Tom Becka: Welcome to TomBecka.com where everyone’s exceptional and everyone has a story to tell. This story was recorded about two years ago. Jim Fagin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in about 2009 I believe it was.
About 2009 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and fought a good, hard battle for about four years or so. He recently passed away. I recorded this about two years ago, back in 2011, about the fall of 2011. I recorded this. Jim had an incredible attitude towards the situation. There was no pity party.
There was no feeling sorry for himself. There was no sadness. It was all about his situation having a positive attitude, and working the fight. It’s an inspirational interview with a man that I’m proud to have said was my friend and a man that fought a good fight. Maybe, he brings a little bit of hope or inspiration to you, or maybe it’s just interesting to get into the mindset of a person who knows the end is upon him, and that the end is near.
Although, at the time of this interview, I don’t know that we knew that he’d still be around for another two years or so. With nothing but respect, and praise for a great guy, and a brave man, here’s my interview with Jim Fagin.
Jim Fagin: I didn’t have a choice in getting cancer, but I have a choice in how I deal with it. I just had a double dose of chemotherapy again yesterday, and last night I was starting to get in a bad mood, because chemotherapy, it messes with you. Then I said, ”No, I don’t want to.” I have to remind myself not to get angry, not to feel sorry for myself, that it’s better for me to seek to console rather than be consoled.
Tom: That looks good on a Hallmark card. I agree with you philosophically. I thoroughly agree with you. But the reality is, if I’m battling that cancer, and I’ve just gone through a double dose of chemo, to just put on a happy face, and say well it could be worse. That’s got to be tough to do.
Jim: It is and could be worse. Every time I look at young people. I’m old, and I say, ”I can handle it.”
Tom: You’re not old. How old about, 60?
Jim: 66, this month.
Tom: 66. OK, 66.
Jim: Social Security.
Tom: But you don’t look 66. Even going through the chemo, right now you still don’t look 66.
Jim: I still go out, and rake leaves. I go out, and run every morning. I go out, and lift weights every night. I can’t lift like I used to. But they told me that being in good shape was what [inaudible 3:06] the initial bow to pancreatic cancer.
You don’t know what you have, but it just makes you sicker than a dog, and pain, terrible amount of pain. I’ve got more pain pills, some nights that the pain pills wouldn’t even work. Morphine didn’t do any good. I went all the way to Dilaudid.
Tom: Morphine wouldn’t work?
Jim: I would get up to Dilaudid. Sometimes the pills wouldn’t work. That’s one step below heroin. Then I would have to go down to the medical center in the middle of the night and get that IV. That’s all that would work. That’s when it was at its worst.
My doctor, who was I think one of the world’s great surgeons, who works at UMNC, Doctor John Botha from South Africa, tremendous sense of humor, he knew I had a sense of humor. One night I’m in the hospital, he told me, he said, “Jim, we’re killing you.” Because I was losing weight, he says, “We don’t have ideal conditions.”
He said, “We’ve got to operate on you.” So they did the thing called the whipple procedure. I think that’s one thing Steve Jobs didn’t do. He didn’t do, I don’t think he did the, I don’t follow all his stuff real carefully. He may have had the whipple, but I think he waited too long.
Tom: He also had another type of cancer, I think, than what you have.
Jim: It was similar, but different.
Tom: Better survival rate for pancreatic cancer than what you have. Let’s start from the beginning here. Because two and a half years ago or so, you weren’t feeling well.
Jim: I was getting real sick. I tried to walk it off. I’d go out on my morning runs, and I’d be running a couple of miles, and I’d get so sick, and in such pain. I would try to walk it off. One morning, my wife and I are having breakfast out, and I took her to McDonald’s. You’ll see what kind of a big spender I am.
Tom: You’re Mr. Romance right there. Hey honey, breakfast at McDonald’s.
Jim: The sweat is just rolling off of me, and is pooling on the table. I told her, I said, ”Geez, this is really hot coffee.” She thought I was having a heart attack. I said, ”I don’t think so.” But we went to the emergency room and they found out real quickly, through a blood test, that I had pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is often brought on by excessive alcohol use. I drank, but not to excess. I told the doctors, I’m not an alcoholic. It still might be.
Tom: That’s the first thing. Every alcoholic denies it, right? You’re in denial.
