The standard American diet, lifestyle, and environment killed my dad when I was 18 years old. The death certificate says the cause of death was metastatic prostate cancer, but that's a lie. Cancer was only a consequence, not the cause. Today 1 in 3 Americans has prediabetes and one of us has a heart attack every minute of the day. My dad's battle, suffering, and death was just another data point for the CDC to tally, all his pain and suffering is reduced to a statistic. Death by heart attack, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's, lung disease, diabetes and kidney disease are the natural and inevitable outcomes of participating in mainstream American culture.
The day my little brother was born. June 1985, Madigan Army Medical Center, Fort Lewis, WA.
I grew up in Tacoma, WA where my early childhood seemed like magic. I had a mom and a dad that loved me and an adorable little brother. We lived in a nice home in a good school district. My family took road trips to Canada, Oregon, Idaho, and California. In some of the rainiest and wettest northwest winters we even went to Hawaii for the holidays. My childhood was picture perfect.
My dad was an awesome guy. He was wise, charming, playful, caring, and dripping with charisma. Every summer our backyard was transfigured into a miniature baseball field complete with foul lines, batter’s boxes, bases, and foul poles. My dad became my personal catcher, dropping into a deep crouch so I could practice pitching for hours each day. When we weren’t playing in the backyard the whole family would walk to a local park so my dad could throw us hours of batting practice. In the winter we kept ourselves busy with ice skating and hockey games until spring.
Our First Hockey Practice, ages 6 and 8.
My dad was a little bit older than most of my friend’s dads. He served 20 years in the military before he met my mom. As a child I thought it was cool having an older Dad. He was always so calm and it seemed like he knew everything about everything. He was my hero and he made me want to be a dad when I grew up. Even as a small child, I knew that I wanted to have a family someday, so I could give my kids the same kind of magical childhood.
His age was never a concern. He’d been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an occasional irregular heartbeat, but he never had any symptoms and the doctors already had him taking blood thinning medication. He seemed healthy as an ox. A sage retired Colonel with a loving wife, raising two rambunctious sons in the suburbs.
When I was just a little 5th grader I came home to find my parents sitting on their bed, holding each other. They were crying softy now. The sun was shining brightly outside, but the shades were drawn and the room was cast in a dim grey light. My parents had just been to the hospital where my dad was diagnosed with Stage III prostate cancer. They tried to explain the prognosis and the treatment options but I couldn’t feel or hear anything. My body suddenly went numb. My skin was instantly clammy and I had a dull tone buzzing in my head. I wasn’t seeing the room through my eyes anymore, it was like I had floated away. I was observing the whole scene from the back corner of the room like an audience member watching a play. Cancer exploded my life, a bomb that shattered my idyllic childhood. I was shellshocked.
I cried myself to sleep that night. In the days that followed I learned that his cancer was still in the prostate and the doctors wanted use a period of “watchful waiting” before they decided what to do. They waited... and the cancer cells multiplied, rapidly. Suddenly his cancer was “on the margin” and about to invade the surrounding tissues. If the cancer got out of his prostate it would be just a matter of time before it spread to his blood, bones, and lymph system. I prayed for him every night. I prayed that my dad would make it to my high school graduation and I prayed that God would make me a Major League Baseball player. It’s the thing that I thought would make my dad the most proud of me.
A page from 7th grade autobiography.
The surgeons cut him open and removed his prostate. He survived the surgery but his life would never be the same. Without his prostate he would be impotent and incontinent for the rest of his life. He would never have another erection. His sex drive was removed on operating table. All his sexual desire, masculine aggression, and heroic manliness were gone forever. He would spend the rest of life wearing adult diapers or using a clamp on his shriveled penis to forcibly shut his urethra.
The surgeons removed his prostate, his sex drive, and the ability to control his urination, but they left the cancer. The period of watchful waiting had given the cancer the time it needed to spread into the surrounding tissues. The cancer was aggressive and now it would start spreading through the rest of his body. It was time to consider new treatment options.
