My name is Cheri Lillegraven. I’m 57. My story is my Dad’s story. I went by my parents’ house on Father’s Day 2004. My father wasn’t feeling well; his color was really white. His stomach was distended. I said, “You don’t look good; something is going on.”
My Mom, Carol Pastor, accompanied my Dad to his appointment with his personal physician. His doctor downplayed the potential seriousness of his condition, just as he had done almost three years earlier when he counseled Mort that it was just a sign of his needing to slow down and accept the fact that he was 72 years old. This time Carol told the doctor that anyone could see how distended her husband's stomach had become and this needed to be evaluated with an MRI. When the doctor failed to respond to the urgency of the situation, Carol took Mort to the Emergency Room. After they were there for several hours, my Mom called me to come. I went. The doctor said, “Your Dad has cancer, but we don’t know what type it is. We'll need to do more tests."
My Dad was turning 75 on July 6th. We were planning a HUGE party—friends, relatives; we’d sent out invitations. From that moment in the ER, everything STOPPED. Tears are flowing as I think of it. “I can’t believe this is still…..”
They ran their tests. Diagnosis came back non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Large B cell growth in his stomach. They decided they’d try to select a RICE protocol as the treatment of choice to see if the growth would respond. It was very large. No operating; no radiation.
Therapy started in July. He had a terrible reaction to the chemo; so they switched to another RICE protocol. This regimen was equally difficult to tolerate, and a third RICE protocol was started. He got pneumonia at Thanksgiving. He was hospitalized. When he came home, he was super weak. My Dad was 5’ 10" and weighed 175 before the treatments; now he was really thin, except for his gut. It was a big distended mass that made him look like a starving malnourished child from the third world.
In January they took a break because he was having such a bad reaction to the chemotherapy. He went to the City of Hope to see if he could get a bone marrow transplant. They said they couldn’t do it because he was 75 and his cancer and the effects of the chemotherapy made him a poor candidate for a transplant. In essence, the process would likely kill him even faster than the cancer.
He was fighter all his life. He never wanted to let adversity stop him. But after he was rejected for the bone marrow transplant, he decided that he would fight to stay alive to celebrate his 43rd wedding anniversary on April 1st with my Mom and the family. After the anniversary celebration, he went into the hospital and refused all interventions except pain control medication. No food, no hydration. He died on April 11, 2005.
As a family, we didn’t ever think my Dad was going to die. I’m surprised telling his story is affecting me as much as it is. He wanted to live to celebrate his 100th birthday with his family and grandchildren. He worked out all the time. He ran marathons. He lifted weights. He ate healthy. He didn't smoke or drink alcohol. Everything was geared towards longevity. It turned out that it wasn’t going to be the case. This made all of us question-- Do we need to take that path? Is it worth fighting? In retrospect, “YES.” At the time, it was difficult to recognize that our parents have morbidity and mortality.
My Dad was born in 1929 during the Depression. His dad was a plumber in Philadelphia. They were super poor, but he had a job. He was born with rickets. Until he was two, he wore braces on his legs. My grandmother used to tease him because he wore braces on his legs and had braces on his teeth. He was the 90 pound weakling. He was super smart, very athletic and klutzy. It’s kind of a family trait to be athletic and klutzy. He wanted to play football in high school and college, but his mother told him “NO!”
His parents were characters. They were Russian. They were very old school. His mother was born in the United States; his father was born in Russia. They got married when she was sixteen. So she wasn’t that old when she had him. She was probably 25; he had two older sisters. He couldn’t afford to go to college, but he got a scholarship to Temple and worked four jobs to pay for everything. In college, he decided he wanted to go to medical school. He thought for sure he would get the Jewish Scholarship for Medical School from Temple. He didn’t get it. He was told, "Our Jewish quota is filled."
He went to work doing research on Vitamin C with Linus Pauling. After a year of doing this work, he got a scholarship to The University of Chicago. He’d ride his motorcycle from Chicago to Philadelphia to visit his family because he couldn’t afford a car. He was double board certified in anesthesia and family practice. After residency, he worked as an anesthesiologist in a hospital in San Jose and had a private medical practice as well. He was that guy. He’d take chickens, trade, or if people couldn’t afford care, he’d give it to them for free.
He bought a gym in Escondido when I was about 28. I was living in Dallas where I worked as an accountant. He telephoned me, “I bought this gym in Escondido. Wanna come out and run it for me?” I said, “Sure.” I moved back to California and in with my parents. He was the maintenance guy; I was the accountant/comptroller; and my mother was the manager. He and I would work out together every day. He would lift weights and he decided one day that he wanted to be in a body building contest. He was about 63 at the time. He entered the Orange County Classic.
I had just starting dating my husband. He will never forget sitting in the dining room, shaving my Dad’s body and painting him orange. The competition was at Knott’s Berry Farms, so we all went up there and watched it. He placed first in the Men's Over 60 Division.
He played tennis every day. He was my tennis partner--Coronado Tennis Association mixed doubles. He was super active in the association.
For him, family was most important. He had seven daughters and 11 grandchildren. My dad’s impact was that no matter what arguments we’d have, he’d call us all together and make us talk things out. No one got to leave the room until we resolved it. Even as adults, he’d call us over to his house and make us sit there and talk it out.
I wish that he could have lived to see how his grandchildren have grown up. He would have been really proud of my daughters. Olivia as a first –team All-American soccer player at Washington University in St. Louis; Ashley finishing her undergraduate work in accounting and IT at Loyola Marymount and interning as an auditor with Deloitte in the L.A. office. I wish that he had more time with his family. He didn’t want to go.
I wish that cancer research had a better answer for my Dad when he needed it. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s efforts to raise enough money to find such cures are super important. It’s interesting my husband used to play golf in an LLS fundraiser. We never really connected the dots until I was cleaning our office a couple of weeks ago and saw his trophy. It’s so interesting how our lives connect.
I wish there was more focus on raising money for research, especially for that particular cancer because it’s hard to detect, often not found until it is very far advanced, where you don’t get a fighting chance. I wish everyone understood the research on nutrition and how nutrition effects cancer. I think it’s really important that people recognize this connection. My Dad recognized it. I think it’s super important that people start seeing environment and all the things to which we expose ourselves just really helps ramp up those cancer cells. If you knew that avoiding animal protein and sugar would help prevent such cancers, would you be smart enough to do so? Or would you just say, “it’s not going to be me.” That was me; that was my family. We always felt “it’s not going to be us.” And then it was.
Like I said earlier, I never even considered that my father would die. It was so shocking, it took me a year straight of just crying all the time. I remember my daughter Ashley saying, “Mom, are you ever going to stop crying?” I said, “I don’t know” (as I’m crying). Apparently the answer is no.
Raising money for research and for access to clinical trials or specialized treatments is a very important part of the solution. Please do all you can to help; it’s means so much to so many.