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Peter M., DE

My father, Constantine Malmberg, was a lifelong educator and school administrator, a World War II veteran, and a father of five, grandfather of eight. He received a lung cancer diagnosis two weeks after his 80th birthday celebration—a huge party attended by family, friends, and co-workers. It was one of our most memorable gatherings, where he was happy and in good health. Two weeks later, while I was helping him change an air filter, I noticed he had a persistent cold with a wheeze. He admitted he had been experiencing this slight cold for some time but wasn’t overly concerned. Nevertheless, we convinced him to seek medical advice. A week afterward, my brother informed me, while on his way back from the hospital, that my father had non-small cell lung cancer.

Cancer had impacted my life multiple times before. When I was young, my best friend's mother was diagnosed with cancer, and despite over two years of treatment, she passed away. The memory of how someone could leave their family still haunts me. For some reason, I blamed her. For years, I would have dreams where she would return, explaining it was all a misunderstanding, waking up confused and depressed but eventually facing reality. In 1998, my late wife was diagnosed with cancer. Being young and healthy, we were hopeful, given the advancements in medicine since my friend's mother's era. Despite having access to the best doctors, the best insurance, and practically living at Johns Hopkins, she passed away seven months later, reawakening the dreams, but this time I recognized it wasn’t her fault.

When my father’s cancer diagnosis came, I was initially upset but hoped we had six months to a couple of years to say our goodbyes. The rapid progression of his illness was startling; he transitioned from swimming every day at the YMCA and engaging in lively debates at the local veterans' association to receiving a diagnosis, entering into hospice care, and then passing away on September 22nd, just over a month later. This swift journey from diagnosis to death left no room for intervention or a prolonged battle with the disease—one day we were having a party, and the next, a wake.

Cancer is a merciless disease. It leaves even the smartest feeling helpless and haunts the bravest for the rest of their lives. When I hear someone has serious cancer, I offer all the support I can, secretly wishing that if it's going to claim them, it's as quick as it was for my father.

Although the story of a man who lived a full life might seem less pressing amidst many tragic cancer narratives, my father's tale holds significance. Later in life, he quit smoking, maintained an active lifestyle by swimming daily, and continued to work full time, keeping his mind sharp, seemingly getting in better shape as the years progressed. However, he had smoked for most of his adult life, likely starting around the beginning of WWII in high school. In those days, smoking was almost expected, especially when he joined the Navy and was assigned to a ship, receiving cigarette rations in his C-rations. Smoking was ubiquitous in every movie, television show, and facet of life at that time. There wasn’t a flat surface without an ashtray.

 

I smoked for a short time, about eight years, starting in my mid-20s and ending after my late wife passed away. Reflecting on the differences between my father’s and my own experiences with smoking, he grew up in an era when smoking was thought healthy, or at least portrayed in that light, while I was raised during a time when society was beginning to realize it wasn’t. His mother died of cancer, yet he did not stop smoking; whereas, my wife’s passing prompted me to quit. I can't help but believe that the research and education available throughout my life, which were not present during his younger years, played a significant role in my decision. I am becoming the older generation, and I cannot, in good conscience, let the work that helped me quit smoking and stopped an entire generation from not even remembering what a smoke-filled restaurant was like falter.

This brings me to why I'm sharing my story. To many, the notion that “cigarettes are bad” might seem like ancient history and the lung cancer battle won, but it is not. Lung cancer continues to claim the lives of not just older generations who smoked but younger generations as well. I still have friends dying of cancer, one of mesothelioma not too long ago, her “sin” being having a father who worked at a shipyard that used asbestos, and a mother who would shake out his clothes every night after work. So, I will do everything I can, as long as I can, to help in the research and education for cancer, such as lung cancer.

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