To make matters worse, a few months after his prostate surgery my dad was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This was a complete shock. He certainly had a little tummy, but he was a tall guy and his 36” x 36” trousers still fit. Along with his blood work, the doctors measured his actual belly circumference. He was 41” around at the navel. His arms and legs were thin and he wasn’t any fatter than most of the dads in my neighborhood. The doctors told him to avoid sweets like cake and candy. They put him on a diet that was recommend by the American Diabetes Association that was loaded with “healthy” carbohydrates like; bread, pasta, fruit, juice, low-fat crackers, yams and potatoes. The doctors gave him more pills and instructed him to eat 11 servings of complex carbohydrates everyday. Additionally, we were told that low-fat dairy products were okay, so everyone kept guzzling 1% milk.
My dad’s cancer was still hanging over us like our own personal rain cloud. Compared to cancer his diabetes and atrial fibrillation seemed like no big deal. We tried to enjoy our new normal as much as possible. Every night we gathered for family dinners. I personally loved the new diabetes diet, we all did. We filled up on dinner rolls and whole-wheat pasta. It was absolutely delicious and we were joining my dad in his fight against diabetes. My brother and I thought of ourselves as young athletes and we believed that all this carbo-loading was good for sports. In reality, we were all getting fatter, especially my mom. The "healthy high carbohydrate diet" combined with extra stress was the perfect recipe for steady and insidious weight gain.
The cancer kept us on edge but my dad was determined to fight for his survival. He desperately wanted to see me and my little brother graduate from high school. He intended to shepherd us on our way to adulthood. He wanted us to be renaissance men, thoughtful and articulate philosopher athletes. He wanted to raise deep thinkers filled with compassion and a zeal for life.
His doctors recommend chemotherapy to destroy the cancer cells that were proliferating throughout his body. He started chemo and it was working, but it was also destroying his healthy cells and making him weaker. It was like spraying for hornets and killing the honeybees too.
My dad endured several rounds of chemotherapy. His body was deteriorating, but he refused to give up. He couldn’t play with us anymore, no more games of catch in the backyard or batting practice at the park. After the cancer took hold, he found other ways to be involved. He drove us to all of our games and practices. We gathered in the living room with my dad resting in his favorite chair, a well-loved green recliner. We bonded by watching baseball games on TV and shouting answers at the screen during Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
I was a 7th grader when the doctors gave him the really bad news. It had already been 2 years since his surgery. He’d fought a heck of a battle. The doctors said that all they could do at this point was manage his pain and keep him comfortable during his last few months. This was it. There was nothing more that conventional Western medicine could do except dope him up and say goodbye. This news sent another shockwave through my family. We knew things weren’t good, but now it seemed like they were over. My brother and I were both too young for him to die. He still had so much to teach us.
We a started a new and potentially final round of grief. Shock, denial, anger, bargaining... but my parents stopped short of depression and acceptance. They kept bargaining, there had to be something they could do, some alternative therapy, a new miracle drug, or cutting edge treatment. My parents explored every possible option and I kept praying that he would make it to my high school graduation.
My mother learned about a friend of a friend, who had a cousin that had gone to Mexico for treatments that were illegal in the US. Was this it? Two-outs, full count, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and a high fly ball, going back, back, way, back… GONE! Was it the Grand slam we’d been praying for? My parents tracked down the clinic in Tijuana. The doctors in Mexico were using chelation (pronounced key-LAY-shun) therapy coupled with other alternative treatments that we hoped would boost my Dad’s immune system so it would start fighting the cancer.
My parents consulted with my dad’s American doctors about the chelation therapy and the other alternative treatments being offered in Mexico. The American doctors dismissed it as dangerous quackery. They said it could potentially kill him. According to these same doctors, cancer was certainly going to kill him within a few months and there was nothing they could, besides prescribing morphine for the agony he was sure to endure as the cancer started to eat through his bones.
