San Pedro, CA – October 29, 2007
Marty Schwarting, 73, stands 6-2 and weighs 130 pounds. The mesothelioma tumor inside his chest has compressed a lung and sapped much of his physical strength, but his brilliant, alert mind and excited, dynamic way of speaking still resonate.
His wife Lois is tough, energetic, powerful, and tender, and she casts a loving glance at Marty. “We’ve just celebrated our twentieth anniversary. He’s my best friend. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“She’s always ten steps ahead,” Marty says, unable to hide his affection. “I would have died from this meso a long time ago without her.” Together this resilient couple has spared no effort to find the best possible treatment for his asbestos cancer, and they’re both holding out hope for the best.
Active, undaunted by obstacles and complications, and full of faith, Marty and Lois continue down a path that was forced upon them.
Bending with the wind, hard as steel
Mesothelioma visits itself, always as a calamity, on more than 4,000 people in the U.S. alone. The toll it takes is so much more than lost lives. It contorts families and loved ones to the breaking point.
At the age of 53 Lois went to Gateway Community College in Phoenix, Arizona and completed a one-year, eighteen-hour credit course in medical transcription, graduating with top grades and making the president’s list for academic achievement. She worked at a multi-specialty clinic for two years, before her success and decision to sign on with a nation-wide transcription service, allowing her to work as a subcontractor at home. This would end up being a blessing in their lives, giving her a detailed knowledge of medicine and of the medical system.
Lois and Marty met in mid-life while single, became friends, fell in love, and married. Their life together had extraordinary balance. An electrician who worked in home and business construction, Marty was always up early and in the winter he would make sure that Lois’s car was started and warmed before she left for work. A tremendous cook and homemaker, Lois kept Marty topped off with the freshest food, made by hand, from the heart.
It ain’t allergies, Doc
Lois’s life was about to change forever. “One day Marty complained that he was having trouble breathing, and you know what? Marty never complains. Then one day I saw him sitting down catching his breath. Marty never sits down to catch his breath. And he was only coming back from across the street where he’d just checked the mail.”
Lois finally told Marty that if he were feeling bad, he should see the doctor. That March consultation resulted in a diagnosis of allergies and perhaps an asthma condition. “It would be several months later when his life was probably saved by not having a shopping cart at Costco,” Lois says. “We were standing at the register and Marty remembered he had to go back and get a 36-pack of Pepsi. It was 500 feet to the back of that store, and he walked back without a cart because Marty could certainly carry it without a cart! He had to stop twice coming back, and he was gasping and wheezing when he got back to the register with that pop!
“It all became clear to me at that moment. My Marty was sick, and we were going to find out why and get him well.” Lois’s eyes blaze, and her mouth sets thin and hard as if in granite.
The ensuing x-ray showed Marty’s right lung completely eclipsed, floating in a mass of fluid. The pulmonologist tapped Marty on the back and it made a hollow, thumping sound. “Sounds just like a ripe watermelon, huh?” he said.
“If you say so,” Lois answered.
Running the paper gauntlet
The doctor set Marty up to go to the hospital to get the fluid drained. They drained two liters, and scheduled him to come back to drain another two liters on the following day.
The battle had just begun-the battle of the forms. The first obstacle was getting authorization for a CT scan. “They learned a different vocabulary pretty quick,” Lois says, “and ‘can’t’ wasn’t part of it.”
“I had to really bird-dog it,” Lois continues. “I had to call the CT tech at home, who fortunately I knew from church. I faxed the approval to her clinic and she got it scheduled. Otherwise, we’d still be waiting. But I have a word for things like that, when people drop into your life and help you. It’s better than a good thing. It’s a God thing.”
With an aggressive and concerned doctor on their side, one who understood the importance of speed and the rapidity with which mesothelioma advances, he got Marty in to see a surgeon right away, and Lois and Marty felt like they were finally winning the bureaucratic battle.
The surgical pathology report confirmed malignant pleural mesothelioma, but Lois was undaunted
“I was always interested in cancer,” says Lois. “When I worked at the clinic they called me the oncology queen because I always did the oncology transcriptions for the doctors. I made sure they gave me the oncology tapes, so I could keep up with the patients’ conditions.”
While in the hospital for thoracoscopic biopsy and partial pleurodesis, the Schwartings met with oncologist Dr. Jack Cavalcant of Desert Oncology in Mesa, Arizona. He currently has a mesothelioma patient who has survived for three years since diagnosis. (She still lives! )
Lois talked to Dr. Cavalcant at their consultation and said, “Surely you see how thin Marty is,” wondering if Marty would be able to withstand the chemotherapy.
