. “I would not have been able to do this if it weren’t for the people that have helped me all along the way.”

One visitor who came out to the houseboat while Phillips was stuck on the banks of the river in Illinois changed his idea of keep his condition a secret.

“He was a preacher and he talked me into telling my story to the newspapers and the TV stations and it’s just gotten huge since then,” he said.

Interviewed just south of the Plaquemine Lock, Phillips said his story has now been printed in about 40 newspapers and over a dozen television stations.

(Editor’s note: The story of Phillip and his faithful dog Sapphire will continue in next week’s issue of The Post South.)