Friday, July 25, 2008

A Straight Line

Driving home from a client meeting, I was taking inventory of what might be waiting for me back at the office. I found the John Thompson Show on the radio. Back in 1983-84, I worked on the NIKE account at Chiat/Day. John Thompson was the Head Coach at Georgetown University. We did billboards for NIKE with Coach Thompson, towel over his shoulder. Very tasty creative.

Coach Thompson said something that I thought was great––"Our life is not a straight line." Wow. That's it. That hit me dead in the head. I have thought that very thing since I was diagnosed with cancer. One day you're walking around, feeling pretty good. Then, WHAM!––yes, I used an allowable exclamation point––you have cancer. Well, you had cancer the day before you found out. You just didn't know it.

The path I was taking got flooded. I had to go another way. I had to find my way to the strong side, go where I can find the most strength. It wasn't a road block, it was like the 14 Freeway out in the Los Angeles desert area when the bridge collapsed after the earthquake. It looked like the end of the road.

The funny thing is, after the initial shock, pain, tears and fear, I felt comfort in being positive and getting ready to get the cancer out. That's what I had to do. I had an obligation to my family. I had an obligation to my family at work. The look in their eyes when I told them I had cancer is one I will never forget.

When I was at J. Walter Thompson in the late '80's, my Creative Director, Denny Kuhr, was diagnosed with cancer. He was the first person I knew who had cancer. I can't imagine having cancer in 1988. Treatment has come a long way. Not long enough, of course. Denny was tough. Denny beat it. I'm sure he saw the looks.

One person who stood out at work was Juanita. When I looked at Juanita, I swear I saw God. There was a peacefulness in her eyes and a smile on her face. She was telling me I was going to get through on the other side. I was going to get through this. 

Just not in a straight line. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Facing Change

There are changes that happen to our body naturally. As we age, our body is a constant visual reminder of what time looks like. You expect your face, ears, hairline, butt and gut to change. You may not like it, but you know it's inevitable.

You can't prepare yourself for what your body will look like as you fight through cancer. There's really nothing to compare it to. It's not like having the flu, where you may really suffer for a week or two. With the flu, you know you'll feel better soon. cancer doesn't play that way. All is fare in love and war. And cancer. 

It may be an odd way to look at it, but I gave cancer a personality. Created it like I would create a role in a TV spot, or give it a "brand personality", to use a phrase I've often used in my line of work. So I thought if I could pattern cancer after a character, who would that be? Sam Kineson. The funniest comic I have ever seen. Love Pryor. Love Carlin and his stuff. Chris Rock rocks. But Sam was the absolute funniest for me. I heard him as the voice of cancer. "Oh, so you think I'm going away. Think I'm going to just let you come and get me. Think I'm going to throw my legs up in the air and say take me big boy, I'm yours. WELL GUESS AGAIN, FUCKHEAD! I'M GONNA KICK YOUR ASS! I'LL TEACH YA TO FUCK WITH ME!!

Sounds about right, huh? By being able to visualize it, I was able to give cancer a face, an identity, a personality I could feel. You can't fight what you can't see. I was now ready to fight. No, I was ready to win. That's what it was. Winning.

The changes to my body as I went through chemo and radiation were drastic, to say the least. I lost 30 pounds. Lost lots of hair––though people would ask me why I didn't lose any hair––and grew a silver streak down the middle of my hair. Those were the changes people could see. What they didn't see was the 13 inches of plastic tube in my stomach. The pain in my jaw. The taste leave my taste buds. The yards and yards of tape I used on my body––and the rash it would bring with it. They didn't see the strength being zapped from my body, like a constant dose of Kryptonite.  At least most people didn't. My Wife, Teresa saw it. She saw it in my walk. She heard it in the way I talked. She saw it in my eyes.

The mirror became motivation for me. I would look at the blisters on my face from the chemo and would stare into the mirror and concentrate on getting rid of them for good. I would check to see how wide I could open my mouth, knowing that the wider I could open it the more food I could put in it––if I could taste the food. I used the mirror to see what I looked like to my family. Knowing that the slightest failing would be reflected in the pain in their eyes. I knew that look. I had seen that look. And I tried my ass off to not let those I love, see my pain.

cancer was changing my face. cancer was taking away what I had come to know what Greg looked like. This was not a natural change. This was not expected. This was not inevitable.

I had to face change. Ready or not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Family First

I've been back to work almost 8 months now. I had to take six weeks off––October 15 until November 30––to recuperate from my treatments. My Doctors recommended I take 6 months off. Yeah, right. Like that was going to happen. I needed to get my brain back in gear. Take my mind off of the cancer. 6 months?

My family thought I was crazy for getting back to work. I thought I would go crazy staying around the house until the beginning of May. I'm a bit of a workaholic. (Is that like being a little pregnant?) I love what I do for a living. But at what cost?

