Finishing well: One man's struggle against cancer
July 8, 1999
By Daniel Hayes, M.D.
Web posted at: 2:43 PM EDT (1843 GMT)
The following is a story about how two men lived, and how one man died. Jerry (not his real name) inspired many people during his lifetime as he fought testicular cancer and coped with the devastating repercussions of his illness. Johnny Unitas, as many sports fans know, was the consummate sportsman, playing with a grace and courage seldom witnessed in the world of professional football. These two men had much in common.
How we die
Few of us spend time thinking about how we will die. The real drama of how one of us is dying gets hushed behind a heavy hospital door. And when it's over, we say, "He passed on." But death is more than a passing for some. It's often a struggle. For some, it is an opportunity to make amends with loved ones and share a final milestone. For a few, it's simply extraordinary, an event that touches hundreds of people and is anything but a passing.
Beating the cancer odds
Jerry, a young teacher with plans to enter a Ph.D. program at the University of Nebraska, announced to his fiancée one day that he had testicular cancer. She told him they were getting married anyway.
The couple married in 1969 and endured the treatments. Jerry obtained his Ph.D. and rose to national prominence in educational consultation. But there were challenges. After the treatments, Jerry was unable to have children. "He took on three tough foster kids," says John Schneider, a friend and former colleague. "It required lots of time and energy. I think that every ache and pain that he had worried him."
At his funeral this past June (1999), his wife said, "I've lived with this for 30 years." A fast-growing tumor -- possibly the result of the initial irradiation -- appeared one-and-a-half years ago. They couple said "no" to more treatments.
The decision: How to die
Remarkable is how Jerry said "yes" to his last one-and-a half years. Initially, it was tough. "Jerry was in very serious pain and on morphine," says Schneider. "Initially, he allowed himself to be a burden -- and that depressed him. Then a friend told him he wasn't dying well. I guess at that time he was crying out more. Once he got the message that he wasn't dying well, he turned it around." Dying well for Jerry meant not letting the pain take over.
Courage is contagious
"It started gradually," says Schneider. "People wanted to visit him.... I think his character ... his spirit ... what he'd done with his life is the reason. Being with him was so satisfying, nurturing. Just so they could be with him, three people got certified to give him his medications. Two people became experts in changing the bandages of the bedsores." Many of Jerry's friends quit jobs or took sabbaticals to be at his side.
"He had time for everybody. He had an exact inventory of what was going on in your life. And he was very blunt, asking you point-blank about 'the big stuff' going on in your life -- divorce, death, problems with children." Jerry got people talking about mutual griefs, losses and pain with an unusual honesty. He gave a lot at a time when he was losing everything.
Finishing with grace
Jerry was an avid sports fan, and he was no doubt familiar with football hero Johnny Unitas. The name of this former Baltimore Colts' quarterback is synonymous with composure in the face of loss. I can still see him getting thrown by a defender for a five-yard loss. On second down he often got ploughed for more yardage loss. On third down, with every defender knowing he had to pass, Unitas threw a perfect 40-yard pass and took his team to the end zone. He finished well.
"It's very simple," Unitas says. "Life is very simple. There are things that you need to do to survive and you just do them. I don't find that difficult."
"But I've seen you kneel down in resignation, in the snowstorms," I pressed. "Your fingers must have been frozen sometimes." I asked him about the pain of admitting you had to give in. "And what about the other kinds of hurt?"
"Pain is something you should never be concerned about. It's all part of the ball game, it's all part of living. I've played hurt most of my life -- as long as I've known in my own mind what I was doing -- putting myself out there. You can't think about being hurt and having injuries and playing a good football game." The key, Unitas says, "is to have enough confidence in your ability to finish what you set out to do."
Schneider says, "One of the last places I saw Jerry was at the University of Nebraska football game. When they interviewed Jerry the day before he died, he talked about how important it was to finish well. He said: 'Absolutely!' And the last days of his life were the best."
Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.
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