Jim: Then they told me to eat some special stuff. They told me then, they say, ”This is very serious.” I said, ”I know a little bit about the pancreas, but not much.” I said, ”I’m not that concerned about it.” ”You have to be.” They told me what to eat, and I’m very disciplined and I ate what they told me to eat.
I would still wind up in and out of the hospital in terrible pain. Pancreatitis is very, very painful. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like when you eat something, you don’t digest it. It just hangs out in there. It was like a brick. Every time you move it’s like a brick bouncing in your stomach. That’s about as close as I can come to it.
Finally, after three months, they had not discovered what I had. It’s a very hard thing to discover. I got a second opinion. My first doctors then dropped me, because I got a second opinion. It’s a good thing I got a second opinion, because I went to UMNC, and in three weeks they found out what I had. I was going on your show that night. It was Christmas Eve.
Tom: I remember that.
Jim: Christmas Eve of 2009, I think.
Tom: It was in the middle of the healthcare debate. Ben Nelson played a critical part of the healthcare debate. You’re talking about a whole lot of healthcare at a time you’re going in for tests. You had just found out right before I saw you, that you had pancreatic cancer. As I recall, you hadn’t even told your wife yet.
Jim: I didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t tell Senator Nelson. I didn’t tell you. You’re a good friend of mine. I didn’t tell my wife. I figured I had to learn how I was going to deal with it, before I could tell anybody else. He went on the show. We did the show that night. Then, the next day, Christmas day, I told my wife.
Tom: Merry Christmas.
Jim: I said ”It’s not so bad.” I said, ”There’s a tumor on my pancreas,” and I said, ”Now at least they know what it is, they can operate on it.” It turned out there were a lot of tumors on it. Because the pancreas, it’s about a six inch long organ, but it’s so hidden inside you, that they can’t see it or anything. I underwent a number of surgical procedures.
They would say, ”This won’t bother you.” God, it knocked me on my butt. Even the way you get chemotherapy, it’s through a port that they install in your chest and they drip it in over a period of hours. They stick a huge handle in there, and then it just drips into your chest. That was another surgical procedure.
Tom: Before we get to all of that, I want to go back to the day you found out you had pancreatic cancer. You had been going in, pancreatitis, maybe it’s an ulcer, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. Nobody is really telling you anything.
Then the doctor comes in, and sits down, and says, not only do you have cancer, you’ve got a form of cancer with a very high mortality rate. Is there any way to describe what that felt like?
Jim: It’s like you say, my outlook on life is one that would be difficult to have, but during dark periods of all my life, I’ve tended to smile as opposed to think about myself. I even remember when he told me that Christmas Eve. They called me as a courtesy call saying, ”Your tests are in.” It was a guy with an Indian accent.
It was not my regular doctor, but it was just a courtesy call. He said, ”Your tests are in, and we will have the results, and I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas, and everything.” I knew he was holding something back. I had been a reporter for far too long. I started to ask him questions. It was my own fault. I broke him down on the phone.
I remember how he finally said it. He said, ”Mr. Fagin, you have a tumor.” I paused for a second. I said, ”That’s not all bad. At least you can operate on it. At least now you know what it is.” I immediately saw the good. It just must be the way I’m wired. I dealt with it that way.
Tom: Were they going to wait until after Christmas to tell you? We’re just calling, and saying we have the tests, but they weren’t going to say what the results are?
Jim: They wanted to give me as best a Christmas as I could have, even though I was in very ill health. I was on a thing called TPN which they feed you all liquids, and you’re hooked up to it 12 hours a day. 12 hours a day I would go do what I wanted to do, and the other 12 hours a day have this drain into me and it was offal. I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t drink anything. Think of that.
I’ll take you ahead to finally when I had the operation, and they told me to eat, I couldn’t eat because I had gone four months without eating. My doctor told me, ”You can’t get out of the hospital until you’re putting in 2,000 calories a day.”
He said, ”Eat anything you want.” I went out, and I think I got a Big Mac. I ate it and promptly threw it up. He thought that was the funniest thing in the world, my doctor. He’s laughing. But he knew I would laugh.
I would have a dozen surgeons come in, and they’re all looking at me, and their brows are furrowed and they’re ringing their hands. I would look at them, and I’d say, ”Are all of you here for me?” I’m really sick, and I don’t feel good. I feel offal. They said, ”Yes,” and nod their heads. I’d say, ”God, I love being the center of attention,” and I would make them laugh.
