Cancer has caught up with former President Jimmy Carter, and with my brother, my cousin and my neighbor. No doubt cancer has touched the life of every Cambria resident in some way. Where will it end? Millions upon millions of dollars pour into cancer research every year, but where is the cure?
The cold hard statistics: 589,430 Americans will die of cancer in 2015 (American Cancer Society). That’s 80,000 more than live in Fresno. As hated and feared as cancer is, it’s like piling pain on pain when misdiagnosed. Sadly, this was the case with my closest friend, Jack.
On a blissful early June afternoon in 2012, Jack’s email suggested we meet at our favorite private ocean viewing site, Leffingwell Point in Cambria.
Numerous times we gathered in that secluded spot sheltered by a thicket of pines and cypress, 90 feet above the booming breakers. It had special meaning for Jack, in part due to the shared experience of that breathtaking vista.
But moreover, something mystical touched a chord in Jack’s spirit when he stood on the precipice and closed his eyes with arms fully outstretched. It was as though he harvested moral strength from the salt air, the irregular cloud patterns, the sweet patches of blue and the ocean’s rhythmic thunder.
After leaving Leffingwell that June afternoon, we sat down for a meal at Moonstone Bar & Grill. Jack ordered a salad and a burger, but after one small bite of the burger, he began choking, turned pale and excused himself as he headed to the restroom. He pushed his food away and ordered a milkshake.
Something was seriously wrong with my longtime amigo.
In August, 2015, I discovered some emails we had exchanged, including an interesting one (I had apparently missed) from May 9, 2012. Jack wrote that he was “wrestling with a stomach, esophagus disorder that makes eating not all that comfortable.” He reported that a colonoscopy and upper GI endoscopy would be performed May 31.
“It’s been daunting,” he wrote. But he had mentioned next to nothing about those procedures when we met that early June afternoon. In hindsight, his May 31 email did say the doctors had “some follow-up work they want to do”
And in a June 8 email, sent a few days after our meeting, Jack wrote: “I have an old growth near my esophagus … that needs to be monitored … I am checking into it.”
Then on June15, after he began treatments for acid reflux, Jack reported that trying to eat food made him “lock up and have waves of nausea. Ugh. Ugly.” The episodes “Come and go without much logic or predictability.”
And because this problem had been going on for some time with no remedy in sight, Jack began to rebel against the health care professionals charged with identifying his problem: “I’m not going to get too anxious about doctors who want to test and invade my personal world. It’s like going to the auto mechanic. You could change the fan belts now … or wait five years. What do you want to do?”
By late August (after continuing tests) in 2012 the truth was revealed: That “old growth” in his esophagus was in fact a cancerous tumor that had been growing there for some time — and had been misdiagnosed again and again.
So my best buddy began the painful “chemo” treatment in September, and strong blasts of radiation were directed at the tumor, with hopes that it would shrink and surgeons could remove it. Indeed it did shrink, and Jack was elated after being scheduled to have surgery at the UCLA Medical Clinic.
There he was in March 2013, on a gurney with IVs in his arm, medicated and about to be rolled into surgery at UCLA, when another doctor appeared.
“Wait,” the physician said. “We’ve found more cancer in his body, so we’ll have to postpone the surgery.”
In late April 2013, after deciding to eschew yet another round of chemo, Jack sent me the creative obituary he wanted to have printed in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and trusted me to make certain that it would be published just as he had written it. I later honored that request.
“At the end of the day it is love that we take with us … and I look forward to the next evolution of my soul essence,” he wrote. “I find comfort knowing that my ability to love people as well as life and the earth and the cosmos will carry me forward to a new adventure.
“My gift of having an artist’s sensibility and curiosity … has allowed me to move a bit beyond consensus reality. I hope you all get to live your dreams to the fullest. Life is short. Take that trip. Take that risk. Love yourself and shine your love on others.”
And after a couple months in bed, drinking a can of Ensure (100 calories) a day, with a Hospice representative in the house and an ample supply of morphine, Jack slipped peacefully away on June 30, 2013.
Typical of Jack’s penchant for courteous irreverence, the last lines of his obituary poetically parodied the Pledge of Allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the earth, the sun, and the stars / And to the universe from where we came / Our source, unnamable / With mysteries and miracles for all.”
Now we need a pledge from the most gifted doctors and researchers — recipients of those millions of donated dollars — to make some serious progress and find a cure.