April 19th

April 19th is the anniversary of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that launched the American Revolution. A group of local militiamen fired on a column of British Redcoats on the village commons in Lexington, Massachusetts. 

The most common cause of death in the American colonies that year was smallpox. Today, it’s heart disease and the second is cancer. Cancer runs in my family. My father died of cancer. It took 20 years to kill him, though. He was one tough SOB.

It seems like so much cancer is caused by behavioral or environmental conditions. Bad eating habits or smoking or chewing tobacco. Asbestos and Agent Orange were human causes, and there’s someone to blame for that. But what about when kids get cancer? Who do you blame for that?

Big Norm 1986

I’m thinking about cancer because that’s my mission this year. To raise money for cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC. They saved Norm’s life the first time around. Norm was my dad.

Norm was first diagnosed in 1987. He was 61. He had esophageal cancer. He only went for a checkup because his older brother Gene had just been diagnosed, and Uncle Gene had no hope. He waited ‘til he couldn’t swallow anything but scrambled eggs, and the cancer was too far along.

So Dad went for an endoscopy. He’d had stomach problems all of his life. Ulcers. Constant heartburn. He was always swigging Amphojel or Maalox from a bottle. We called it gook. Rhymed with book. It was a liquid antacid compound that separated in the bottle (shake well before opening). He would shake the bottle really hard then unscrew the lid and take a guzzle.

He had bottles of it stashed all over the place. His briefcase, his desk drawer, the glove compartments in both cars. The Amphojel bottle was blue; Maalox was brown. Like a drunk stashes bottles of vodka, Norm stashed bottles of gook.

When we were kids, it was a game. Sometimes he would let us shake up the bottle. I remember one time my mother shook it up, unscrewed the lid and handed it to him. He was driving. Norm didn’t notice the lid was already off it. He gave it a sharp shake and the stuff flew all over the car. After that, he would always check the lid first.

Anyway, Norm was a bit of a hypochondriac so when Uncle Gene got his sentence, Norm figured he should go get checked. He called me the day he got his results and asked me to come over. He lived in Green Brook, NJ then. He was sitting in the living room in the dark when I walked into the house. He lived there alone at the time. He told me they found some cells. No tumor, just some cells. Said he was lucky; there was a good chance they could take care of it. It was very scary and dramatic.

Just because you’re a hypochondriac, it doesn’t mean you aren’t sick.

Norm had doctors the way a Lothario has girlfriends. He’d fall in love with their credentials, enjoy their company and dote on their every word. Eventually, familiarity breeding doubt, he’d start second-guessing their diagnoses and advice. Finally, they’d argue, break up and move on.

Not this time though. He went straight to the top. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He knew about esophageal cancer. He’d read enough about it, and he knew that few survived it. He also knew that if he could be fixed, they were the ones who could do it.

He was right. They fixed him up. Cut off 20% of his esophagus and 20% of his stomach, stretched the pieces together and sewed him up. Said they got all the cancer cells. He had to eat and sleep differently after that, and he said he felt like his insides were too short for the rest of him, but we got to keep him.

Sometimes it pays to be a hypochondriac.

I’m running the NYC Marathon this year, and I’m running in honor of Norm Anderson, the toughest guy I ever knew. I hope you will support my efforts and donate to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Donate in honor of Norm or in honor of your friend or relative who survived cancer or who didn’t. Researchers like those at MSKCC will end this scourge one day.

199 days and counting.

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