It’s just the way I’ve dealt with things. I know not everybody does deal with it that way. I’ve talked with a lot of cancer patients, some of whom have died after I’ve talked with them. I hope I didn’t have anything to do with that.
Tom: Well I’ve talked to you, and I could understand why they’d want to.
Jim: But I would try to cheer them up and I would try to say there’s a little good in everything you have here. Even on my sickest days now when I get chemotherapy, that’s when I feel sick now.
I just had a dose yesterday, a double dose. I’ll pull up next to somebody in the car, and I’ll look at them in the car, and I’ll say, ”I bet he doesn’t take chemotherapy. I’ll bet if there was a fiery collision right now it wouldn’t bother him. It wouldn’t even bother me.” I do think things like that because I know every day I live with the threat that I could die.
Tom: We’re all going to die, but I’m not facing it every day. Every morning you wake up, and you know you’ve got this cancer that it’s returned, that it’s returning in a little bit, and you know you’re doing the chemo, and everything, that your days are numbered.
Do you know your days are numbered? Or is your optimistic attitude saying I’m going to beat this?
Jim: No. I know they’re numbered. But I say each day I’m going to live like it’s my last. It isn’t like you see in the movies like the Bucket List. I wouldn’t even watch that movie.
When I first saw it, my two favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, and Jack Nicholson I was thinking man this is going to be a great movie. I was watching TV one night, and I saw what it was. Two cancer patients, and I happen to have a black friend who has cancer too, whose prognosis is not all that good. I really felt close to this.
I saw what it was. Their bucket list was things they wanted to do before they kicked the bucket, it was travel, and all this stuff, I told my wife, ”I really want to watch this.”
I said, ”My bucket list is just to feel good every day,” and I said, ”When I get up in the morning and I feel a stomach ache does that mean it’s really returned and I’m going to be miserable like I was, and I’m going to be dead in a couple of weeks?” I don’t know. But I will live this day like it’s my last.
That’s why I go to work. I do normal things. I try to be normal.
Tom: It’s like the old joke. Live everyday like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right.
Jim: Oh yeah, it will.
Tom: When you look at the good side has good come from this that you’ve maybe changed your attitude? You said live everyday like it’s your last that maybe two, three years ago you wouldn’t have done that?
Jim: I tend not to get upset about a lot of things that used to upset me. Maybe I wouldn’t be as good a reporter today, as I was then, because I would get upset about things.
I knew that if I was in a contentious interview like you would be in, I knew I was going to win that interview, because I knew I was going to. Now, it’s not as important to me. I’ve always felt sorry for people, who are in bad shape, but that St. Jude’s commercial for St. Jude’s hospital that’s on TV now, I can’t watch it without crying.
I never cried on TV, so it’s on and my wife says, ”Well I’ll turn it off.” I said, ”No, I’ve got to get through this, so I don’t cry when I see something like that.” But then, I like to remember the children who have this. Not that they have this but I remember going to the UNMC in the middle of the night to get a pain treatment, and I’d see little kids carrying the same bag of TPN feeding them that I have.
I even asked a nurse one night. I said, ”Does that little kid have, what I have?” She said ”yes.” I said ”He’s five years old. He’s going through this, he’s five. I was in my 60’s.” I would say, ”What must his parents be going through?” Look at their children, wanting to help them, and there’s nothing that they can do. I think it’s tougher to watch someone you love suffer, than it is to be the one suffering.
Tom: Let’s talk about that. Because you’ve got a wife, you’ve got kids. How are they handling all of this?
Jim: Very well. I told them, that to me, I’m not a real religious person, but I do have a strong faith. I’m not real worried about the future. Whatever it holds, it will hold, it’s beyond my control. Hopefully I’ve been a good enough person that I will have a reward of some kind in store. You never know.
I also told them that it was very important to me to will my body to medical science, because I underwent an eight and a half hour operation. I’ve undergone two years of chemotherapy, that just ravishes your body. It’s designed to kill bad cells, but it kills good cells.
Some days I can cramp up from the chemotherapy, I can’t open my hands, things like that will happen. I deal with it to the point where I laugh at it. Here it comes again. ”I better put my coffee down, because I can’t hold it now.”
