Rich D. opened the door and gazed with amazement at his posh suite on the 26th floor of the luxurious Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, private sauna, flat-screen TVs throughout, super-king bed, a picturesque view of both the faraway mountains and the famed strip below, and he just smiled.
He dropped his bags and took the elevator down to the casino, where he kept turning up aces.
“I may have mesothelioma, but mesothelioma doesn’t have me,” he said recently, recalling that day from earlier this year. “When I die, I want to look back and say ‘Boy, what a ride I had.’ I’ll go out kicking, that’s for sure. No regrets.”
Rich, a pleural mesothelioma survivor close to the two-year mark, had gone to Vegas as the guest of his youngest son Eric, who was there on a business trip.
It was another father-son bonding experience designed to make memories, something that Eric has pushed since the day in 2012 they left the office of mesothelioma specialist David Sugarbaker M.D. in Boston, who confirmed his original diagnosis.
Rich, 75, has been making memories ever since.
Before leaving Boston and flying home to Central Florida, where Rich lives with his wife Aline, father and son stopped at storied Fenway Park to watch their first Red Sox-Yankees baseball game together. They sat high above the famed Green Monster in left field, snapping photos of themselves and the park throughout the game.
A few weeks later, Eric presented Dad with a beautiful photo album chronicling their day at Fenway.
“I think Eric really believed I wasn’t going to be around very long, so he kept snapping pictures. He’s our sentimental one,” Rich said over lunch with Aline and Asbestos.com last week. “When you hear about mesothelioma, that’s all you ever hear, six to nine months to live. But I’m still kicking.”
Rich has been uncharacteristically healthy. He bypassed the recommendation he received in Boston for the aggressive extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery to remove a lung, the lining around it and a major part of his diaphragm, and instead went to the Moffitt Cancer Center in nearby Tampa.
He opted for a less-debilitating, lung-sparing pleurectomy/decortication with surgeon Lary Robinson, which has allowed him to maintain his current pace.
Rich returns to Moffitt every few months and the scans show no mesothelioma recurrence. He never underwent radiation or chemotherapy.
“The last checkup, they told me, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. See you again in six months,'” he said. “There was maybe a little bit of fluid in there again, but nothing really significant. Maybe this is a fluke. I don’t know. Not sure the doctors know, either. Supposedly, there is no cure, so I consider myself very fortunate. They aren’t ready to say I don’t have [mesothelioma] anymore, but they are close.”
Rich, an electrician for most of his working life, and Aline are making the most of his continued good health. With five children, 20 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren spread throughout the eastern United States, they travel considerably, just slower than they did before.
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Since surgery, they bought annual passes to Walt Disney World, where they take the grandchildren. They got U.S. passports for the first time, making some international travel plans. They bought a weeklong vacation in the Tennessee mountains at a charity auction.
They took their first Disney Cruise with several other family members. During a ’70s night show on the cruise, Rich found himself on stage dressed in a gold disco outfit, holding a microphone and crooning to the crowd. Women in the audience loved it.
He and Aline, who have been married for 44 years, spent the weekend fishing off the dock in Cedar Key, a Florida coastal community. They laughed about his glasses getting knocked off his face and falling into the water, and how she luckily fished them out with a treble hook.
“We’ve always been kind of a spur-of-the-moment couple,” Aline said. “But I think we’re even more like that now. We just get up and go if something strikes us. We know we’re in the last chapter of our lives, so why not?”
Rich attributes his continued health to two things: God and Graviola tea leaves, which are grown in the Caribbean and promoted as a natural, cancer-fighting product.
Rich and Aline pray together daily. They thank God for what they have. Eric gave Rich his first batch of Graviola, and he’s been drinking the tea ever since.
“I’m not sure if it’s the God thing, or the tea, or a combination of both,” he said. “Either way, praying isn’t going to hurt you. If nothing else, you have peace of mind. I’d recommend it. It’s a good way to stay positive.”
Staying active isn’t something that suddenly came to Rich and Aline after his mesothelioma diagnosis. In their 60s, Rich and Aline were winning dance contests by doing the Jitterbug at the local Moose Club. At age 70, he started attending a community college with the intent of getting a degree and starting a second career. At 71, he started working at Walmart in the warehouse, needing a little extra cash.
It was at Walmart where he first noticed the shortness of breath and how it was getting harder and harder to do his job there. It’s what led him to his primary care physician, who started doing tests. He was referred to a pulmonary specialist, which eventually led to his diagnosis and that first trip to Boston.
“I guess Walmart and that job did us a favor. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor, and may not have been diagnosed so early,” he said. “I would have just attributed that shortness of breath to getting older.”
Rich was fortunate that after his diagnosis, Eric found a law firm that won him a nice settlement with several asbestos manufacturers. The extra money has allowed him and Aline to enjoy the time they have together without financial worries.
He never went back to work. He has stopped going to college — at least for now. He and Aline no longer Jitterbug, but they still slow dance together.
“The worst thing you can do [with mesothelioma] is sit around feeling sorry for yourself. We had our pity party. I cried. She cried. We told the kids, and got all the emotions out, but then we moved on,” Rich said. “God gave me a second chance here, so I’m going to make the most of it.”