Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Post from My Dad

We have been consumed with watching the PBS cancer special that has been on this week.  It was so very interesting (although watching it with Matt is not as much fun because he adds in lots of spoilers).  It was great to learn so much about the history of cancer and see what Matt does on a daily basis.  It also hits so close to home because of the way cancer has affected my family.  My dad wrote an amazing post on his caringbridge page yesterday and I thought I would share it here today.  Sums up so many thoughts perfectly.  My grandaddy and my dad are truly my heroes!!

We have been watching the PBS Special on cancer which ends tonight.  The first segment was the history and treatment from 2000 B.C. to 1970.  The second segment was the discoveries and trials (and errors) and advances from 1971 (the signing of the National Cancer Act) to about 2001.  Tonight (April 1st) is going to be about genes, more on targeted therapies, immuotherapy and beyond.  I cannot wait to see this one as I have been on a targeted therapy trial and might go into an immuotherapy trial in the near future. 

What this has done for me is to get me thinking about how cancer has touched my life through my father and how my brother and have inherited the legacy of what he endured.  So this post is dedicated to my father, Larry Robert East.

This is a long post and I apologize but sometimes you have to pour your heart out.  For those that read on, thanks for reading.  And all grammatical errors are mine (Gary) alone.  Remember this was written by an engineer who likes numbers and a few Greek letters.  

My dad was born on September 7, 1925 in a wood sided house in New Site, Alabama.  They say it was so hot that day that men threw well water on the wood to cool the house for his mother.  It was 108 degrees in Huntsville on that day so the story is most likely true.  At 8 years old he was playing with a small metal object, a blasting cap, that went off blinding him in his left eye.  School was not a high priority for him and he joked that it took him two years to get use to the 5th grade (OK, children don't get any ideas here.  Read the rest of the story.)  He completed the 8th grade and with his parents permission joined the Army in 1943.  How does someone blind in one eye pass an Army physical.  Simple.  When they tell  you to cover your left eye and read the chart you are good.  When they tell you to cover your right eye, why of course you cover your left eye (again) and read the chart.  No one was the wiser (except Dad) and by then the Army was willing to take just about anybody warm and breathing.  Somewhere along the way Dad had a company commander that was a Georgia Tech graduate and he made an impression on my dad.  He understood the importance of education from that point forward (or maybe he got tired of KP???).  Dad survived banzai attack and was wounded on Ie Shima (not far from where Ernie Pyle was killed for you history buffs), a small island off Okinawa.  He took his first airplane ride being evacuated for additional medical treatment.  He was on Saipan training to be a quad-fifty gunner for the invasion of the Japanese home islands when the atomic bombs were dropped and the war ended.  (The island next to Saipan is Tinian where the bombers that flew the atomic missions were based - he was friends with a photographer and he got copies of the pictures he took of the Enola Gay the day after the plane dropped the bomb that my mother still has.)

Dad got out of the Army in 1946 and used the GI Bill to further his education.  The first two years were spent completing high school (they had special programs for veterans back then where they could finish a school year in 6 months).  The next two years he went to junior college.  He completed the last two years at what is now Jacksonville State and paid for it by working odd jobs.  He graduated in 1951 with a teaching degree in history, PE, science (biology) and English (a subject that thankfully he never taught). (See children, he learned the error of his ways and made education a priority.)   He married my mother on December 21, 1951 - a marriage that would last 42+ years.

Dad is now a high school history and biology teacher with junior high football/basketball coach thrown in for good measure and we have a good life.  Funny story. He got a beagle that had had its left eye pecked out by a chicken. Dad and Flip (the dog) would go hunting rabbits - never knew him to kill one.  He said that since they both were blind in the left eye they hunted to the right making a big circle and eventually getting back to where they started.  (Maybe a little truth in there somewhere.)
Dad was not feeling so well in Oct/Nov 1965 (I think that year is correct) so he had test done including an X-Ray.  His doctor was a kid he taught biology and coached in basketball.  Nothing seen.  Three weeks later as he was getting out of the car he threw up - ugly green stuff.  More X-Rays.  This time they see a mass the size of a grapefruit where there had been nothing before.  The doctor sends him the Emery University Hospital in Atlanta.  They operate and identify a cancerous mass (no name is given to me) in his abdominal cavity.  They remove enough to get his kidneys working again, sew him up and send him home on Christmas Eve.  Although I am sure there were other Christmas presents that year, the ones I remember most are two odd looking dolls/ornaments that my mother bought at the Emery gift shop that have hung on a Christmas tree ever since as a reminder.  Emery offered radiation as a treatment and the nearest facility is 50 miles away in Columbus, GA.  It was cobalt, a physical chunk of radioactive material. They drew marks on his belly about 10 inch apart to form a square to aim the beam and beginning in January 1966 they blasted away for 30 days.  And you know how he got to Columbus?  Men in the church and town drove him there through rain, sleet and snow.  He never missed a treatment due to the dedication of those men.  More tests and X-Rays and no sign of the tumor.