I think my kids, the first thanksgiving that we went to. They didn’t know what I had. They knew I was sick, and I can’t eat. No one wanted to eat in front of me. I said, ”Please do eat in front of me.” I said, ”I live vicariously through others.” So then they did.
I willed my body to medical science, they understood it. I had them sign a paper so that there wouldn’t be any body at the last minute say no we don’t want it cut up or anything.
I said you know how important this is to me? If some young scientist, at UNMC they saved my life for two and a half years, if some young scientist there could discover a cure, or an early marker for this disease that would prevent somebody else or my own children, God forbid, from getting this disease, how good that would make me feel, then I also told them, ”if anybody gets in this way of this, I’ll haunt you.”
Tom: I think it would be fun to haunt.
Jim: It would.
Tom: Just haunt them for the principle anyway. Just haunt them for giggles. “I know you’re letting the body go to science, but I’m going to haunt you anyway.”
Tom: Let’s talk a little bit about this. You mentioned UNMC saved your life for two and a half years. You had the little procedure, and then you were thought to be cancer free. You were cancer free. They couldn’t detect it. They couldn’t find any.
Then about, what? Five or six months ago, or so, you go in for your regular checkup, your regular routine checkup, and…?
Jim: They spotted a common place for pancreatic cancer to metastasis is into your lungs or your lymph nodes. They pay particular attention there, and I get CAT scans. I’ve had 20 CAT scans so far. The average survivor of Hiroshima, the first atomic bomb, had the equivalent of radiation from two CAT scans. I’ve had 20.
I asked my oncologist, I said, “Is there a problem here?” She said, “No. You’ll die of old age first.” She said, “We have to know. We have to know what’s happening.” They spot these things in my lungs.I have no symptoms, I’m not coughing. I’m not short of breath, but they spot something in my lungs that look like little tiny miniscule nodules growing. She wanted to do a biopsy to make sure they were cancerous.
A biopsy of the lung is not like a biopsy of a mole on your hand, or something. They make a big incision, go into your lungs. Your lungs can collapse. They shift your entire rib cage. It makes you feel like when you wake up, every rib in your body has been broken. If you’ve ever had a broken rib, you know how painful that is, you can’t even breathe. It’s three days in the hospital, and two weeks recovery.
I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want to tear my body down anymore than it’s been torn down. I’m trying to build it backup. How sure are you that it is cancerous?” She said, “90 percent.” She’s very good. She was recruited from the National Institute of Health to come here to UNMC. She’s really sharp, and I like her very well, Dr. Jean Grem.
No. I’ve never made a joke about Dr. Grem.
Tom: [laughs] Until now.
Jim: [laughs] Until now, and we do it on Tom Becka Podcast here. She may listen, because she has a wide range of interests. I said, “Well, can you give me some more chemotherapy?” There I am asking for chemotherapy. She said, “Yeah.”
They could have done radiation. But radiation, they try to limit it to one little area. The areas of the pancreas, it’s such a big area that the radiation would have probably killed me. They said, “We’ll just stick with the chemo.”
I went back three months later for another CAT scan. The growth of those little nodules, here’s the good news, they had stopped growing. They’re still miniscule, but then I had some others, some new ones that were growing. They said, “Let’s add a second cocktail.” That’s what they call this. It makes you want to come down, doesn’t it? A double cocktail.
Tom: I’ll stick with Scotch.
Jim: [laughs] They said, “We’ll give you a double cocktail,” and that’s what I’m on now is a double cocktail. It takes four to five hours just for that, and then all the preparation and everything. Every Monday, then they give me a week off to recover.
I take all kinds of nausea pills. I have Nebraska’s version of Medical Marijuana. It’s called “Marinol.” It’s for 30 capsules is $1400. Fortunately, I have Blue Cross, Blue Shield, I paid $40.
Tom: You’re taking Marinol. Is it $1400? Get you a bag of pot for $100.
Jim: I know.
Tom: Why don’t you just go with pot?
Jim: It’s not legal in this state. You and I have a mutual friend, who has said he would bring me some.
Tom: I have no idea who you’re talking about.
Tom: For the record. You make me die, and I want to be around awhile. Keep me out of this, OK? [laughs]
Jim: You don’t want to be in jail.
Jim: I said, “I don’t want to smoke it.” He said, “I’ll bake it in a brownie, it would help ease the nausea.” With chemotherapy, the nausea is the worst thing, and then pain.