My parents booked two-tickets to Mexico. They left me and my little brother with a babysitter and set off for a week of intense chelation therapy. When they got home everybody was cautiously optimistic. The doctors in Mexico sent my parents home with plans for a strict new health regimen. From now on my dad would be taking a fistful of vitamins everyday and getting regular coffee enimas. Every morning we would all slug down a nasty shot of a live-culture probiotic drink (this was way before probiotics were fashionable). Then we would have a more pleasant, but still weird tasting smoothie that would at least remove the awful taste of the probiotic drink.
After the treatments in Mexico, my dad still had cancer and it was still spreading just not as fast. He was feeling better and getting more out of the life he had left. My parents booked several return trips for chelation therapy and things got a little more optimistic. It looked like one of my prayers might be answered. My dad might be there for my high school graduation and hopefully my brother’s a few years later.
I started high school that fall. In the spring I was the only freshman in the starting line-up for the school’s varsity baseball team. My dad was at everyone of my games. He sat in a special chair behind the backstop, barking encouragement, keeping score and compiling the stats.
Near the end of my Freshman year, my dad was teaching me to drive. I was turning 16 in July and if I passed driver's ed during the summer I could potentially get my license before school started in the fall. We had a big old GMC conversion van with a TV, VCR, and an 8-bit Nintendo in the back. It was awesome for road trips, but not the easiest vehicle for a new driver to maneuver.
One day, when I still had my learner’s permit, I practiced my driving skills by taking my dad out to Madigan Army Medical Center at Ft. Lewis for some routine bloodwork. We were winding our way through the long corridors when one of the doctors stopped us. The doctor had a shocked expression on his face, like he’d just seen Bigfoot wandering through the hospital.
“Jim?” the doctor questioned with obvious surprise.
“Yeah Doc, what’s it to ya?”
“You’re still alive?”
“Well I’m right here, ain't I.” My dad smiled a big goofy grin. He was as charming as ever.
The doctor shook my dad’s hand excitedly and offered his sincere congratulations. Years ago, he had given been one of the doctors that gave my dad only months to live and warned us about the dangers of Mexico.
At the dinner table that night we recounted my Dad’s run-in with the doctor to the delight of my mom and little brother. At some point, I brought up the prospect of me getting a car for my 16th birthday, something sensible like a used Ford Explorer. My dad thought if I wanted a car I should buy it myself, like he did when he was my age. Then he started lamenting that he never got his dream car. None of us were aware that he had a dream car, so we asked… He blurted out, “a $70,000 Mustang Convertible.” At the time a brand-new Mustang GT convertible with leather seats costed less than $30,000… He was great at Jeopardy but he would have been terrible on The Price is Right!
The next day, I was finishing up one of the last baseball practices of my freshman year when my parents rolled up to the school in a shiny new red Mustang convertible with the top-down. As my dad circled the campus he had the same goofy grin I saw the day before when he spoke with his old doctor. Cancer sucked, but he was still fighting and very happy to be alive. The new car was a total surprise for all of us, except my mother. She had gone down to the Ford dealership that morning, plunked down a credit card and taken the car. It was a boss move on her part. I was stoked when my dad said I could drive it for special occasions like prom in a few years. More importantly he let me use the Mustang for my driver’s license test at the DMV. I passed on the first try, thanks in large part to the increased maneuverability and sightlines offered by the convertabible.
The next couple years were relatively fantastic. After the run-in with the doctor we knew we were playing with house money. We were grateful for each day we could spend together. That summer I was the youngest player on an elite club baseball team. My Dad and I drove the old van all over the state, even as far as Pullman, where my team played at Washington State University in front of real baseball scouts. We made the same trip again the next year and now I wasn’t the baby on the team anymore. This time I was one of the better players in the tournament. Things we’re looking up, maybe both my prayers would be answered.
Warming up on the field at WSU.
At the start of my junior year my dad started getting terrible headaches. They were persistent and getting worse. He went back to the American doctors to get checked out. They ordered x-rays and MRI’s and found a massive tumor at the base of his skull. His cancer had spread through his entire body and now it was pressing on his brain. The US doctors said radiation was the only possible treatment to shrink the tumor. After seeing the MRI’s the doctor’s in Mexico agreed, something need to be done immediately or the tumor would kill him within weeks.
