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The Day The Big Call Came

Gary thought he had emphysema, but ended up preparing to fight for his life.
PUBLISHED January 19, 2018
Gary Stromberg co-founded GIBSON & STROMBERG, a large and influential music public relations firm of the sixties and seventies. The company represented such luminaries as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Boyz II Men, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, The Doors, Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. He also spent time in the film business co-producing movies such as Car Wash (Universal Studios) and The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (Lorimar/United Artists). Stromberg has also written three books, The Harder They Fall (Hazelden - 2007) and Feeding the Fame (Hazelden - 2009) and a third book for McGraw-Hill Publishing, entitled Second Chances, which was published in 2011. He's currently working on a fourth book, She's Come Undone, for HCI Publishing, which will come out next spring.
I watched a comic make fun of her cancer on a TV Special the other night. At first it made me uncomfortable. "How many cancer victims does it take to change a light bulb?" she asked, "None, they're too weak to climb the ladder!" She was making jokes about cancer, but they were funny.

I too am a cancer survivor, but I still fear this evil disease, even though I was able to look it in the eye, comprehend its severity, and declare, "Bring it on, here I am." Eventually, through months of chemo and a life-saving bone marrow transplant, I was able to walk away, cured.

My skin crawls just a little when I say the word cancer. I still wonder if it is lurking somewhere in my body waiting for a chance to strike again.

I was home alone in my beachside Venice duplex one steamy July night five years ago, when the phone rang. It was my pulmonary doctor, who had been unsuccessfully treating me for a misdiagnosed case of emphysema. I'd been experiencing shortness of breath for a few weeks now and he had suggested further tests.

"Oh shit," I thought, picking up the phone. "Here it comes."

"I got the results from the blood test you took this morning, Gary, and you don't have emphysema, (pause) you have leukemia, and you better get to the hospital right now, and I don't mean tomorrow."

Is anyone ever ready for a call like that? I certainly wasn't, and thoughts of impending death entered my head. I called Sherri, my ex, but still my closest friend, who along with my daughter Emily, said they would meet me at the emergency room of the local hospital in Santa Monica, not far from where I live.

At the ER, I was greeted by an attendant who insisted I sit in the wheelchair he brought to the entrance, further enhancing my sense of doom. The place had that antiseptic, cool smell that only exists in hospitals. Emily and I took seats in the sterile waiting area and while Sherri went to fill out the requisite forms. I looked at my daughter, saw how frightened she was and I winked. I wanted her to know I was OK. I tried to calm myself with some deep breathing, but it didn't do much good. I couldn't get my head around the suddenness of what was going on. Was I really this sick? Could it be that I was actually dying? Maybe this was it. I've always considered myself a risk-taker, but this just might be the big one. It was ironic that I've put myself in harm's way so many times, scuba diving, reckless driving and the ingestion of God knows how many illicit drugs, but I always survived. Now a disease I know nothing about and did nothing to acquire, has come-a-calling.

My mind started monkey-chattering. "What would my obituary look like? Who would speak at my funeral and how many people would show up? Would I be missed? What the hell IS leukemia, anyway?" The adventure of a lifetime was about to begin.

After all the admission papers were filled out, I was put in the ICU unit and chemotherapy was ordered to start right away. "What's the hurry, guys? Slow down, let's discuss this." The oncologist assigned to my case informed me that had it not been diagnosed when it was, I probably only had a few weeks to live. As it was, she said I needed to get ready to fight for my life.

Once the shock of what just happened began to wear off, and the initial tests were performed, this very experienced cancer doctor laid out what was in store for me. A few weeks of chemo to kill the leukemia followed by a bone marrow transplant, which, because of the type of leukemia I had, I needed if I was to survive. She didn't pull any punches and explained the process of getting a bone marrow transplant (BMT,) which in my case would be problematic. Finding a donor requires a DNA match, which she told me is usually based on ethnicity. "Good news, I thought. I'm a white guy." But she corrected me by pointing out I'm not "white" in the DNA sense of the category. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew, which is a separate and much smaller demographic. My chances of finding a DNA match, therefore, were considerably smaller. Also, my age factored into the equation. She explained that my DNA would be submitted to the bone marrow transplant registry and that they would try to find a match.

No denying it, I was scared. It felt like I was tumbling, face-first down a rabbit-hole, dark and foreboding. I wasn't so afraid of dying, but the thought of not being here for my kids terrified me. I know they had similar fears. My 24-year-old son actually broke down and cried when he visited me on one occasion. Sitting on the edge of my bed, holding my hand, he said, "You're not going to die, Dad. I won't let you!" And he meant it. I knew in that moment that I had to do whatever it took to make it through this nightmare.

Upon completion of weeks of hospitalization and continuous chemotherapy, I went into remission and was sent home to spend some time building my strength back up so I could begin the bone marrow transplant process, should a match and willing donor be found. Within a couple weeks I got a call informing me of the good news. Against great odds, a DNA match and a willing donor had been found: a young, 33-year-old man living in Israel.

Back to the hospital, this time to the City of Hope, in Duarte, California, the world-class treatment center for cancer patients. I was in store for another two weeks of chemo to kill any remaining leukemia cells. The preparation for the transplant can be devastating. The final infusion of chemo was a super-strong blend the nurse referred to as "the red stuff."

"If leukemia doesn't kill you, this cocktail might!" She laughingly explained. Surviving the liquid killer of whatever cancerous cells might still be hiding in my blood took everything out of me. I was a baby in diapers, not able to do anything for myself, but my head was still focused and ready for what lay ahead. I was told a courier was already on his way to Israel to collect the bone marrow harvested from my donor. He would return in 24 hours and the transplant would begin.

The process is no more complicated than a blood transfusion, but the first few days of recovery and monitoring is critical. The body wants to reject what it perceives as an invasion by newly infused marrow which contained my new blood cells, so it does what it can to fight against it. This can lead to what is called GVHD (graft versus host disease), and this is what commonly kills transplant patients. Fortunately, I only got a minor case of GVHD, with no serious consequences.

To make a very long and very complicated story of my recovery shorter, I survived this harrowing experience, and within a couple of months I was back in my world.

It’s five years now, post massive amounts of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant that saved my life. I have to go to the City of Hope every few months for tests to make sure I'm still cancer-free. I have a special t-shirt I wear on these visits. It says simply, F*** CANCER, a sentiment I wear proudly on my chest. It's a representation of how I feel about the disease. It's me, this big, brave man proclaiming, "Look at me, I beat this son-of-a-bitch." On the inside, the scared little boy is hoping this is true.

When I walk in the hospital reception area, there are usually a hundred or so other patients coming for tests. Many of them see my shirt and smile. We nod to each other as a sign of recognition and approval.

"I know the day may come when cancer will return and take away my body, and it might even rob me of my soul, but not today, not today."
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