Gary M. planned to retire in January, and begin living his dream. He had a real strategy, too, after working so hard for so many years to provide
for his family, and financially prepare for this next stage of his life.
He wanted to sail the Caribbean, take a passenger train across Canada, explore history in Europe, and ski every slope in his adopted home state of Colorado. He already had routes picked and maps secured.
He never got the chance.
Gary died in October at age 67, stricken by malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer. It destroyed his future so quickly, leaving his family heartbroken, but determined to help others avoid the same pitfalls. His last name is being withheld over privacy concerns.
“I think his biggest disappointment was that he wouldn’t get the chance to do all the things he wanted, and planned, to do,” said daughter Heather, who moved to Denver to live with her dad in the final few months. “Not being able to live his retirement was tough on him. There were so many things he wanted to do. Maybe there is a lesson here.”
Heather’s most poignant advice: “Don’t wait.”
Don’t Hesitate on Second Opinion
Don’t wait to seek medical assistance if something feels wrong. Don’t wait to seek second and third opinions for a cancer like this. Don’t wait until too
late to retire. And don’t wait to have important, end-of-life discussions with your family.
“I get a little angry about the whole thing and how everything happened, knowing he got cheated a little bit,” Heather said. “I wonder if we could have done things any differently. If this can help others, I’m all for it.”
Gary spent his post-Navy career as a commercial pilot for American Airlines, then as an inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration. He was exceptionally healthy for much of his life. He had good health insurance. He had a great retirement package awaiting him. He had money in the bank.
He had it all, but mesothelioma didn’t care.
He was diagnosed in April. He died six months later. He didn’t stop going to work until the last six weeks. He was driving his car the week before he died.
He was paying bills at his desk at home just four days before he passed.
“I really got the feeling through all this that there still is so much doctors don’t know about mesothelioma,” she said. “Even the thoracic oncologists really don’t have all the answers. It happened so fast at the end. You know what’s coming, but you don’t realize how quickly it can get there.”
Diagnosis Took So Long
Especially frustrating to the family was the length of time it originally took to diagnose the mesothelioma, robbing him of any chance at potentially curative surgery. Gary first showed symptoms in the fall of 2011, but was told it was nothing really serious.
He didn’t think twice about the job he had worked before college at the local salvage yard, where he tore apart old Navy machinery, which could have exposed him to the toxic asbestos fibers that can lead to mesothelioma. It typically takes 20 to 50 years between exposure to asbestos and a diagnosis of mesothelioma.
Doctors later told him he had fluid around his lung, then a pleural effusion, then a possible pneumonia. It was 18 months before a biopsy finally revealed the mesothelioma. By then, it already had spread into the lymph nodes.
He showed improvement after the early rounds of chemotherapy, but his conditioned worsened through later rounds. When he then looked for second opinions from specialists on the East Coast, sending his medical records in advance, one told him there was little he could do, and to remain where he was in Denver. The other Cancer Center encouraged him to fly across the country, only to tell him the same thing when they looked at him.
Have Those Important Conversations
“We wasted a lot of time. And the travel was rough on him. That just added to the frustration. He went a long way for really no reason,” she said. “If we had known he had only a couple months left, we might have done things a little differently regarding the quality-of-life issues.”
Heather said her father may have turned earlier to alternative medicine, a more holistic approach to treatment instead of the debilitating chemotherapy, which drained him both physically and mentally.
“We were all open about what was happening, but there were things we should have talked more about. When he finally accepted that he was going to die, we thought there were several weeks, even months left,” she said. “He ended up passing a week later. As much as you may think you have time to have those hard conversations, you have to move quickly. You can’t wait.”
Gary was buried in Bristol, R.I., close to where he grew up, which is what he requested. Too many of the details, though, were never discussed. Too many things were left unsaid.
“I wanted to tell him a lot more, but just wasn’t given that opportunity with this disease, and the way it all worked,” Heather said. “You can’t get that back. You just can’t wait.”