His skull was blasted with high energy particles that shrunk the tumor and relieved the pressure on his brain. The headaches subsided, but the radiation fried his taste buds and made it painful for him to swallow. The only meal in town that brought him any satisfaction after that was the oyster stew at a pitiful restaurant named Captain Nemo’s. The restaurant was so bad that people actually celebrated it’s demise on Yelp when it closed years later. We dined countless nights at Nemo’s so my dad could spoon down the miserable oyster stew.
After the radiation he struggled to keep weight on and his spirits were greatly diminished. Enjoying our family meals had been a consistent source of joy in his life. Now we spent our evenings sequestered in a dingy corner booth under fluorescent lights at Nemo’s. That winter we went to Hawaii to visit my mom’s family. My dad spent most of his time sleeping in a chair. He was wiped out from the radiation and months of his oyster stew diet. His muscle were all gone. His arms and legs were skin and bone but he still had his tummy and the diabetes.
Our last trip to Hawaii, We were 100 yards from the beach, but we decided to take the photo in front of a garage door... My Auntie D is in the middle. My mom is clearly not benefitting from the American Diabetes Association's high-carb diet.
My mom insisted that he start drinking Glucerna shakes, which are really just slightly reformulated “bodybuilder” shakes that are marketed to diabetics. The Glucerna was loaded with artificial flavors that were just palatable enough to slip past his tormented taste buds. The shakes helped him gain some of his weight back… which is pretty odd when you consider they’re specifically marketed to Type 2 diabetics a demographic that should be focusing on fat loss.
During my Junior year I pitched my first no-hitter, a 1-0 victory over a rival high school. My dad was behind the backstop in his special chair, but this time he kept quiet because he didn’t want to jinx my no-no. I was 6-3, 190 pounds with a whippy arm, pinpoint control, and a decent curveball. My fastball wasn’t hot enough to get the scouts excited yet, but with enough practice I knew it would be.
He kept the fight going. I took my SAT’s and applied to the closest college possible, a liberal arts school that was located just on the other side of town. The college had respectable academics, but a dismal athletic department. I hoped it didn’t matter, I never intended to go there… My Dad and I had other plans.
In February of my senior year, he sent me on a special spring training trip to Arizona, right before the start of the high school baseball season. The trip gave me an extra week to drill my fundamentals outside in the sunshine. If my dad stayed with us and everything went according to plan, I would return to Arizona in the fall and enroll at a community college where I could hone my baseball skills and keep up my academics for the next two years. Then I would declare for the MLB draft or transfer to a D-1 school like USC or UCLA.
After the baseball camp in Arizona my senior year whirled by. My mom took me shopping at the Men’s Wearhouse so I could pick out a new suit for graduation. I studied hard for my finals and the AP exams. For the last 3 weeks before graduation seniors at my school were required to perform internships. I chose to work in Real Estate because it was the second career my father had pursued when he retired from the military. In late May 2002 I spent one of my internship days shadowing my dad. We drove all over the county to look at properties, we got out walked around and took photos. At this point he’d had his prostate out for 6 years and the doctors had given him only months to live 4 years ago! Here he was, out of the office and working a full-day in the field.
The morning of my graduation was a different story. He was feeling absolutely miserable, he was reclined in his old green chair. I had my garment bag packed with my new suit and just before I left, he said, “sorry buddy, I don’t think I’m gonna make it today.” He could barely raise his head, but I could see in his eyes that what he was saying was killing him. My high school graduation was one of the things he’d been living for and now he was so close. I let him know it was okay and I gave him a hug.
At the ceremony I spotted my mom and my brother, my friends parents and their siblings, but my Dad wasn’t there. I kept searching the audience, scanning around the periphery, thinking that maybe he’d set up his special chair somewhere on the edges of the crowd. I knew something had to be wrong. My name was called and I strode across the bright green lawn in front of the other smiling seniors to accept my diploma. My dad missed it.
