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Heart To Spare

George Becker is a fifty-two year old machine operator diagnosed on February 12, 1999 with malignant mesothelioma of the pleura, or the lining of the lungs. He lives in the scenic hills of the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York with his wife of 26 years, Cheryl, and their twenty-five year-old daughter.

George is learning disabled, as are his wife and child, but you'd never know it. He has lively, smiling eyes. He cracks jokes. When I visited with him in his trailer, he kept plying me with coffee, doughnuts – whatever he could get me to eat. If I said "no", George would guffaw and exhort me to "have something."

Looking back to this moment, I appreciate George's character, and his courage. His chief concern was showing me hospitality . . . and in just a few days, he would undergo the surgical equivalent of a shark attack.

The Beckers keep a neat and tidy home. At the same time, their home reflects the Becker characteristics: warmth . . . love . . . and giving. They give of what they have. They are endearing.

George has worked hard all his life. He was usually "the low man on the totem pole", working as a custodian, material handler and machine operator. The economy can be hard in upstate New York, and George often had to scramble for new work when a job "ran out" or an employer's business failed. George always found a new job, and quickly.

George's first steady job, begun almost 35 years ago when he was just seventeen, planted the seeds of the cancer he fights today. George labored at a wire factory in Jordan, New York. Ironically, he was also exposed to asbestos at several hospitals while working as a custodian -- including the very hospital where he would undergo exploratory surgery for his cancer almost 30 years later.

George's mesothelioma manifested itself in typical fashion in January, 1999. He began to experience shortness of breath and pain in his right side. A local doctor took chest films and initially diagnosed him with pneumonia. George says, "This was not me. I never even had a bad cold."

The film revealed a large amount of fluid on George's right lung, and his doctors advised thoracentesis, which resulted in the removal of over 1600 cc. of fluid. The doctors left some of the fluid in George's chest, because of concern that total removal would cause one of his lungs to collapse. Computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans showed significant thickening of the lining of the lung. Thoracoscopy with pleural biopsy then resulted in the laboratory diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma.

One of George's loving relatives found Roger Worthington on the Internet. After careful consideration, George chose surgical excision with photodynamic therapy at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York to fight his mesothelioma.

During twelve hours of grueling surgery at Roswell, George's doctors removed the pleura, the diaphragm, and all the tumor they could find. The treatment team then radiated the open body cavity in the photodynamic light therapy aimed at killing the "seeds" of the remaining, unseeable cancer. The tumors were more extensive than thought. George's doctors told his wife Cheryl they got all the tumor, but "eventually he is going to die from this. This is what is going to kill him." But George's doctors appreciated something else: George Becker is a fighter.

The night of the surgery, George was critical. He was on a respirator when he came out of surgery. Cheryl, a former nurse's aide, says, "He was all swollen, all over his body, his face, his arms. But, you know, for just having major surgery, he's wonderful." George had to have three blood transfusions, he lost so much blood. He was on morphine and an epidural for the pain. "The surgical equivalent to a shark attack" -- make that a Great White shark attack.

Defying expectations, George made it home from the hospital to his family ahead of schedule, on Easter Sunday. The recovery process has been slow and painful. At first, George slept a lot, and had no appetite. During five weeks of recovery, George's appetite and strength have steadily risen, through the exertion of extraordinary will. He wills himself to walk, to make his lungs stronger, so he can be strong enough to beat his disease.

George is convinced, "I am going to beat this thing! I ain't gonna let it beat me!" He fights with willpower and good cheer. He hopes that his story will inspire other mesotheliotics to "fight on, another minute, another hour, another day, another year, on and on and on!"

George's family cares deeply for him. A few years ago, a cousin got the Beckers into their home, and arranged things so it would be very easy for them to eventually own the trailer. George's father bought George a second-hand car for transportation. Most of their furniture and other household goods were given to them by their families. It was just over the last three years that the Beckers' lives had become comfortable. They had finally gotten there.

George played by the rules. He never made excuses. I know a lot of folks who were born physically stronger and smarter than George -- but they can't hold a candle to this man's toughness. A tough, hardworking, compassionate man who took responsibility even though he seldom was dealt the good hand. He is wholly innocent of complicity in his mesothelioma. Culpability lies with corporate nogoodniks.

Think of George Becker's innocence, and his courage. Get mad. Be inspired. And fight with him against this terrible disease, on and on and on!

*** POSTED MAY 5, 1999 ***

Mr. George Becker passed away on September 21, 2000