Tom: Does the Marinol help?
Jim: I haven’t taken that much of it. I don’t think it does that much. It was like they told me for sure morphine would help. I’ve gone every stage of narcotic up to there. Morphine didn’t help before I had my operation. All that helped, was Dilaudid, which was called the “Drug Store Heroin of the ’80’s.”
They had a lot of drug store break-ins all over the country back then, people going after Dialudid. It’s like one step under heroin. That’s all that worked for me. Sometimes the pills wouldn’t work. That’s how painful it was.
When I had the Whipple Procedure, I knew right away I was better. The Whipple is an eight and a half operation. When I went in, I didn’t know that I was going to come back. My whole family was there. I said, “We’re giving it a chance. I’m in good hands.” None of us knew if I was coming back. I did.
I woke up, eight and a half hour operation. They took out my spleen, my gall bladder, my pancreas, half my duodenum, which I think is a whole stomach thing, reconfigured it. Food runs through me like it runs through a goose. I can’t gain any weight.
It’s like you have one of those stomach staples, or something. I can’t gain any weight. That’s fine with me. That’s a good thing. People my age, a lot of times you worry about gaining weight.
Tom: Why did you decide to go through all this again? In other words, my dad had colorectal cancer. He had told me, he said, “Look. If it comes back, I’m not going through that again.” For him, it was like on the chemo and everything, he said, “I’m not messing with that anymore. If it comes back, that’s it.”
You on the other hand said, “OK, more chemo. Let’s do it.” Why? You say, you have no bucket with this. It doesn’t sounds like you’ve got all of these things you want to accomplish in life, the things that you wish you ever have done.
I don’t think in the times we’ve talked, I don’t think you have any major regrets. Why put yourself through all of this right now, the nausea, and everything else, or the chemo? Not that I’m trying to get rid of you, or anything.
Jim: It’s a good question. It’s because I’ve come to find out that I’m tough enough to put up with chemotherapy. It doesn’t really bother me that much, like other things would bother me. I’ve had friends who have lost an arm, and things like this. They have to learn to live with it.
I said, “I can learn to live with that.” I will not go to other extremes, it’s like I wouldn’t do the lung biopsy. I’m not going to do things like that. The Whipple, that was a last chance thing. I was either going to die, or I was going to have that operation. I said, “Well, let’s give it a try.”
Tom: You’ve mentioned Steve Jobs. You also can talk about Patrick Swayze, died of pancreatic cancer.
Jim: About the same time, I got mine. Michael Landon, which one guy went through the Johnny Carson Show. They were taking all of these unusual therapies. Michael Landon admitted on the Johnny Carson Show one night, he was taking coffee enemas.
A lot of these guys will go to other countries, and they’ll get these exotic treatments. What it does is, I think with Steve Jobs, it might have shortened his life. He could afford it, but then he didn’t do some of the things that he should have done.
Tom: How do you feel though, when Steve Jobs dies of pancreatic cancer, and you know you’re battling pancreatic cancer? How does that make you feel?
Jim: There are a number of people I pray for everyday, and that I remember every day. You’re one of them. You’re a guy, you’ve always ask me, and genuinely so, “Is there anything I can do?” and you meant it. You came to see me in the hospital when I was in delusions, when I thought everybody was after me.
Tom: [laughs] I love that. Tell that story.
Jim: Anyway, you’ve always made me laugh on the radio. I said, “Keep me laughing.” I said, “Let me have fun. That’s what I want to do.” I was in the hospital, and they gave me, after that Whipple procedure, which is really a brutal operation, and they gave me something that I had a terrible reaction to.
I started feeling extreme paranoia, thinking everybody was after me, and my money, like I’ve got a lot of money. I even thought my wife was after me. I didn’t even know where I was. They would ask me where I am, and I would say, “Offutt Air Force Base.” I’d say it like that, and I’d look at them. I’d tell these nurses, “Don’t get too close.” They were afraid of me. I couldn’t remember their names or anything like that.
My wife, I said, “Bring me a toothbrush.” She probably did bring me a toothbrush, but in my mind she didn’t. I’d even ask our son to bring me a toothbrush, and “Now you’re turning him against me.” Everybody, I figured was against me.
All of a sudden in the middle of all this delusion, which went on for several days, I look over, and here’s Tom Becka, standing there with a bouquet of flowers.
