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Guest Commentary

A bad kind of rare

5/7/2014

Mike Leo models the jersey for the Tall Dog bike club he co-founded. Photo provided by Deb Leo

Mike Leo models the jersey for the Tall Dog bike club he co-founded. Photo provided by Deb Leo

Brain cancer is rare. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1.4 percent of all new primary cases of cancer found annually in the United States are of the brain or nervous system. It may be rare, but it is a bad kind of rare. And glioblastoma is perhaps the most insidious type. Dawn Taylor, of Des Moines, knows glioblastoma intimately.

“Brain cancer robs you of your senses. You can’t function,” she said.

In the past eight years, I have known five men from central Iowa who have succumbed to this disease — men whose wives are my friends; men whose vibrant and generous lives were cut short by this particularly aggressive type of brain malignancy known as glioblastoma. Dawn’s husband, Jack Taylor, faced it for 18 months. He passed away in 2006.

“You learn that you handle what’s in front of you,” she said. “You kind of put life on hold.”

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In 2009, Ankeny doctor Matt DeHaven’s struggle was cruelly swift — just two months long. Karen DeHaven was not even able to converse with him, though Matt loved family talks, especially over a dinner he had enjoyed preparing.

Dr. Matt DeHaven rows in his self-built annapolis wherry with his children Catie and Peter. Photo provided by Karen DeHaven

Dr. Matt DeHaven rows in his self-built annapolis wherry with his children Catie and Peter. Photo provided by Karen DeHaven

“It’s such a sacred time when you are with a loved one during the end,” Karen said. “I knew it anyway, but I learned that I was resilient.”

Frank Bott, of Clive, and Mike Leo, of Ankeny, both lost their valiant battles last year. Frank fought for nearly two years while Mike endured a seven-month ordeal. Deb Leo is both sad and angry

“If I have to get through something, I can. I’m stubborn,” she said. “But I do miss him so much.”

For Frank’s widow, Vicki, it is sometimes hard to believe what happened.

“When you are part of that situation, you surprise yourself. You can’t think five or seven days ahead — just what’s now,” she said. “It’s too overwhelming.”

The very things these men enjoyed in life: music, reading, activity, illumination — became irritants. No Bach, Beethoven or The Boss for Matt; Mike eventually could only tolerate the voices of his grandchildren; and Frank withdrew socially, unable to even focus on audible books.

Frank Bott dropping a line in Country Club Lake in Clive. Photo provided by Vicki Bott

Frank Bott dropping a line in Country Club Lake in Clive. Photo provided by Vicki Bott

It is said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. Deb said Mike’s attitude was far better than hers. Jack never was in pain, according to Dawn. It wasn’t Frank’s disposition to complain, recalled Vicki. Matt never got the chance, as his tumor affected his ability to communicate. Karen bravely spoke for him with countless entries on the CaringBridge website. They were not words of despair but of faith: “People told me they learned to start telling those close to them that they were loved.”

Jack Taylor and daughter, Gabbi, celebrate a catch in Canada. Photo provided by Dawn Taylor

Jack Taylor and daughter, Gabbi, celebrate a catch in Canada. Photo provided by Dawn Taylor

In brief, these men were patient, responsible, generous, adventurous, loyal, smart and happy. They got their wives to fish, bike, row and travel in an RV. They were teachers and fathers, a doctor and businessmen. They all had reached age 50. But, in the end, they couldn’t beat the odds. Adult men with glioblastoma live about 14 months, on the average.

“Every second counts,” admitted Dawn. “ You can become selfish about sharing that time.”

Even for simply deciding on accepting an offer of help. Collectively, the wives advised: “Don’t ask, ‘What can I do?’ Just do something.”

So I’m running in the Race For Hope. You can, too. It’s Saturday, May 10. Find out how online at www.raceforhopedsm.org. CV                

Heidi Soliday is a swimming and biking enthusiast who sometimes runs… slowly. She has also been known to dabble in journalism, especially sports.

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