After the ceremony all the seniors turned in their phones (mine was a silver audiovox) and we were whisked away on charter buses for a full night of clean sober fun. We played meaningless blackjack for monopoly money while drinking unlimited sodas on boat that pointlessly circled Lake Washington. Next, we went to an indoor go-kart facility where the fumes made me nauseas. Most of the students were starving when Domino’s delivered a mountain of pizza. I had no appetite. My anxiety was boiling as the minutes dragged on until we could get board the buses for our trip back to campus. We got back to school around 8am. I had been up for 24 hours and now I needed to find my Dad. I got my phone back and called my my mom, they were at the hospital.
I got in my Dad’s red Mustang and went straight to Ft. Lewis were my family was gathered in a hospital room at Madigan Army Medical Center. He had been taken to the emergency room while I was graduating. We learned that the doctors had carelessly given him a new prescription that interfered with his other medications. The drug interaction caused a nearly fatal electrolyte imbalance. He spent a week in the hospital while they stabilized him and did various tests. Finally the doctors leveled with us. This was the end. They said he could die in the hospital or we could take him home. That day we set up hospice care and took my dad home to die.
We installed a hospital bed in the living room and all my aunt’s and uncles flocked to Tacoma. The hospice nurses were wonderful and my dad seemed peaceful. He spent most of the time sleeping. One day when he was more alert I helped him into his green chair so we could watch a few innings of a ballgame on TV. After the game I helped him back into the hospital bed. He was too fragile and moving him was risky. His bones were rotted from cancer and even the slightest pressure could snap them. He’d never sit in his favorite green recliner again. He’d never leave that bed again, until he really left.
Long days followed and finally my mom urged my brother and I to get out of the house. She would keep up the bedside vigil with my aunts and uncles until we returned. My best friend, Ben invited me to his parents cabin for a day of boating and wakeboarding. Before I left I gave my Dad a hug and he looked at me with clear eyes for the first time in a week. He made the slightest nod when he I told him I loved him.
Wakeboarding on the Puget Sound
I was grateful to be out in the sunshine doing normal kid stuff. I had an amazing day with Ben and my other friends. We spent the whole afternoon trying new tricks on the wakeboard and crashing into the chilly saltwater. We stayed at the cabin late into the evening joking around a recounting stories from high school.
I got home around 11pm. My aunts, uncles and mom were gathered around my Dad’s bed. His breathing sounded funny, like something was percolating. It sounded like bubbles trickling up from deep in the ocean. The sound got a little louder and then it stopped. Silence. His fight was over.
We stayed gathered in the living room. The hospice nurses had told us not to call 911, if we did medics would rush over in an ambulance and pointlessly attempt to revive him. We would wait until morning and call the county coroner.
An hour later my brother got home, he walked into the living and stood in silent recognition. Shocked. He missed it. My mom hugged him and my aunts and uncles all comforted him. I’ve always felt bad for him. We shared my father’s life and we shared his struggle, but only I was there to share his death.
The next day the coroner's removed the body and my aunts and uncles started planning the funeral. Ben called to see if I felt like shooting some hoops, he was already on the way to the gym with our friend Zach. I said I’d meet them, but didn’t mention anything about my dad. I changed into basketball shorts and took the red Mustang to the gym.
We got warmed up shooting hoops, it was a sunny June day and the gym was practically empty. Finally, three guys showed up and challenged us to a game of 3-on-3. Two of them were mid-30’s, they looked like brothers. The third guy was older, probably mid-50’s. The 3 of them demolished us. They pick and rolled. They used back door cuts and no look passes for easy baskets. It seemed like they must have been playing together for years, probably decades. They communicated effortlessly with subtle looks, head nods, and raised eyebrows. When they did speak on the court it was to playfully tease each other. After wiping the floor with us the younger guys high-fived the older man and said, “good game dad!”