Tom: I brought this little plant, “Hey. Get well soon.” You think I’m out to kill you, and take all your money.
Jim: Well, first off, I looked, I said, “Is that Tom Becka?” I looked, and I said, “That’s Tom,” and then I got to thinking. In my warped mind, I said, “Tom wouldn’t be out to get me. Tom never would.”
Tom: Your wife would. Your kid would. But me, hey. [laughs]
Jim: I put you and Ben Nelson in the same category. I had my cell phone, which has a lot of numbers in it. In the middle of the night, one night when I thought they were out to get me, at 3:00 in the morning, I speed dialed Ben Nelson on the phone to tell him, “Look out. They’re out to get me. I need some help.” He answered the phone!
He immediately called his Chief of Staff, who called my wife and said, “What’s the matter with Jim” She said, “Jim’s out of his mind. We hope he pops back.”
Tom: Earlier, you said you weren’t necessarily a religious man. However, we hear all these stories all the time of somebody, “I’m not religious,” but all of a sudden you’re sick. “Oh, dear God, please.” Have you become more religious through this? Have you become more conscientious of a higher power, or a God?
Jim: No. No foxhole conversion here. I’ve always been a Christian. I’ve always believed in Jesus Christ, and still do. My prayers go out to God, to Jesus Christ, and to Saint Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. I’m not even a Catholic.
Tom: You’re hedging your bets. [laughs]
Jim: I am. I have a lot of people praying for me. I have one guy in Colorado, who said he’s never lost one yet. He prays for me. I don’t even know who it is. I have these little prayer circles in all kinds of churches, and synagogues, I love it.
I have not become anymore religious, but I am firmly convinced that there’s something better beyond this life.
Tom: What do you think it is?
Jim: Sometimes I’ll say, “I’m going to go fly,” and to me, that’s what it is. Just a release of all the pain, and all the burdens and the worries, and everything else, and “I’m just going to go fly.” I don’t know what it is. I have no idea what it is. I haven’t even thought what it’s going to be like.
Tom: I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Steve Jobs’ last words, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” I would think that has a lot more meaning to you, knowing what you know about your condition. I could die before you, but I don’t know that. When you hear that, oh wow, what does that mean to you?
Jim: I was thinking, and then I always think, it’s like with email. The words are terribly sterile. I’m hearing those read and interpreted by somebody on the radio. Oh wow. Oh wow, sounds good. But what if he actually said it like this. Oh wow! Oh wow!
Jim: Same words, different meaning. The optimist that I am, I took it like he saw what’s ahead of him. There are books out, and all this stuff. I resist reading those. I’ve resisted getting involved in any pancreatic cancer things.
I said I’m not going to pit one cancer against another. I did go speak at pancreatic survivors this year, when they thought I was cancer free. But then, it’s back in the lungs.
I’m hoping it’ll all get rid of it from the lungs. I was told back in June when they first saw it appearing in the lungs, that if I did nothing, I might have eight months to live. That’s June, five months. I still feel pretty good.
Tom: Do you want to know that? I mean, with your optimistic attitude as it is and the way that you look at life, even if they said with chemo you’ve got an additional six or eight months or a year, do you want to know that? Does that give you comfort?
Jim: No, I don’t. Given the opportunity to ask, I was going to ask. Then, it’s almost like you have a fatalistic attitude. I got eight months to live. I’m at seven. I better start feeling sick here any day soon.
I really don’t want to feel. I’ve gotten used to feeling not normal. But I’m still comfortable. I’m drinking a Coke here with you right now. It’s good.
Tom: Before we started, we sat down. You felt because of your chemo, you needed some sort of a sugar fix because.
Jim: It was diabetes. They wanted to leave just a little bit of the pancreas. They couldn’t. There were too many tumors on it, so they took the whole pancreas. It made me diabetic.
In addition to having cancer, and chemotherapy, missing half my internal organs, being the age of 66, I’m also diabetic. I have to deal with…I can’t digest my food. I take an enzyme to help digest my food. The pancreas does that for you.
Pancreas also regulates your blood sugar. Your blood sugar, if it’s too high, you may not know it because it doesn’t have that big of an impact. Over years, it can cause kidney failure, or it can cause the loss of toes or legs or things like that, so you watch it for that.
