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October 23, 2012
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Cancer and the fight for life

Cancer sucks. Every day in doctors’ offices throughout the world, someone is receiving the dreaded diagnosis of cancer. Family members are learning of their loved one’s life expectancy, and lives are changed forever.

I come from a family of six — my parents, three older sisters and myself. Two of my family members are gone because of cancer, so you’ll have to forgive me for my tone and my feelings on the disease.

My dad and youngest sister are no longer with us today because of cancer. I also have several friends who are survivors and wake each day in the shadow of remission, hoping and praying that their next visit to the doctor doesn’t find them toe-to-toe in another fight for their life.

My dad and sister never experienced remission. Their time had come and their names were called.

In the summer of 1987, my dad was driving from Chicago to Florida with my mom to a Boca Raton condo they had just purchased. At the age of 66 and a recently retired electrician, he and mom were both going to learn to golf and start their retired life in Florida. He had a sore throat on the way to Florida, and after seeing a doctor and then a specialist upon his arrival, he was told he had a malignant tumor on his voice box. He soon learned that cancer had spread throughout his body and was given six months to live. He had his voice box removed, so he could no longer talk. He was put on oxygen and spent more time in the hospital than out.

I was living in Chicago at the time, a young executive working to establish my career and make a name for myself, when I heard the news. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to make many trips to Florida to see my dad, but I’d talk to him on the phone and tell him that he would be one of those “miracle stories” and live for years. I’m not sure what he thought, since he couldn’t verbally respond.

Dad made it six months, just as expected. I was able to visit him a few weeks before he passed and sometimes wished I hadn’t. Entering his hospital room, I caught a glance of what cancer had done to his body. His once-strong physique was now idle and frail. Upon seeing him, I knew I would lose my dad very soon. I wasn’t sure he recognized me until I felt a slight squeeze from his hand in mine. He wanted me to know he was OK and was glad to see me.

He died just after Christmas that same year.

It was a typically frigid January day in Chicago when my dad was buried. A World War II Navy Sea Bee, he was given a veteran’s funeral. I didn’t cry that day. It took every ounce of energy to fight it, so I could “be strong” for my mom and three sisters.

It was Dec. 23, 1997, when my sister, at the age of 42, was remarried. She had been divorced for some time and was working in the restaurant business when she met her soon-to-be husband, Tom.

While they dated, she often felt sick but resisted visiting a doctor since she had no health insurance. As the wedding drew near, she planned to see a doctor upon returning from their honeymoon in January, as she would then be covered by Tom’s insurance. It was from that doctor visit that she was diagnosed with colon cancer that had moved into her liver and was spreading throughout her body.

Colon cancer, a slow-moving disease, can be controlled and patients can have affected areas removed and live long, healthy lives. I often wonder if my sister could have been one of those, had she seen a doctor and been diagnosed early.

Tom and Sandy had three happy but cancer-filled years together. She died in 2001.

After walking away from her casket with my sisters at my sides, I couldn’t control my emotions and couldn’t hold back the tears. I sobbed uncontrollably. I cried for the loss of my sister, and I believe I finally cried for the loss of my dad.

Now you know why I think cancer sucks.

Nonetheless, there is something else about cancer that’s hard to explain. To some patients, it brings a renewed sense of courage and fight that many didn’t know they had. It’s a catalyst to live each day with a more positive outlook. To the families, it unifies. It brings you closer together and makes you cherish every moment. Cancer definitely changes you.

My family was no different. Since the deaths of my dad and sister, the importance of faith and family has been further rooted in my life. My sisters and mom are spread across the country, but we talk to each other at least once a week. We have an annual family reunion at my sister’s house in Madison, Wis. We enjoy our time together, and family is now one of my biggest priorities.

My mom remarried at age 75 to a 90-year-old, feisty Italian who lost his first wife to breast cancer after a 20-year battle. If it weren’t for cancer, none of this would have happened. There is a silver lining.

This month we recognize breast cancer awareness. There’s no question that the nationwide promotional campaign has worked wonders to bring well needed attention to the fundraising efforts to fight the disease and find a cure.

I know you have a story; this one is mine. Thanks for letting me share it with you.

Share your own cancer story.

Dave Schmall is publisher of The Union. Contact him at dschmall@theunion.com or by phone at (530) 477-4299.

My dad and sister never experienced remission. Their time had come and their names were called.


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The Union Updated Nov 16, 2012 12:04PM Published Nov 6, 2012 07:17AM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.