Tag Archives: Cancer

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Life has a way of tapping you on the shoulder to ask if you are making the most of what time you have.

And then there are times life punches you really, really hard to ask if it’s got your attention.

A friend and former colleague dying one week after he learned he had cancer qualifies as one of those moments.

George Spohr, who had been a business editor at The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., found out he had cancer on his 37th birthday.

This is his clear-eyed text message five days before he died:

“For the past few weeks, I’ve been pushing past a lot of abdominal pain. The pain got so bad that I was hospitalized in Syracuse the past four days (I was home visiting family for the weekend). They found a mass on my liver, and spots on my pancreas and lungs that might be related. They did a biopsy and I got the results on Thursday evening. I have cancer. I don’t know much more than that; it’ll take a few days to learn what options for treatment I may have or how advanced it is. But I wanted you to know. The prognosis isn’t good (yesterday might have been my last birthday), so please keep up your prayers.”

I wish I could be a scold and say, “See boys and girls? This is the reason you should be sure to go to the doctor regularly.”

But that would not only be insensitive but untruthful.

George, according to a mutual friend, had been diligent about seeing the doctor regularly. Tests leading up to the discovery of his cancer turned up nothing abnormal.

He was a bear of a man, with a booming laugh and a toothy smile. He was an unabashed fan of White Castle and would make a point of posting photos of ones he visited as he crisscrossed the country.

He would punctuate gossipy conversations with “Are you serious?!”

George claimed to be a Republican and fan of Trump’s. With him, you could never be quite sure if he was pulling your leg.

That led to this text exchange with him after he told me the news:

Me: “But yes prayers bigly! Yuge! Hope you cracked a smile. Sending prayer and heartfelt wishes for strength and healing.”

Him: “Thank you, sir. Yes. #maga. Always!”

In the beginning, I had a combative relationship with George over turf issues in the newsroom.

Over time, we grew to mutually respect one another and the talents we each had and from that, our friendship grew.

I watched as he advanced in his career, moving from one newsroom leadership position to another in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and finally Indiana.

The way he died seems so desperately unfair, implausible and frightening.

I would be lying if I said that it did not have me badly rattled.

I am one of those people who have 1 percent of their mind occupied with anticipating the random worst things that can happen to myself or loved ones: a crash, terrorist attack, illness, derailment, etc.

I like to think that partly based on past personal experience (the unexpected death of my fiancée) and a longtime career in news, I’m braced for those out-of-the-blue moments.

But maybe not.

George’s death reminds me about a philosophy my wife and I share about gift-giving: Rather than getting a CD, we might consider tickets to a concert or a play instead.

Behind that premise is the notion that time spent with friends and loved ones — and the memories and stories they create — will last longer than any material object.

Another friend called it creating “scrapbook moments.”

My scrapbook with George is perhaps thinner than I’d like but I thought there would be time to add more memories.

Life reminds you though: Not always.

Rest in peace, George.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THON at Penn State Banishes Despair

It is nearly 3 in the morning on the Saturday of Presidents’ Day weekend and the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State University in State College, Pa., looks to be hosting a celebration that is a cross between a rave and Mardi Gras.

The circular corridor teems with college students wearing leis, beads or frilly tutus (guys included), brightly colored T-shirts and sporting glitter on their cheeks or the letters “FTK.”

Inside the arena, music loudly thumps and lights flash. The stands are filled with more students who gyrate and jump to the music.

Large cutout letters representing the names of various sororities and fraternities are outlined with strands of glowing Christmas lights.

I am still trying to figure out how they kept them lit without plugging into a outlet. Probably engineering students.

The arena floor is an ant hill of activity, with more students dancing, clapping and chanting.

The energy level at this hour is at a 7 and by the time the weekend finishes, it will be cranked to a 12 and the students will have torn off the dial.

Instead of heading to ski slopes or heading home for the holiday weekend or returning to their dorms after a night of drinking, these students instead dedicated themselves to a charity fundraiser known as THON.

THON is a 46-hour dance marathon and the capstone of a year’s worth of raising money and awareness in the fight against childhood cancer. It is two days of no sitting and no sleeping.

And that’s no kidding. Even spectators from the public who come to observe are expected to stand in a gesture of respect and support.

THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, involves more than 16,000 students in various capacities, and on this weekend, 707 dancers will be supported by members of 16 committees.

Some of the dancers had to raise a minimum of $2,800 to be eligible to be entered into a random drawing so they could have the privilege of being on their feet for nearly two days.

Last year alone THON raised $10 million for the Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pa. Since 1977, it has raised more than $146 million.

Reaching that level of success is an audacious undertaking requiring enormous planning and dedication.

And it shows.

A colleague who went to Penn State told me he had a cold dead heart but that THON touched him deeply.

I can now see why.

This will sound corny, but I was immediately moved by the good will that THON represented. Maybe I was tired from the three-hour drive, but I was an emotional basket case as soon as I stepped inside.

The cheer and verve on display would melt the heart of any cynic.

Testaments to the cause were everywhere.

Of particular note were T-shirts dedicated to certain children and others that read: “One day we will dance in celebration. Until then we will dance for a cure.”

THON keeps the families of children with cancer in the forefront, with families actually attending the event and given a private setting to gather.

The logistics of pulling this off cannot be overstated.

We are talking Disney-scale behind the scenes planning for a weekend involving a core of 3,300 student volunteers who oversee everything from security to sanitation.

Dance relations committee members partner with designated dancers to see to their care and feeding, going so far as to sneak in pizza and steak dinners for those who have pledged not to sit for 46 hours.

The volunteer committee members, like my son Daniel, who is a sophomore and made the unusual catapult to the rank of captain of the public relations team, get two four-hour sleep breaks. Not that they take full advantage of the down time, of course.

Dan Mele explains things to his old man.

Daniel led us a through a backstage tour of the maze of hallways and stations that make up THON and introduced us to a number of key players along the way.

And here is the thing: To a person every single volunteer and student we met embraced the challenge of the weekend with a smile and an enthusiasm reserved for little kids on Christmas Eve.

Penn State’s school spirit is legendary, bordering on cult-like. So chalk up that cheeriness and can-do spirit to youthful energy and naïveté and maybe whatever they put in the water in Happy Valley?

Sure.

But that is the cynic’s view.

In a week scarred by the loss of 17 lives in a shooting at a Florida high school, visiting THON was a chance to renew my faith in selflessness and humanity’s desire to do good.

THON shows a cause can transcend politics, party affiliation, divisive beliefs and cultural and ethnic divides and we can rally to do something good FTK: For the Kids.

To donate, go to THON.org.