If it gets too low, you can go into a coma, and it can kill you. You can feel when it’s getting too low. That’s one thing. I don’t even need to test my sugar. The chemotherapy messes with the sugar levels.
I got to your place and I could just feel it coming on. I’m going to have a Rick Perry moment. In addition to making you feel crappy, you will lose track of your thoughts. You asked me a question and I’d go oops. You got me a Coke and I’m doing just great.
Tom: How did it feel to be told you have cancer? I don’t remember.
Jim: That’s right, oops.
Tom: I’ll ask you a question that David Letterman asked Warren Zevon, when Warren Zevon was on his show. Warren had been told his days were numbered. Letterman asked a question that I thought was fascinating. I’d like to get your response on this.
What do you know now, in your current state that I don’t know in mine?
Jim: We all know there’s an end to life, but I can probably feel mine a little closer. It makes me laugh at things even more than I ever did before, because I know it’s not going to be important if I don’t get the lawn mowed.
There’s certain things that used to be important to me. If I don’t get them done now, it’s not important. It really isn’t.
Tom: Your neighbors might not feel the same way though, you realize that?
Jim: I’ll come back and haunt them to.
Tom: There’s Fagin. Fagin’s using that cancer excuse again to make his yard look like crap.
Jim: My neighbors were so good, that when I was sick, they would come over and shovel my driveway and the walk. My wife’s employment got together, and they got a summer’s worth of lawn mowing for her. Everybody was so nice.
I wanted to get back and mow the lawn. Little things like that, I looked forward to being able to do, and I still do, even more so now, the fact that I can do them. My bucket list is to be able to continue to mow the lawn. Think of that. When you’re a little kid, and your father wants you to go mow the lawn, I don’t want to mow the lawn. Now I do.
Tom: You enjoy things like that, now just because it shows you’re still alive, that you can do it.
Jim: The Chinese proverb, may you live in interesting times, I’ve lived in interesting times. I would just as soon live in boring times. The past two and a half years have been the most interesting two and a half years of my life. I’d just as soon everything would be nice and boring.
Tom: Things were OK back then?
Jim: That’s it. It’s not a show, and I don’t just put it on. Like I say, I didn’t have a choice in getting cancer, but I do have a choice in how I’m going to deal with it.
A friend of mine who’s retired for one of the local TV stations, when I was losing weight, and had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I was still coming to work because it makes me feel useful. I’m still able to do most everything I always did, unless it requires a whole lot of physical work. It’s a government job, how much could there be?
He came up and said, “Wow you’re really looking good. How are you losing that weight?” I said, “Pancreatic cancer.” The color drained from his face and he got this horrified look like he’d committed this terrible faux pas. I said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Tom: Knowing you, you liked that.
Jim: I did.
Tom: I’m going to just shock him, and make him feel like crap. It’ll be a big joke.
Jim: Some of the interns in the office were ribbing me one day. I said I was going to do this. They said they didn’t think I could do it, and I said it’s the cancer, isn’t it.
They thought, oh no, they’ve offended this guy. He’s going to tell the senator on us.
Tom: It’s funny because, like, if you have someone in your family that dies. Your friends all mean well. They say they’re sorry, anything I can do.
Nobody really ever expects you to do anything or whatever. People don’t know what to say, but they say stuff just to say stuff. You’ve got pancreatic cancer. What do people say to you?
In other words, do they say, ”Sorry, anything I can do?” Do you get this sympathy that may or may not be real? What do they say?
Jim: Most people are really interested in how I felt. Most people, if they’re good friends, and you did this, you said I mean it. If there’s anything I can do, I want to do it.
I did think, but I thought it’d be to mean, to say, “Tom, could you come over and mow my lawn.” But I didn’t do that.
Tom: You’d know I’m insincere, and I really didn’t mean it in the beginning anyway.
Jim: People do that. So many people don’t want to talk about if they have this disease. They don’t want to talk about it. Other people don’t want to invade their privacy. I know there’s a curiosity about it, especially about pancreatic cancer. They like to ask questions about just what I’m going through. I don’t mind telling them.
Having cancer isn’t as frightening as it once was. My father died of prostate cancer. That was almost 40 years ago. Nowadays, prostate cancer, they can detect it in a blood test. I’m hoping, 20 years from now. Pancreatic cancer will be the same way.
