Michael Brick has been cancer free for 11 years. In Michael’s case the date is easy to remember because two months after his last chemo treatment his first child was born. It was a little boy. They named him Finn.
Finn is now a sixth-grader. He’s smart and he asks the kinds of questions that smart children ask. Such as, “Does the fact that daddy had cancer when I was born mean that I’m going to have cancer too?”
Finn has a special interest in cancer. He knows that a third of cancer deaths in the US are related to tobacco use. He also knows that another third of cancer deaths in the US can be prevented with diet and exercise. It’s the last third that bothers him – the third that scientists are still trying to sort out.
“He had obviously read about the genetic aspects of cancer,” said his mother Sally. Sally’s aunt died of colon cancer in her 40s, and Finn had figured out that there had been cases of colon cancer on both his maternal and paternal sides.
“Finn is very focused on the scientific aspects of cancer,” Sally said. “So we ran the tests and we determined that there was not a genetic component to the cancer cases in our family.” The cancer in their family could be detected and treated through regular screenings.
Relieved, Finn decided to shift the focus of his fifth grade health project to lung cancer. He built a scale model of the human lung. One lung was healthy and pink, and the other was the lung of a smoker.
“It was quite a frightening display,” said Finn’s mom. “Effective, but frightening.”
According to Michael, if it hadn’t been for Katie Couric, Michael never would have had the opportunity to create black lungs with his oldest son. In fact, without Katie Couric, Michael and his son probably would have never met.
Sally and Michael were married in New Zealand in February of 2000. Sally is from New Zealand and the two took a honeymoon to the remote South Island after the wedding. During the honeymoon, Michael began to develop persistent stomach pain, which grew worse and worse over time.
He saw several doctors in the area and was eventually diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. However, despite his treatment for IBS, the pain continued.
As Michael’s health was deteriorating, Sally picked up a copy of Time Magazine. The issue featured a story about Katie Couric’s decision to have a colonoscopy during an episode of the Today Show. After reading the article, Sally became convinced that Michael had colon cancer.
“I pushed him and pushed him to go back and demand a colonoscopy,” Sally said.
“I was 32 at the time and no one was going to do a colonoscopy on a 32 year-old,” Michael said. “Finally, I took the article to the doctor and convinced him that I should have a colonoscopy.”
The next day Michael flew from New Zealand to Seattle for a job interview. Sally called him with the test results. The procedure had revealed that Michael had a lemon-sized tumor in his upper colon. The day after that, the couple landed in Des Moines, where Michael checked in to the Mercy Cancer Center and began treatment.
“We lost some of our youthful innocence,” said Sally.
Ten days later, Sally found out that they were pregnant.
Today Michael and Sally live with their three children in Seattle, where cancer has begun to grow into a memory.
“At this point, the only sign is my relatively unattractive scar that runs the length of my belly. My children are very impressed by the scar and point it out to their friends at the swimming pool in the summer. The other gift from colon cancer is my regular colonoscopy, which was absolutely clear last month,” Michael reported.
Michael has been an active cancer advocate and a champion for scheduled screenings in Seattle. “Although people are sometimes uncomfortable talking about cancer, I am very comfortable talking about it. I was comfortable talking about cancer when I was diagnosed, when I was in the hospital for my surgery, when I was dropping off my sperm to be stored prior to chemo, when I was being injected with 5fu, and when I was waiting to see my oncologist for an annual check-up.”
“I was also comfortable talking about cancer last year when my mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.” Michael pauses.
“She fought a short but valiant battle and passed away in October.”
Michael has joined our Above + Beyond Cancer team, not as a cancer survivor, but in honor of his mom. In his pack he is carrying a small prayer flag in her memory, which he plans to place on the summit of Imja Tse late next week.
Yesterday after a reaching the lodge in Phakding, Mgsr Bognanno celebrated mass and performed the Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick. As Mgsr Bognanno placed the oil on Michael’s forehead, his eyes filled with tears.
It’s true that cancer takes our innocence. When the innocence is gone, the space where it was stored is often filled with new questions. Sometimes we need to turn to science; sometimes we need to turn to something else. Sometimes we need a little bit of both.