My father was a man who played many different characters.
Some knew him as “Ranger Rick,” a burly nature counselor at a local day camp in Somerset County. He made nature entertaining by holding cookouts, interactive nature walks and carrying a large carved out stick, which he called a “shtick” and carved usual symbols into the sides. We children loved it.
If he was in his 80s, we might have had to consider institutionalizing him.
Others saw him as a referee, officiating games for basketball, volleyball, baseball and almost any other sport that involved a ball and two teams. He took every game very seriously, doing his best to make the proper call. It didn’t help my social life when he eliminated one of my friends from a basketball game for his fifth foul.
But I knew him most as a loving and devoted father. He took my brother and me to Yankees and Mets games. So what the seats were always the worst in the stadium—upper tier behind some type of obstruction? To this day, my brother and I call those seats “Daddy Seats” and do what we can to avoid them at all costs.
My father definitely had a quirky side. One day he went on a health kick and decided to buy boxes of Slim Fast to shed some extra weight. When I strolled into the kitchen one day and saw him dipping Oreos into his Slim Fast chocolate shake, I didn’t even need to ask how the diet was going.
And yet despite his foibles, we still loved him.
Always healthy and active, my father always seemed liked the most indestructible man in the world. That was until that late-June day in 2001.
Exhausted and jaundiced, my father went to the doctor to see what had been ailing him. The doctor wanted to do a biopsy to pinpoint the reason for his discomfort. The first biopsy came up inconclusive but a second on the liver showed the doctor something different.
That’s when my father was hit with four words that tore through our senses like a warm knife ripping through butter. “You have pancreatic cancer.”
I figured things would be O.K. People are always beating cancer, right? Some chemo or radiation would do the trick. I had no idea with the monster that we were up against. Here are the facts:
- Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
- Over 75 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within the first year and less than 5 percent make it past five years.
- Due to the location of the pancreas and vague symptoms, early detection is almost impossible unlike other cancers like breast, colon and prostate.
But this was my father—my “Superman." The guy who seemed like the ultimate Teflon dad was up against the battle of his life. He rarely had a serious illness but when he did, he would take a boiling pot of water, sit it on the kitchen table and inhale the vapors and magically make himself better. It was one of the strangest things my siblings and I had ever seen, but it worked.
We were going to need a huge steaming pot for this one.
Just one week after Sept. 11, 2001, my mom, sister, brother and I went to Sloan Kettering in New York City to see what one of the top oncologists could do to fix our father. Flanked by photos of missing and likely deceased 9/11 victims, the atmosphere was about as bleak as the doctor’s outlook. The cancer, which started at the pancreas, spread to the liver. This made the Whipple Procedure, an operation where sections of the pancreas and surrounding organs are removed, not an option.
He had three months at the longest.
But my father was a fighter and was determined. If anyone was going to beat the odds, it was him. And we didn’t have to worry about hair loss. My father was already bald (or as my brother would say, “follically impaired"). We were going into this with extreme confidence.
I would spend Fridays with him at the local oncologist watching mysterious chemicals like Gemzar and 5-FU (and no, I’m not making the name of that one up) inserted into his veins. The tumor wasn’t growing and he made it well past the New Year, but we were still only buying time. The cancer wasn’t going anywhere.
My brother and his wife gave birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth, in May 2002 and it brought new joy into all of our lives. Sadly, it also marked a turning point in the battle with pancreatic cancer.
My father went from looking like “Ranger Rick” to an unrecognizable character that represented the horrors of pancreatic cancer. He deteriorated into a frail man who relied on all of us for almost everything until the last moments when we said our final goodbyes during the first night of July.
As it turned out, pancreatic cancer was the kryptonite for our Superman and a disease that forever changed our family. I was in my mid-20s without a father but with a new mission.
Today and every day, I wear a purple wristband—the color of pancreatic cancer awareness—to remember what we lost. Things have changed in our lives. My childhood home doesn’t have my father in his reclining chair, laughing heartily at another episode of “The Honeymooners.” Father’s Day is commemorated at a graveside rather than the local Chili’s. However, not all changes are for he worse. I started volunteering for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and joining the monthly meetings at the Mall at Short Hills to try and help others avoid the misery that our family endured.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Seven years after I lost my father there is still no cure and no early detection method for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is the least federally funded of all the cancer killers. I have volunteered at picnics, sporting events and sponsored local proclamations to increase support and research for this disease. More public awareness will lead to more funding for research, which in the end will lead to a cure.
While there’s definitely a main character missing from our lives, he’s still remembered. Hopefully, the future brings us better news when a detection method and cure are found and the characters in other families continue be around for a long, long time.
Todd Cohen is a regular sports writer with Patch and works with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which meets regularly at the Mall at Short Hills. The Millburn Township Committee is expected to proclaim November Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month during its meeting Tuesday night.