The father and his sons left after that one game, leaving me, Zach, and Ben milling about the gym. The joy, teamwork, and camaraderie I’d just witnessed seemed like a cruel taunt. Three grown men, all lean and healthy sliced us and diced us. It was obvious that this dad had spent years playing hoops with his kids in the driveway, the same way my dad had played ball with us in the backyard before his cancer. These men, in their 30’s were still playing with their dad and benefitting from his love and wisdom. I was 18 and I would never feel that again. I vowed in that moment that when I became a dad I would do everything in my power to live a long, healthy, playful, and active life.
We walked out to the parking lot and I finally told Ben and Zach my secret. They were shocked and tried to comfort me, but I just told them I was fine.
A few days later the little church by our house was packed for the funeral. I had my graduation suit on again, this time as a pallbearer. After I helped deliver the casket to the front of the church I took a seat on a pew in the first row next to my mother and brother. My Dad’s youngest brother, my uncle John, delivered a fantastic eulogy that relieved fond memories of my dad's childhood in Wisconsin and illuminated my dad’s wonderful nature, playfulness, and charisma. My mother and brother sobbed. I still hadn’t cried. I kept telling myself I was fine. I had to be the strong one now, a pillar for my mom and brother. I was the man of the house.
That summer was weird time for me. For most kids high school graduation is the end of childhood and the start of a new adventure. I think my childhood ended that sunny day in fifth grade when I learned about my dad’s cancer. Since then I’d been steeling myself for the inevitable. Now I had to figure out how to live without him. Baseball seemed uninteresting and unimportant. I skipped travel ball and only played a handful of games in a local rec league that was several rungs of competition below what I normally played in the summer. I didn’t even pitch, it would have been unfair. I had fun hitting, but it was also too easy. At one point I remember having 8 extra base hits in 8 straight at bats including a homerun that soared over a light tower, bounced on S. 19th Street and rolled into a gas station parking lot 500 feet away. It didn’t matter, it was just rec ball.
My father’s death wrecked my family. He was the glue. My mother put on a brave face, but she suffered years of depression. My brother seethed with anger, grief, and frustration. He was self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and I couldn't blame him. He was younger and he needed my dad even more than I did. He learned about my Dad’s cancer when he was in 3rd grade. When my dad died he still had two years of high school to finish. Life is unfair, but was especially unfair to him.
Enrolling at a community college in Arizona to play baseball in the sun was out of the question. I needed to stay. They needed me. I had overwhelming sense of duty. I needed to be the glue, besides I was fine, at least that's what I kept telling myself. I would live in the dorms at the small college across town so I could home often, whenever they needed me.
I knew my friends would be leaving for college soon. They’d be fanning out to schools all across the country. Many of them would escape for the sunshine, matriculating in southern California or Arizona, exactly where I wanted to be. Instead I’d be turning 19 and staying put in my hometown. Fall would come, my friends would leave, the days would grow shorter and turn grey. The rain would start and drip steadily for the 9 months like it did every year and eventually I would have to confront the sea of emotions swirling inside me.
I don't want to change the world... I NEED TO CHANGE THE WORLD.
I won't abide living in a country and a world that tolerates so much preventable human suffering. I can't stand idly by while the American Diabetes Association recommends a ludicrous diet for people that already have high blood sugar and low-insulin sensitivity. I can't tolerate a world where people think cholesterol is the cause of heart disease and continue to cook their foods with inflammatory vegetable oils that are the root cause of atherosclerosis. I can't abide a world where everyone expects to get cancer instead of using a practice as simple as fasting to prevent cancer. I need your help. I can't abide a world where Dad's never get to meet their granddaughters.
Maddux and Randel. My dad never met my wife and he missed Maddux by 14 years.
F#CK CANCER and the status quo keeps us fat, weak, sick, and suffering. Let's shake-up the world. Let's do it together. Please forward this email to the people you love. Please be a shining example for everyone in your life. Please be generous with your time when people ask for your help.
I love you all. Please help me spread that love and let's change the world one healthy transformation at a time.