On True Strength

On True Strength

I spent most of this past week sick, in bed.  I’ll spare you most of the sordid details, but the technical diagnosis for what I had is “viral gastroenteritis.”  Fun stuff.  Needless to say, I spent much of my week on the commode, with a pan in front of me.  Additionally, I had severe stomach pain and cramping, and because I didn’t eat for much of the week, I ended up inducing a migraine as well.  So…all things considered, I was in particularly good shape.

Now, I tell you this today not because I like to whine and want your sympathy (or at least not just because I like to whine and want your sympathy).  Rather, I tell you this because illness – and stomach illnesses, in particular – tend to make me think of my dad, whom I eulogized here.  The reason stomach illnesses make me think of my dad is because I was absolutely miserable for three-plus days.  My dad, by contrast, was absolutely miserable for several months – in almost exactly the same way.  He had stomach cramping and pain.  He had vomiting and diarrhea.  He had a massive, largely untreatable headache.  And he had them all not for three days, but for more than 200 days.

My dad was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer (with a Grade 3 tumor) in August 2020.  As you may or may not know, a Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis is almost always a death sentence.  As Johns Hopkins medicine puts it: “Compared with many other cancers, the combined five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer—the percentage of all patients who are living five years after diagnosis—is very low at just 5 to 10 percent…. Stage IV pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of 1 percent. The average patient diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer will live for about 1 year after diagnosis.”

My dad was told he probably had about three months to live without treatment, maybe six with treatment.  Despite the fact that he knew that treatment would only extend his life marginally, and despite the fact that his surgical oncologist was very clear with him that he was NOT going to “beat” the cancer no matter what he did, he opted to be treated anyway.  A short list of common side effects of the chemotherapies used to treat pancreatic cancer includes the following: Nausea and vomiting, Loss of appetite, Hair loss, Mouth sores, Diarrhea or constipation.  Or, to put it slightly differently, when I wrote above that my dad was sick in exactly the same way I was, I exaggerated (to my benefit).  I didn’t have mouth sores or lose any hair or have neuropathy or any of the other side effects he suffered.  And again, I was miserable for three whole days.  He did chemo for seven MONTHS before finally calling it quits and entering hospice.

Anyway, as I say, I think about my dad when I get a stomach bug.  I whine and complain and then, 72 or so hours later, I’m fine.  I honestly don’t know if I would have the strength to do that for seven months – or even seven days.

To be blunt, I never thought of my dad as a “strong” man.  He was 6’3” 180 lbs., tall and lean, from the time he was 18 to the moment he got sick at 81.  He was an electrical engineering professor, with all of the peculiarities that go along with being an electrical engineer and all those that go along with being a professor.  He was athletic, but not in an imposing way.  He never understood my obsession with weights or my and my kids’ fascination with martial arts.  He considered both foolish, utter wastes of time.

And yet…when it came down to it, when he had the chance to get set up right away on a morphine drip and wait to die, he chose instead to go through seven months of hell, largely to get more time with his kids and grandkids.  He chose to suffer in the clearly vain hope of sticking around and enjoying more of life.  Sure, he stuck around longer than he was supposed to – almost ten months – but he didn’t enjoy any of that time.  He was sick, all day, every day.  All of which is to say that, in the end, he was the strongest person I ever knew.

Some of you may remember Wayman Tisdale, one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the Big 8 Conference, a three-time conference player of the year, a three-time All-American, and a gold medalist in the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team.  He was also an accomplished jazz musician and one of the most genuinely decent people God ever made.

Tisdale was a native Oklahoman and returned to his home state after a 12-year NBA career.  It was there that he met and became fast friends with another native Oklahoma musician, the recently departed Toby Keith.  When Tisdale died from complications related to treatment for his osteosarcoma, Keith wrote a song in his honor called “Cryin’ for Me,” the recording of which featured a handful of Tisdale’s Jazz musician friends.  The first verse of the song contains a line that always chokes me up a bit: “You showed me how I supposed to live, and now you showed me how to die.”

That’s pretty high praise for a friend.  We should all be lucky enough someday to have a friend like that.  Absent that, we should all be grateful that God gave us fathers.

I know that it’s likely that all of you reading this have dealt with the same effects of cancer and its treatment in one capacity or another, either as a recipient or, like me, an observer.  I know of at least one of you who is dealing with it right now.  To all of you, thank you for your strength.

I honestly cannot imagine mustering up the strength to deal with something like this for months – or longer.  I am eternally grateful, though, to have had such a potent example.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.