My brother Steve passed away earlier this week after a four-and-a-half-year battle with pancreatic cancer. These last few days have been filled with a kind of emotional vertigo. Feelings of heartache, loss, relief, love, kinship, loneliness, and disbelief flash through me.
It would be easy to slide into despair — but as much as I hurt, I am grateful. Doctors, nurses, medical staff, social workers, volunteers, advocates, friends, family, and complete strangers locked arms with Steve and gave us four-and-a-half years that we never expected. Every day was hard-fought and won. Every day was precious.
I miss my brother so much already — and I will forever, but he left me with an enduring gift: A model for how to lead a meaningful life.
In searching for a way to pay tribute to and illustrate Steve’s bravery, grit, eloquence, and beauty, I found a shining example in a letter he wrote about two years ago -— for his Harvard University 35th reunion.
Each member of the class of ’84 wrote an update about their lives. Some wrote about new jobs, new spouses, relocations, or retirements. This is Steve’s entry…
The last few years have re-acquainted me with the value of constructive catastrophes. Surviving an encounter with fear, pain, disappointment or death cultivates resilience. It also tempers ambition with the kind of humanity from which empathy and compassion derive.
We learn to define success more wisely, pursue it more persistently, appreciate it more deeply, and more completely identify with others’ struggles. At our age, most of us have at least a story or two to tell about these hard lessons -— here is mine.
You may remember that I had a tumor removed from my spinal cord, just after our 25th reunion. I was mostly over that by our 30th. Seeing so many fit, vigorous classmates at that event even gave me the final push that I needed to go from “healing” to “healed” to “healthy.”
I made some changes. I got my good numbers up, my bad numbers down, and I felt ready for whatever might come next. Then I found out I had pancreatic cancer.
In January 2017, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of high-grade metastatic pancreatic cancer. Inoperable. Incurable. No standard of care. No relative drug trials. In the immortal words of Martha and the Vandellas, “Nowhere to run to baby, no place to hide.” According to the medical journals, my prognosis lay somewhere between “grim” and “dismal.”
I am pleased to report that I have exceeded those low expectations. Genomic razzle-dazzle, aggressive chemo, an ovarian-cancer drug and a lot of music and laughter shrank my tumors. My doctors, nurses, researchers, family and friends were heroic. They waged all-out war on my behalf for seven grueling months. That bought me an improbable 15 more months with no measurable evidence of disease.
It was a glorious reprieve. Intellectually, I knew that recurrence was likely. I just stopped believing it. My life was so full of joy, love, friendship, and good news that there was no room for doubt. The magical thinking prevailed until just about the time I started writing this. That’s when the cancer came back.
So my future is uncertain. Then again, whose isn’t? Some of you have learned that much more painfully than I have. Your strength inspires my optimism. So too, does the chorus of encouragement that surrounds me. I am disappointed, but not discouraged. I have moments that test me but many, many more moments that reinforce my belief in the combined power of hope, science, a kick-ass playlist, low-carb tortillas, and kale. I embrace the freedom to improvise that lies beyond the standard of care. I have options. I have possibilities. I am grateful.
This experience has taught me quite a bit about myself and the world. Most of these revelations have been empowering. A few have been heartbreaking. I intend to use them all to become a more compassionate, accessable, focused and productive person. That’s what it will take for me to do the job for which I have been chosen -— supporting other patients, comforting their families -— and advancing and promoting the science on which our lives depend.
Statistics are useful -— but sometimes they say more about yesterday than tomorrow. Probability is not destiny. With that in mind, I plan on being at our 35th reunion and many more thereafter.
I look forward to celebrating the gift of time with you. If we don’t get to reunite in person, then I will remember your virtues with respect and affection -— and even your vices with laughter, generosity, and forgiveness. I hope that you will do the same for me.
My brother’s own words summarize his humanity better than I ever could. Love and be loved, care and be cared for, be brave, be positive. Make your time worth it.
These last four-and-a-half years would never have come to pass without the research, science, medicine, care, and love that Steve received. The time would have never come to pass without my dear, sweet, beautiful friend Katie -— and her counsel.
It would have never come to pass without the Pancreatic Dream Team at Stand Up To Cancer and the brilliant medical counsel at the Jay Monahan Center. And it would not have never come to pass without the intangible magic of love and support -— which take all of those elements and supercharges them. Thank you to Dr. Allyson Ocean, and each and every person who cared for Steve — and for our family through these many years.
Steve did not “lose” his battle with cancer. Steve did not succumb to this disease. He did not get beaten or beaten down by it. He fought, and engaged his enemy, outsmarted and outran it — and then he simply knew when the time was to hand the baton off. We now run with it. In his name. In his honor. To victory. No retreat, no surrender. His legacy is entrusted to our hands. Let’s defeat cancer in Steve’s memory and in Jay’s.