Now Dad is the assistant principal at the high school walking around with a 34 inch baseball bat that the Ag Department has cut down to make a paddle (made a lot of noise as he hit it against his leg but I cannot confirm one case where he used it as a paddle).  Two years later (1968) knots are seen in my Dad's neck. Back to Emery for doctor visits, tests and X-Rays.  The cancer is back but this time I have a name, lymphoma. Radiation is out so they offer something call chemotherapy - two drugs call Vincristin and Cytoxin.  He begins the treatment at the local doctor's office.  He goes in to the office on Friday afternoon, the doctor/nurse (there is no oncology pharmacist) mixes the powder in a solution and by IV inject it into his body.  No pre-meds, no nausea medication.  Just chemo by IV into his body.  The next 48 hours around the house are ..., well just say that they were not the best 48 hours for him or us.  I don't know how many treatments he had but finally, Dad just gets fed up with feeling bad and quits.  If living is like this, then just stop.  Test, X-Rays are done.  No cancer is evident.
For 23 years there is no lymphoma.  In fact it never returns.  But there are other issues.  Four heart attacks including a quadruple heart bypass.  Personal heart aches and job intrigue not of his own doing. He retires at age 57 as the Registrar of the junior college he attended in the late 40's.  Emily and Andrew are born and they meet one funny man (think gray hair 60+ year old man with a blanket around his neck pretending to be Superman).  They walk the same ground I walked with their Granddaddy as I walked with him as a boy.  Dad is even in a movie, Mississippi Burning.  If you ever watch it look for a tall, gray haired reporter taking notes in two scenes and a guy in overall in another.

We are visiting him in the fall of 1992 and he tells me that he is having pain in his right shoulder and losing weight.  He says he thinks he will go to the doctor.  He does and they put him in the hospital for test.  I get a call early in the morning on November 15, 1992.   "Son, I need to see you.  Can you come to the hospital today?"  I hurry out the door for the 4 hour drive that I made in 3 1/2.  Maybe I was speeding, the Opelika police officer said I was (he let me off with a warning).  I got to the hospital and there Dad told me he had Pancreatic Cancer.  I leaned into his bed and hugged him and cried. Over the next few day options were discussed. Radiation was out.  He really didn't want anything to do with chemo but that didn't matter - there were no chemo treatments.  Surgery was a possibility, the Whipple, but the doctors were not encouraging.  He was given 6 months to live and he died on May 17, 1993.  During that time my brother and I took him to Sunday School for the last time and help him plow and plant his last garden - something that we had done growing up.  I set with him on some weekends alternating with others.  Those others.  Many of the same men that had taken him to get the radiation treatment some 25 years earlier.  

So how do I link my Dad to the PBS special and my brother and my cancer. My Dad was a pioneer in cancer treatment - see the first session.  Cobalt radiation was new at the time and they bombarded the general area.  If a little was good, more was better and if we hit something else that is the price you pay.  When my brother had his radiation, they mapped the exact location to radiate, and controlled the electrically generated radiation to the exact depth of the tumor in precise amounts to minimize adjacent tissue damage.  Using two chemo drugs was cutting edge in the late 60's and there were not that many drugs.  His response to the treatment was nothing short of a miracle.   (It's OK to say 'God is good' here.)  He was also just a little too early. I was originally diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and now there are multiple chemo treatments using up to four drugs and life expectancy is increasing. They spent almost 45 minutes today giving me pre-meds before chemo to combat nausea (I even put a nausea patch on the last night) and to help the body heal from the side effects so the bad stuff he experienced is significantly reduced.  He didn't get genomic testing and they didn't save his DNA or do a biopsy of the tumor.  Today if we had that material, we could study and determine for sure what he had and if it is passed on to me and my siblings.  They don't think it was but that would be good information to have for others as well.  They just didn't know back then and that was only 22 years ago.

So Dad, here is to you.  You were an over comer in life and a cancer treatment pioneer.  What you did for Randall (three surgeries depending on how you count them, 30 days of radiation and 60+ chemo treatments using 8 different drugs and waiting on a trial study) and me (30 chemo treatments using 7 different drugs, one trial study using 2 different drugs and waiting on another trial study) was to pave the way for better and more effective treatment.  You never realized it and I am sure you would have never wished it for us.  But if there is anyone that I would want to emulate in this fight it is you.  Thanks, Dad.

For those that might read this and have cancer the message here I believe is HOPE and courage!  We are the next generation of cancer treatment pioneers, courageous fighters in a war the we are growing ever closer to winning. Everything we do in this fight will help doctors and scientist develop new treatments, increase knowledge and give HOPE to others.  Every time we tell our story we pass along HOPE.  We may never see that just like my Dad never did but 22 years later I now see it more clearly than I ever have.

By the way, I had treatment today at a reduced dose of Gemzar but I am still in the fight.  I am feeling fine and the side effects are minimal.  I even did 'work' work during treatment.

Gary and Ann

"Honor your Father and Mother..."  Exodus 20:12