Dr. Cavalcant was a good judge of men. “He has a strong, powerful body for his size, and a tough, tough spirit. He’ll get through it just fine.”
After draining more fluid and discharging Marty to home on March 9, they scheduled their first chemotherapy treatment for March 22.
“As soon as he was diagnosed I started Googling,” says Lois. “I saw that after diagnosis people typically live 4 to 12 months. I kept searching, and found Ron Simkins’s story, and read it. I called Janet, his wife, to see if she would talk. Janet answered the phone. I told her that I’d just found out that Marty had meso and that I was calling her because of her husband’s story on the Internet. We talked for a long, long time. She referred me right away to ACOR and to MARF.”
Lois reflects on the importance of the Internet. “There’s a lot of information out there on mesothelioma, lots of it good and useful. Even if you don’t have a background in medicine, you can sift through the material and come up with information you need to help make some of these tough decisions.”
Lois’s pragmatism is checked for a moment as she runs it all through her mind again, at light speed, for the millionth time today. Then she’s back.
After chemo Marty would sleep but only doze, mostly in the recliner. His only movement was walking to the restroom, dinner table, or back to the bedroom. Some days he couldn’t so much as cross the street to get the mail.
Marty reflects on his situation, and breaks in, his clear, articulate speech grasping the various threads of cancer, of chemo, of his relationship, of his changed state. “Chemo knocks everything out of you. I’m not capable of doing the things I used to do but don’t want to give up doing them. It’s hard. I took care of everything.”
Lois follows his train of thought. “He resents anyone doing his work. Marty used to do everything, fix everything.”
“That’s what makes you so distraught,” Marty agrees. “I get forced out by lack of stamina and strength.”
Then the radiologist’s office calls to set up an appointment, calling Lois to her battle station. She rattles off ½ dozen medications, his exact weight, contraindications, and quizzes the caller about various items. She calendars the appointment, confirms the pick up time for the contrast, finds out when to ingest it and whether he should eat before the appointment, then reconfirms everything. Twice. “It helps when you speak their language,” she says with a smile.
Brave new world
“I’m interacting with doctors and their staff all the time. I call them if they’re not responsive, change them if they’re not putting us first or doing everything they can. One of our friends we met through ACOR told me about Dr. Vogelzang in Las Vegas. He’s a fine man and a brilliant doctor. He returned 24 e-mails on a Sunday-24! Marty wasn’t a candidate for surgery because the cancer had already invaded his chest wall, but we felt it was really worthwhile doing a consultation with Dr. Vogelzang.”
After seven cycles of chemotherapy over twenty-one weeks, Marty has been through a lot. “Days 3-10 after the chemo I’m a basket case. My fifth and sixth chemos were the ones that zapped me the worst. No energy, in a daze, in a fog. I’d tell anybody facing this cancer to be prepared for the down cycle. Because it’s coming. You start feeling good, then you get beat down again. It’s cumulative after a while.”
Food is crucial, Lois adds. Simple, delicious, fresh, and homemade food is another part of this complex anti-cancer equation, arming the body with nutrients, vitamins, and calories so that it can tolerate the chemo and fight back against the tumor. “I keep a freezer full of easy, quick foods that I’ve prepared so he can have good food on demand! Chemo kills his appetite, so when he’s ready to eat there’s got to be something right then, right there.”
Lois adds, “It’s simple, but you can make a difference in cancer treatment by focusing on healthy food. You’ll tolerate the treatment better, feel better, and have a stronger body with which to fight the cancer.”
Keeping the future alive and bright
Shortly after his diagnosis, Lois and Marty, undaunted, followed through on their long awaited 14-day cruise/tour to Alaska. It was Marty’s dream.
The next trip will be to Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood, Florida, to visit two of Marty’s high-school buddies from Long Island. “We keep planning. You have to have something to shoot for.”
“When people get diagnosed with mesothelioma, they are overwhelmed,” says Lois. “But they don’t have to be. The Internet, and meso support groups out there can provide information and resources. Ask questions, be confident, trust your judgment. If you like a doctor, work with him. If you don’t, switch. The hardest thing about meso is that it tries to tell you that you’re not in control of your destiny. But you are. You just have to wrench it back.
Lois is preparing to run by her daughter’s house and drop off some things. Since it will be rush hour in Phoenix on the way home, she and Marty will enjoy a round-about detour, traveling through the desert and along a canyon route they’ve not driven since before meso. “We’ll soldier on,” Lois says. “We’ll take it one day at a time, and enjoy each day, each hour, each minute that we’re together.”
Marty smiles and squeezes her hand. Their eyes meet, and you know they’ll never give up.
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