It was in September of 1976 when my 48-year-old dad went for a routine physical, as required by his employer. No one thought anything of it. He was in great health, other than a painful knee that had arisen recently after a long drive from Washington, DC.
Life was great. He had a job that he thoroughly enjoyed and at which he excelled. Mom had recently gone to work at the same savings and loan where he worked. My brother was doing well in high school and I was married and had recently had a baby boy.
Imagine our surprise when he got a call from his doctor. The chest x-ray had some suspicious spots that needed further investigation. Dad had smoked cigarettes until I was a teen, but at Mom’s insistence, he had switched to a pipe many years previously. We didn’t think he was a prime lung cancer candidate, but the biopsy showed he not only had lung cancer, he had Stage IV lung cancer. He was given six months to live.
He had adenocarcinoma, like I do. It is a cancer that smokers get, but so do non-smokers. In fact, it is the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers. Adenocarcinoma is found in the outer parts of the lung. According to Cancer.org, more women than men are diagnosed with this cancer. Furthermore, it is more likely to occur in young people than other cancers.
Cancer.org says that adenocarcinoma is a slow growing cancer and that it is more likely to be found before it spreads. Unfortunately, my experience refutes this statement. Just about everyone I know with adenocarcinoma of the lung was diagnosed with Stage 3 or 4.
Even though it has been nearly 40 years ago that we received the news that my dad was very sick, I still remember hearing the news. Needless to say, my mom and I were shocked and devastated. Dad was stoic. Then and for the rest of his life.
I hadn’t really thought all that much about my dad and his experience with lung cancer. I mean, the knowledge that he had the same kind of cancer I do comes to mind, but his actual fight against the beast hasn’t been something I have really dwelt upon. Until recently.
For some reason, I was thinking about my dad’s journey against lung cancer. His was much shorter than mine has been. Thankfully, I was able to get into the clinical trial for Opdivo when my cancer threatened to kill me. Dad wasn’t so lucky.
But, here’s what I remember about my dad’s fight. He was working in downtown Dallas. Because his leg hurt so badly, someone else was driving him to the office in the mornings. It turns out his leg hurt because his cancer had metastasized to the bone there. The doctor told us lung cancer commonly spreads to the bones – often to the knees or elbows. I always worried when I had a pain in one of my extremities after hearing that.
Because he was being driven to the office, Dad needed a ride to his treatments. Unlike in my case, he was able to get both radiation and chemotherapy. Also unlike in my case, no one went with him to his treatments. Never once did any of us accompany him to his chemo treatments or to his radiation sessions. Never once did it ever occur to us that we should (or not that I remember anyway). I would pick him up at his office and drop him by the hospital for his treatment. My mom would come pick him up when his treatment was over. We did that for months.
The radiation didn’t bother him much. But, that chemo sure did. It made him deathly ill. So much so that I called his doctor and asked him why in the world they continued to give him the drug when his prognosis was so awful. The doctor told me that Dad would hear of nothing else. If there was even the smallest chance he could recover, he wanted the treatments, no matter how sick they made him. Watching my dad suffer, I vowed that if I ever had cancer, I would do radiation, but I would not do chemotherapy. Amazing how we change our minds when we are actually faced with a life or death decision.
My dad went to work every day during the time he was in treatment. I do not know how he did it. I was talking to my mom about it tonight. She said, “Well, he didn’t do anything you didn’t do.” But, I think he did. I don’t know what drugs he was given, but I suspect they were harsher than the ones I got. Or, that the overall treatment plan was not as good. Surely oncologists have learned much in nearly 40 years.
Dad worked until 3 weeks before he died. I was lucky enough to get to retire on medical disability after I had fought my cancer for slightly over one year. That means I have had nearly 2 years of life without the obligation of going into the office.
I might be wrong since I was no longer living at home when Dad got sick, but I do not recall him ever missing a day of work. He got his treatments later in the day so he didn’t even miss those days. I didn’t know then what I know now. At least for me, I was deathly ill for several days after a chemo treatment. And, so exhausted that a simple walk was very, very difficult. Chemo brain is a real phenomenon as well. I often missed a day or so after a treatment. And, I generally left the office an hour or so early. And, the demands of my job were nowhere nearly as huge as his were. He was making multi-million dollar investment decisions.
I remember some of his coworkers being in awe over how he continued to work, despite his illness. I think he got a bit grouchier with them. I know he did at home. At least some of the time. I understand that now much better than I did then. He had to have been reaching into himself for reserves most people simply can’t access. It must have taken every single bit of his strength and willpower to go in to work every day and to actually be a productive employee. By the time he got home, it is no wonder that he could no longer restrain himself if something irritated him. He had to have been totally spent. Along with totally ill, much of the time.
My cancer is in both lungs and spread to lymph nodes near my collarbone. I have not ever had any pain associated with my cancer. Dad, on the other hand, had the bone metastases which were very, very painful. I can’t remember any longer whether he had radiation to those tumors on his knee and, if he did, whether or not the treatments worked to eradicate the pain.
When Dad was finally so weak that he could not go to the office any more, he was also so weak that he could barely leave their bedroom. My grandmother came to stay with him, while my mom, at his insistence, continued to work.
Soon before he died, he lamented to my mom how awful it was to be in the state he was in. He told her, “I can’t live and I can’t die.” It was frustrating to him. I can understand that. I don’t really want to be alive past the time that I can actually live. When I can’t go out and play with my dogs and go places with friends, etc., then, I hope God calls me on home.
Three days before he died, he received a visitor from the office. The president of the savings and loan where he worked dropped by with some investment questions. Amazingly, Dad was able to give good advice. I was over there later that night. I had tax questions. Dad, a CPA, had always completed our tax returns for us. Since he was so ill, I was preparing to do our return for the first time. Between bouts with him fading into unconsciousness, I asked him all of the questions I had for completing the return. We were audited that year. His advice all held up.
The night he died, nearly 6 months to do the day of being diagnosed, he was still lucid enough to know that touching my mom’s hair was taboo. He accidentally brushed against it that night. And apologized. Amazing. My mom also heard him answering questions that he was being asked by God. Scoff if you like. Or say he was hallucinating. This man believed strongly in God and in Jesus Christ as his Savior. I have no doubt but that he was standing in God’s presence when Mom heard him answering. That has always been somewhat comforting to us. That he was in God’s presence. Even though the answers my mom heard him give were along the lines of, “I don’t know.”
I wasn’t ever particularly close to my dad after I was about six. He was blessed with a son about that time and he sort of forgot he had a daughter. He was very, VERY partial to his son. And didn’t try to cover it up. Maybe that is the reason why I never really sat and thought about all that Dad went through and what a courageous man he was the last six months of his life. No matter what his and my relationship was, I have to say, I have not seen many who have lived and died with the dignity he did.