Last Sunday night two of my friends died of cancer - one, Anna Vargo, was someone I had been friendly with many years ago, when I lived in Seattle from 1979 to 1981. She was a very important person to me at that time, because she gave me a crucial piece of advice. My mother was ill with lung cancer, and in the spring of 1981 my parents very reluctantly told me that she had abandoned attempts to treat the cancer with chemotherapy. I asked them if I should come home at that time, and they were unwilling to say - wishing to allow me my freedom of decision as a young adult (I was 24 at the time). I spoke to Anna and she told me that of course I should go home, that they were trying to leave the decision in my hands, but that they wanted me to go. I took her advice and left Seattle (as it happens, forever, except for a couple of visits). It was a life-changing decision. I was at home when my mother died, in October of 1981, and went on to become religious, keep Shabbat and keep kosher, and join Havurat Shalom, in Somerville, MA, where I was a member for almost 15 years.
Also on Sunday night a friend of mine from New York City, Sam Kayman, died of lung cancer. I knew him from the West Side Minyan, beginning in the fall of 1996, when I moved to New York City for two years on a post-doctoral fellowship from Columbia University. Sam was an important person for me - he and his family befriended me when I came to New York, not knowing very many people - I spent many enjoyable Shabbats at their table, and kept visiting after I left New York in the summer of 1998. He became ill in the summer of 2004 but was only finally diagnosed in November with cancer. It was very sudden. I will miss him. I last saw him in New York just before I flew to Israel for my recent visit. He was in the hospital then, with pneumonia, and I spent about an hour with him. When I flew back to the U.S. yesterday, I stopped in New York again, this time to pay a shiva call to his family. I hope to visit New York in the near future again to spend more time with them and other people from the minyan.
When I found out that Sam was ill with lung cancer, I felt not only sad but also angry - about what it seems to me to be the too many people whom I have known who have died of cancer in the last few years. I was talking to one of my colleagues in the Anthropology department about this, because it always seems as if we're being told by various health authorities that heart disease is the great killer in the U.S. At this point in my life, I've known only two people who died of heart disease - my grandmother, at age 98, and my grandfather, in his mid-60s. I wondered why my own personal experience was so different from the statistics, and he showed me a chart that shows that for people from the mid-30s to the mid-70s, the number one killer is cancer, and that even in the late 70s, cancer is the number two killer in the U.S. The disease really is ubiquitous, and the type of cancer with the largest number of deaths each year is lung cancer. And while 87% of people with lung cancer had previously smoked, the remaining 13% had no history of smoking - which was also true of Sam.