A little over 20 years ago, I was working ridiculous hours. I had started a new job at one of the biggest ad agencies in the world and I was on the fast track. I was working 6 days a week, every week. Sometimes all  7 days. I was responsible for around $125 million dollars of business, supervising 12 people as well as creating 15-20 TV spots per week with my creative partner. In an average month, we created work for over 300 job requests. And that was just one client. So yeah, a lot of work.

The reason I'm painting this picture of obsession is it all came to a head with my Wife, Teresa. She was left at home taking care of our four children, who were all under the age of 8. I only saw my family briefly in the morning. I didn't take vacations. I was losing my family. "It's either us or work." Those were her words. Those were the words that woke me up. Having lived through 8 marriages and 6 divorces––my parents have both been married 4 times––I didn't want to live through another divorce. Especially one of my own doing.

It was at that point I made up my mind. It's a lot easier getting another job than getting another family. And I love my Wife and children MUCH more than work. I got another job. I got a big part of my life back.

It's funny how certain events in our life change the way we live. What if I didn't listen to Teresa? What if I put work first? I can tell you that if it wasn't for my family, I wouldn't be alive today. They gave me purpose. Strength. Comfort. Support. And most important of all, love.

Going through radiation and chemotherapy was hard on Teresa and the kids. I saw it in their faces. I still see it every now and then, when I try to do something that I just can't do yet, like move a couch, throw a baseball or wrestle with my Grandkids. I can't wait to wrestle with Lucky and Eli again.

I still have a hole in my stomach from my feeding tube. I still have about 5 months to go before I'm back to normal. Whatever normal is. And most important of all, I still have my family. And they come first.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Born To Survive

Today is my Father's 69th Birthday. On this day in 1939, he was born to David and Josephine Johnston, in Los Angeles, California. He was a fussy baby, not able to eat and sleep much. And for good reason––it was discovered he was born with an upside down stomach. Yeah, freaky.

But that was the beginning of a long and amazing ride in the life of my Father, David. He's the human form of the cat with 9 lives. He almost lost his life and leg in a motorcycle accident in 1962. A woman ran a red light coming down a hill in LA. My Father, going to work on a Honda 50 motor scooter, got hit by the car.

Thanks to my Mother, Mary, and the doctors at Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital they saved his life and leg. How did my Mom save his leg? She told the Doctors she would not let them cut it off. There had to be another way. FIND another way. And they did, by taking a bone out of my Dad's hip and grafting it to the end of his leg and top of the ankle. Amazing it could be done in '62. Especially since they had not done that kind of surgery before. 

The list of near-death misses read like a day in the emergency room––another life-threatening injury on the Hyperion Bridge, quadruple by-pass at age 45, a blood clot in his brain, Crohn's disease, hypo-glycemis, arthritis––and his most recent defeat-the-odds episode, cancer.

He's now on his third round of fighting prostrate cancer. He's already had it removed. Then, it came back and he beat it again with radiation. Now, his PSA levels are up again. "Im not ready yet, my Son." He always tells me that. And I believe him. I know what he's talking about.

When I was diagnosed with cancer last August, I first thought of my Wife, Teresa, and my Children, Adam, Ryan, Travis & Kaity. My GrandKids, Lucas and Eli were also on my mind. But telling my Dad and Mom, that was going to be tough. Even though they have been divorced since 1966, they were still the people who gave me life. Together. I wondered if when I told them––over the phone, separately––they would come together. Make peace. Be grown-ups. Funny thing to think about when it comes to your parents.

My Dad dropped everything. "I'm coming out. Let me know when I can be of help." He already was. He knew what I was going through in my mind, heart and soul. We talked about how hard it was going to be––for my family. The people who depend on me every day. The people who often look at me as the rock, the provider, the Man Who Can Handle Anything. It was a strangely comforting conversation.

My Mom, she tried not to cry. But she couldn't help herself. I was comforting her, telling her I was in good hands with some great Doctors. And I have so much love in my life, I will get through it. She would still cry, feeling somewhat helpless being so far away.

My Dad was lacing up the gloves, ready to fight, be in my corner and help my family out with his love and support. It was a tough time for all of us. At the time of my diagnosis, Teresa's Sister, Claudia, was fighting for her life as the result of breast cancer. A fight Claudia would lose only a few weeks later. The second Sister––Connie being the other––to die from cancer. My Step-Father, Joe, had also passed away from cancer. For everyone in my family––Mom, Sister Angie, Teresa, my Kids, my Brother Jeff and Step-Mom Wanda––cancer was related to death. Except for my Dad. I told him, "I'm going to get this outta me fast and I'm going to kick it's ass." He told me it was going to be tough, but I could beat it. He knew I could. And the love of my life, Teresa, knew I could too. Without her, I wouldn't be writing this. She is my strength.

Happy Birthday, Dad. You helped save my life. 

Survival. That's the greatest present to give and receive.