Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Bad News Phone Call and Thoughts on Cancer

When we moved to California, Jan and I were adopted by the Anderson family. Joni Anderson is a great friend and shared her family with us. Holidays, birthdays and many parties thrown just for the hell of it. Joni's mother Jan Anderson is a wonderful woman, warm, gracious, a great sense of humor and even in her 70's she can hang in there with us, the "kids" in our 40's, 50's and (ahem) 60's. We'd bring Jan a nice white wine, she'd sip it, laugh, tell stories and share her life with us. Jan and I call her "Mom"....Jan Anderson is a cancer survivor, until today. It's back and it's not pretty. We talked on the phone she passed on the details to both of us and then launched into plans for my birthday party this weekend. You know what? It's going to be Jan's party, not mine. If we have to, we are going to give her a party every weekend from now on.

The first time I ever heard of cancer was in grade school, my Dad's Uncle Alvin was diagnosed with lung cancer. Al died. It was ugly. A big, smiling, tough Norwegian farmer looked tiny in his casket. If I close my eyes I can still see him at the funeral home.

One of my students, a kid with a great family. Mom, Dad and younger sister, all healthy and happy in February when Aron started his training. Aron was so excited to start driving. His parents and I planned the training schedule so Aron would be far enough along to do some of the driving on their long planned trip to Oregon this month for a week of rafting and camping on the Rouge River. Aron's Dad was diagnosed with cancer in April. The trip is off. Young Aron has gone from being a handsome, focused, bright kid to one with nervous tics and he looks like like he hasn't slept in months. The family is hopeful and so am I.

I lost my brother in law, Harry in 1983. He was diagnosed in January and died at the Mayo Clinic in August. Harry and I were close, real close. Towards the end the only people he would see were my sister Margo, my ex-wife and I. My niece Suzy was 4 and he wouldn't allow her to see him. He didn't want her to remember him as a victim. Harry was a college athlete, a coach, a teacher and was very successful in his new career as a landman in the oil business. I spent the day before he died with him at Mayo. I pushed him to radiation treatment that day and on the way back to his room, he pushed his hoodie covered head back against my chest as we waited for the elevator. The TV in his room was on and they were running promos for the upcoming football season. Harry turned to me and said "you know what's really fucked up? I'll never see any of those games." When I think of Harry now, I don't see the shell he had become. I see the strong guy my sister fell in love with in high school. I see the guy his teammates called "Harry the Horse" because he was the guy who got the ball in the final seconds, put them on his back and carried them to victory. I see the guy, who with the first money he made, got his Mom out of the basement apartment he was raised in. I see him in my niece, who was a college athlete, a coach and a teacher and was the one who got the ball at the end of the game. He would be so proud of her. Suzy married her husband Sam a few years ago, Sam's dad died of cancer, too. While Suzy coaches and teaches Sam is finishing his residency in Pediatric Oncology. Why would anyone want to be around kids with cancer? Sam says "because we can save them and what we learn from treating these kids is invaluable, it will lead to better and more workable treatment for all cancer patients." I know Harry would be proud to have Sam as a son in law.

My Mom was a cancer survivor, my sister Margo is a cancer survivor, Friends, Darrell, George and Eddie are cancer survivors as is my friend Lance.  My Mom's brother Jerry died of cancer. Darrell's wife Charlotte is gone and my friend Howard is gone. Both had long, terrible, ugly struggles with cancer. Howard's 2nd wife Brenda went through years of cancer and finally the death of her first husband. Brenda fell in love with Howard, had a few happy years and found herself dealing with cancer again when Howard was diagnosed.

Jan's Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, went through treatment, radiation and chemotherapy. Nancy is now cancer free. Her cancer followed one of those silent heart attacks that happen to so many women. My mother in law had a few bad years and now is back and we are relieved and grateful to have her.

Our family and friends were fortunate enough to have decent insurance, the out of pocket was still enough to rock their finances. I can't imagine what it must be like to have a wife or child diagnosed with cancer and have no insurance, to have faceless, insurance company people combing your records looking for a way not to pay for your treatment. Or to be one of Sam's young patients, cancer free for years and years to sometime in the future be turned down for insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

Jan Anderson is on Medicare, she doesn't have to worry about the financial considerations of her cancer's return. Nancy Hall was on Medicare so my mother and father in law's life wasn't turned upside down when it struck. Over half the bankruptcies in this country are caused by the cost of medical care. It drives me crazy that doctors who own laser eye clinics, doctors who give free treatment to multimillion athletes so he can put their pictures on his office walls or plastic surgeons who hang fake breasts on women, do tummy tucks, nose jobs and face lifts will be paid millions and millions of dollars over their careers more than a young oncologist like Dr. Sam Milanovitch ever earn, even though he deserves the money and financial security more than they do.

I have Canadian friends, one in England and a friend in Germany who wouldn't trade their Health Care system for ours. They never have a thought about the financial considerations of getting ill much less losing everything they have because of something they can't control. All I know is that 99% of the children in Massachusetts are covered by insurance. Covered by the plan that was engineered by the guy who now rejects it. And almost 90% of adults are covered too. It's popular, its cheaper and has high approval ratings from everyone involved, patients, doctors, hospitals, employers and the insurance companies. "Obamacare" is an identical plan and we need it now, more than ever.

All I know is when my time comes, I want to have a massive heart attack like the one that killed my father.


  1. I just had a spot on my arm diagnosed as a squamous cell carcinoma. But my doc says it's no big deal and he'll take it out next month. Hope he's right.

    Judy says the way medicine is nowadays, nearly all of us will die of cancer some day.

  2. Imagine what kind of progress could be made if research dollars matched what we've spent on wars in Iraq (needless, pointless and futile) Afghanistan (should have been resolved years ago, also futile) and other ancillary defense spending that is non crucial-like keeping military golf courses green. Hell, let 'em keep the golf courses, just think of the progress that could me made if we spent on medical research what we spend on weapons. Maybe there is some value in having a lot of independent research going off in many directions, but if we focused a "war" on the disease and treatment we could do humanity a lot of good.

  3. Maybe we could only spend 5 times as much on defense as the number two spender and put the rest where it might mean something down the road. We are debating High Speed Rail in California and we are spending more money on failed aircraft we don't need than the line from LA to San Francisco would cost.