My father, Lawrence, died last May as a result of lung cancer. His death certificate doesn’t reference lung cancer. He never received a lung cancer diagnosis. In fact, he had an entirely different cancer – multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the blood plasma cells. So how did lung cancer take his life?
My mother, Marjorie, was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in December 2009. Dad received his diagnosis the following day. Just as they had been inseparable in every other aspect of their 50 year marriage, they were now inseparable in their cancer journey. They were under the care of the same medical oncologist, scheduled appointments together, and received their respective chemotherapies in adjacent infusion chairs. Both responded extraordinarily well to treatment – within weeks, their cancers were in remission.
For the next two years they lived active lives, buoyed by their faith and the love and care of family, close friends, and their church. The birth of my son in November 2010 brought them tremendous joy, and they reveled in their role as grandparents. They traveled extensively.
Mom, in particular, was beating the odds; small cell lung cancer tends to be particularly aggressive. I began to allow myself to wonder if she might join the very small group of individuals who are “cured” of this disease.
Sadly, it was not meant to be. Her cancer recurred in April 2012. She tried several additional therapies, but none could halt the disease progression. In late August, she chose to stop treatment and enter hospice care. Two weeks later, with Dad and I at her side, she passed away peacefully.
In her final months, Mom expressed concern about what would become of Dad following her death. His world revolved around her. And, he had begun to exhibit signs of dementia. His physicians didn’t know if this was a result of underlying neurological disease, the stress and worry of her decline, the effects of his own cancer treatment, or some combination of these. She worried he couldn’t make it on his own.
Initially, Dad seemed to handle the loss – at least outwardly – about as well as could have been expected. He remained engaged with friends and the church. But as the months passed, he began to withdraw. His dementia symptoms worsened and his behavior grew erratic. Physically, he seemed to age years in a matter of months. His multiple myeloma became active again.
Mom knew Dad well. I could help meet his physical needs, but I could not fill the void in his life. He lost the will to live. In May 2014, 618 days following Mom’s passing, Dad slipped away to join her.
Dad’s death certificate identifies “rapidly progressive dementia” as the cause of death, but I know the underlying truth. When lung cancer took Mom’s life, it began to take his as well. He was as much a casualty of the disease as she was.
I support the Lung Cancer Initiative because I want to support those with lung cancer, their caregivers, and the researchers searching for cures. I want others to have a different outcome than my parents. Working in the biopharmaceutical industry, I am acutely aware that more and better treatment options are desperately needed, especially for small cell lung cancer, which receives relatively little research investment and attention.
That’s why I’m excited about Brake the Cycle, LCI’s inaugural cycling fundraising and awareness event this Saturday, August 1. I don’t run. Cycling is my thing, especially endurance rides with challenging climbs. These rides are almost spiritual for me, taxing my body but stirring my soul. As I climb punishing grades and my breathing begins to labor, I think of my parents and what they endured. Doing so reframes my discomfort and gives me resolve to make it to the top. And when I do, I know they’re there with me.
There won’t be any particularly difficult climbs this Saturday, but it will be a special ride nonetheless. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s “brake” the cycle.
- Bart Barefoot