Tom: I assume, there will be some people listening to this right now that are diagnosed with cancer. Pancreatic or other kinds or a loved one of theirs has been diagnosed with cancer. What do you want them to know? What can you tell them to help them through their journey?
Jim: That there is light at the end of the tunnel, one way or the other. Either you can come out of it like I did, and have some more years, or if your life ends, there’s life beyond death.
You shouldn’t be afraid, either way. This is your situation in life. You just have to deal with it. You can’t be afraid any day. A little mantra I repeat every day. Don’t be angry. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t be a burden to anybody, especially my family.
Seek to console, not to be consoled. That’s very powerful. If you want everybody to come up, and put their arms around you, that’s wrong. Go put your arms around them.
Tom: Do you find that maybe you are consoling those around you more than they’re consoling you.
Jim: Sometimes. I’ve gotten my wife to be a lot tougher. When they say your better half, she really is.
Tom: It’s a low bar.
Jim: She can step right over this.
Tom: That’s not that tough of a gig.
Jim: She’s got to be tougher about it. She knows, if I’m not talking, I’m not mad at her. Sometimes it’s just easier for me not to talk. But I’m not feeling sorry for myself or in a shell or anything. She’s come to understand it. I talked about these things. I’ve talked about what I would like to have at a memorial service. I’ve written it all down.
It was not easy for me to even broach the subject of donating my body to medical science. Anyway I did it. To my daughter was the hardest one. I went up to her and said, “Honey, you’ve got a driver’s license don’t you. Well of course dad, you know that. Are you an organ donor on that? Well of course.”
I said, ”You know what you have to do to donate those organs. You have to die. Exactly, you have to die before you can donate those organs.” In my case, I want to donate my entire body to medical science. She understood it then.
Tom: You go to MC where you are being treated. It’s a learning hospital. It’s a teaching hospital. Do they come to you and say, ”Mr. Fagin, looking at your prognosis here, not looking all that great.” Do they come to you with this?
Do you go to them, and say. ”When I’m done, use me to learn.” How does that work?
Jim: I went online to just check it out. There’s a place on there. There are forms you can fill out. You have witnesses. You get your family to sign it. You tell them the operations you’ve had. You send it in. They send it back to you, and they gave me a little card that said I, I forget what they call it. It’s a little bit different than you have on your driver’s license. Any member of your family can still stop it if they want to, but I told them how important it was to me. But it was like the reality settled in.
Tom: You did that online? You donated your body to science online?
Tom: Is there a stop gap, to make sure that some smart ass friend of mine isn’t saying, hey, that’s what I want to do for Becka.
Jim: We want Becka here. I had to send back the hardcopy. But I did it. I’ve looked at many other things that I would want done afterwards. I’ve written them down. My family understands how it is. My wife, and her whole place of work, thought it was really funny. I don’t particularly like brown shoes, but I have a pair of brown shoes that I would wear with some things that are brown.
I’ve never been that color coordinated. For somebody who was on TV, I was one of the worst dressers ever. I told my wife, I said, ”If I get the clearance from this latest chemotherapy,” that I’ve got more time to live and they stopped the cancer growth, then I said, ”I’m going to go out and get a new pair of brown shoes”.
She laughed, and I said, ”I’m not going to go and spend money on them before.” She told the people where she worked and they all thought that was funny. But that’s typical me, too. Why go out and buy something that…
Tom: You don’t want to be spending eternity with brown shoes on. You don’t want to be buried in them or anything. You talked about. You wrote your own memorial service.
Jim: About, who I want to be there. I don’t go to a church regularly, but I have a very good friend who’s a minister, Merlin Klaus from channel six. I would like him to officiate.
I would like Dave Webber to sing. It’ll be a memorial service, because my body will be in the science hall of fame. I would like what was said at Michael Landon’s funeral to be said at mine.
He said, ”When you remember me, remember me with a smile and laughter, for that’s how I will remember you.” I heard it went on a little further, and said, ”If you remember me with tears, don’t remember me at all.” That’s the way I want to be remembered.
Tom: That is how he is remembered, a man that brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people. I hope that we brought a little bit of insight to you, and a little bit of happiness. Maybe a little bit of comfort to you in this interview that we have here on TomBecka.com.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please spread the word. Let people know about it. Let them know that every Sunday, we’ve got a new and unique and different podcast here on a web page unlike any other. TomBecka.com.