I am the writer behind many of the survivor stories on this website. It has been my privilege to interview lung cancer patients and survivors, each with their own remarkable story. For most, their diagnosis came as a shock. They have all endured various surgeries and treatment plans. All face an uncertain future. Theirs are stories of incredible accomplishments, successes, and hope. Many of them have become fierce advocates for lung cancer research and their hard work is yielding results.
While there has definitely been an improvement in the life expectancy of lung cancer patients, most will still succumb to the disease. It is important that we share those stories as well. That being said, here’s the story of my father, Mark, who died of lung cancer in 2006. He was 67 years old.
— Julie Levinson, Storyteller and Daughter
My Father’s Lung Cancer Diagnosis
Having come of age in the early fifties, my father, along with many people his age, smoked his first cigarette when he was a teenager. By the time he was in college and met my mother, he was a smoker. Growing up, smoking was one of the few things my parents argued about. He tried and succeeded to quit many times, but it wasn’t until his mid-forties that he would smoke his last cigarette. Twenty-five years later, with his smoking habit a distant memory, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and was told he would die within the year.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early February. Our family was to travel later that week from Boston to Los Angeles to celebrate with my niece, my parent’s oldest grandchild, at her Bat Mitzvah. My parents went to the movies with a plan to come afterward to my house to babysit for my two children. My mother phoned to say my father had fallen asleep during the movie (a not altogether unusual thing) and she was unable to fully rouse him. The sound in her voice was one of concern, but not alarm. Unsure, we decided a visit to the ER was in order.
A Stroke of Luck?
It was quickly determined that my father had suffered a stroke. A stroke, it turns out, that would save his life. A stroke that, we would soon learn, would be of less concern than the results of the chest x-ray.
“Are you aware that there is a large tumor in your chest?”
Because he was on a blood thinner for an irregular heartbeat, it would be days before it would be medically safe to perform a biopsy. Finally his diagnosis would be confirmed: stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. He had none of the symptoms typically associated with lung cancer. In fact, had he not had a stroke, one can only guess when his cancer would have be discovered. At the time, worse than his diagnosis, was the news that he under no circumstances could travel for the Bat Mitzvah. It was in that moment that my father began to cry.
Fighting Cancer to Reach a Family Milestone
Lung cancer treatments are unkind. Grueling chemotherapy robbed my father of his beautiful white hair. Weeks of radiation were physically and emotionally exhausting. His shine, his glow, and his spirit dimmed. In the days following treatment when he was too spent to do much, the sound of his laughter while he binge-watched old “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes was a comfort to us.
The tumor grew smaller and he grew stronger. Against all odds, two years after his diagnosis, he was able to travel across the country to attend his second grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah. Although a shadow of himself and notably absent from the dance floor, he was there and he was elated.
With Family Close By
Life went on at a decidedly slower pace and with diminished strength…but he was living life. On a beautiful January morning, nearly three years after his diagnosis and just a few days ahead of his birthday, my father would suffer another stroke. He died several hours later, my mother, brothers, and me by his side.
My father’s lung cancer was book-ended by strokes. The first one saved his life, the second one took it. He was blessed not to suffer the end stages of lung cancer and for that, we are eternally grateful. He had a king’s death and he deserved it.
My Father’s Hope for Change
Because of lung cancer, my parents lost the opportunity to grow old together. The joys of watching his grandchildren as they celebrated the milestones of growing up, were also lost. Lung cancer took the life of a wonderful man.
It has been 13 years since we lost my dad. In those years, the depth of understanding of lung cancer has seen tremendous growth. For some, lung cancer has become a chronic disease rather than a death sentence. Through discoveries of mutations and new, often highly effective therapies, people are living longer. As a kid, my dad used to muse that he hoped he lived long enough to see how things in the world would change. I wish he’d lived long enough to benefit from the advances in lung cancer research.
Comfort from my Father’s Courage
By all accounts, he was a gem of a guy with a quick smile and a hug that would cure all that ails you. He had a kind disposition, a gentle, generous soul, and an affable spirit. An adored husband, father, and grandfather, he provided sage advice and steady comfort and encouragement to anyone fortunate enough to cross his path. His kindness came second only to his trustworthiness – the deepest secrets were safe with him.
He was pragmatic about his diagnosis, often reminding the rest of us that he “had to die of something.” He was thoughtful beyond measure when he told each of us that there was nothing left unsaid. My father left behind a legacy of benevolence.