Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Elder-Making Trend

From The Telegraph April 22, 1987
I wondered for so many years if I would ever see current research that discussed a possible cure for the kind of liver cancer my very dear father died of in 1992. Finally, on Sunday, I found an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that reported a new treatment for Primary Liver Cancer using small pox vaccine. It's a sad and interesting story that my father contracted Hepatitis from a tainted yellow fever vaccine administered to soldiers in preparation for being shipped overseas in 1941 for the war. In 1990, he was diagnosed with Primary Liver Cancer.

Liver cancer is not common in the United States, although rates of the disease have been climbing about 3.5 percent every year in the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 29,000 cases of liver cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year and more than 20,000 people die.
But worldwide, it's the most common cause of cancer death, mostly because the primary cause of liver cancer is hepatitis B or C, both of which are widespread in parts of Asia and Africa. More than 700,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with liver cancer each year, and 600,000 people die, according to the American Cancer Society.
Who would have ever thought that fifty years after the tainted vaccine, he would die of liver cancer? I remember being told that he still had hepatitis cells present in his liver in 1991. Does that mean it was chronic? I have no way of knowing. Still it's a little heartbreaking to think his death may have been a result of a long-ago error.  Had he not contracted Hep B, would he still be here turning 94 on his next birthday on December 19th? Who knows?

Thinking about my father getting to be a very old man, and not dying at 73, reminded me of a very sad trend we've noticed lately. Many of our friends are losing their parents, one by one. Just in the past few months five friends have bid a farewell to a much-loved mother or father. That news makes me cherish every conversation and laugh I still get to have with my mother, everyday. And yet it occurs to Roger and me that we are inevitably becoming the elders, and it is a rather sobering and unsettling thought. Roger at 70 is now the oldest member of his family. It seems inconceivable that such a thing is true, but it is. We are the new old guard, keepers of the stories, ad-hoc teachers of what ever experiential wisdom we have gleaned over the years. Sauna builder, bread-baker, gardener, and picture-taker. Handy-man, philosopher, hiker, and dreamers. As old as we get to be, we still plan on singing, laughing and dancing into the twilight of our lives.

PS-- The iridescent clouds have been stunning lately. Click on the above pic, it gives you a big-sky context for the colors.


  1. I've thought of that also-- being the eldest because on my father's side of the family, that's me. I do have several cousins older than me on my mother's side but all the old ones are gone. It does seem strange to realize we are now the old guard, the ones the younger will come to for help or wisdom as we did for our own elders at one time.

  2. great post. I'm a little behind Roger and still have both parents, but I know what you mean and it is strange indeed. Even stranger than we all now are grandparents. How did that happen?

  3. robin -- what a story your dad had. it is amazing that the disease just lurked for so many decades, not causing trouble until near the end. sobering, that the vaccine meant to help protect him also caused this harm.

    all that and more, because i know you loved him so much, and he left too soon.

    i was really interested to read of that research on liver cancer, too; potentially a huge breakthrough. and how odd, that a smallpox vaccine could be modified to work this way!

    my parents are gone; my mom had no sibs, and my dad had only one surviving sister -- who is still fabulous and busy at 74. dad still has a bunch of surviving first cousins; he was the oldest of the bunch, on both branches. cousin lynn is now the "elder" on dad's maternal branch, holding strong at close to 80. only two left on dad's paternal branch, and they are only 5-10 years older than me; their sibs all died young. we really need to do a family reunion; nobody got it together this summer.

    those clouds! they are glorious.

  4. Keepers of the stories. Yes, and in spite of illness and decline I absolutely celebrate living as long as I have, for all the interactions with extraordinary people, my teachers, parents, and many beloved pets. Learning how to love and be loved, and still standing in awe of conscious life. Wonderful post. peace Michael

  5. You make me think, Robin. It's sobering and scary. My parents are long gone, but now I am facing my own and Janine's prospects of frailty and old age. Still today, the society we live in is not prepared to adjust to a population that's aging at the speed of thought.

  6. I had no idea that so many people had been victims of a tainted vaccine. How many grieving people are likewise asking, "What if....?" It is bad enough to lose a parent you love too young, but to know what you know about why you father got cancer....beyond heartbreaking. I am so sorry.

    As for you guys aging, you've got a lot of fight in you, still! Laughter and singing and loving will fill your days to the brim.

  7. Except for a few cousins I never see, I am the oldest in my family. It is a sobering thought and because I remember missing my grandmother so much after her passing, I want to see as much of my grand kids as I can over the next years - how ever many I am granted.

  8. Sobering, indeed. We were driving around the mountains last night after dark with some very narrow hairpin turns and Abby said, "mom, I hope you're not driving around here at night." I was sort of taken aback because the only possible reference is in relation to my age and i really didn't like the parent/child reversal. I didn't say anything but it came back to me as I was driving home alone tonight along mountain roads. And, sadly, we have no parents left. They all died relatively young, between late 60s and early 80s. Ah, me. Time to get a pilots license.

  9. I didn't start feeling old until I had to call and ask my son to come over to help me move something because it was too heavy. I then realized I was no longer ten foot tall and bullet prof.

  10. Well, having a parent - my mother - who is approaching 95 years of age, I can tell you getting that old isn't always so wonderful. Your dad may have been spared a lot of misery.