More than survivors
David Stark and his wife, Becky, battled back-to-back cancer diagnoses
Tuesdays may never feel quite the same to the Stark family.
It was a Tuesday in late May 2010 when Becky Stark was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Five months later, on a Tuesday, her husband, David, was told he had colon cancer.
Tuesdays were also the days each of them set aside to undergo chemotherapy.
Then, a little more than a year ago, the couple treated their children, Kira, Ainsley, Cael and Marin, to a surprise breakfast out to celebrate the end of chemotherapy treatments – on a Tuesday.
Their first “good” Tuesday in a long time.
“Between the two of us, there were four surgeries, 20 rounds of chemotherapy, countless office visits, and lots of hugs and lots of prayers,” said David Stark, president and CEO of Blank Children’s Hospital. “One of the things I remember most is when the kids asked, ‘What can we do?’ You feel kind of helpless. All I said was, ‘Cancer hates love, so we’ve got to give it all we’ve got.’ Between prayers and family and friends, we couldn’t have asked for better support.”
It was late May 2010; the school year was winding down and David and Becky Stark were preparing for a weekend getaway. As Becky was reaching for a suitcase on a high shelf, a piece of luggage slid off and hit her hard on her chest. Her misfortune, however, helped lead her to discovering a lump. She had it checked out, and the next day, she was volunteering at her children’s school when the call came on her cellphone. “It’s probably a little bit more serious than a bump on your chest,” the doctor’s office said. “You’d better come in.”
“I think (the most difficult part) was the initial shock, because I don’t have a family history of cancer,” Becky said.
About 10 days later, with a diagnosis of stage 2B cancer confirmed, she underwent surgery. She opted for a double mastectomy, “because I didn’t want to ever have to go through any of this mess again,” she said. That was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy, which would last through the end of October.
“Having to navigate the care of myself and my kids, and David becoming Mr. Mom – that was probably the biggest adjustment,” she said. “We had a beautiful partnership and an incredible support crew that just stepped in instantaneously. I had people shuttling my kids, bringing meals, cleaning my house, mowing my lawn; it was amazing the number of people who come forward when you most need it.”
Finding a suitable formal support group was surprisingly difficult, Becky said. “A lot of them were for women 55 and older or 25 and younger,” she said.
She has since joined a new support group formed within about the past six months called Life After Breast Cancer.
One of the most difficult things – and it didn’t become any easier the second time around – was telling their children, who were all under 12 at the time, David said.
“It was hard trying to explain to them why this happened, that mommy didn’t do anything wrong,”” he said. “There was shock, anger, resentment. It’s difficult to lay that all on a 6-year-old.”
David said giving his wife an injection at home following each chemotherapy session was one of the hardest things he had to do during her treatment.
“It was a very painful shot and it was no fun,” he said. “One of our nurse supervisors came down and gave me an in-service with an orange, taught me how to do an injection.”
‘Something’s going on’
After “burning the candle at both ends” for months while Becky was undergoing treatment, David didn’t think there was any other explanation for feeling as run-down as he did.
“But it was an abnormal level of tired,” he recalled. “A good physician friend of mine saw me at a meeting one day and said, ‘Yeah, something’s going on.’” A visit to his primary care doctor and some blood tests found his hemoglobin level was very low.
He was losing blood due to a tumor in his colon.
The anemia also caused him to develop a craving to chew ice, which got so bad that clerks at his favorite convenience store got to know him pretty well, David joked.
After waking up from the anesthesia following the colonoscopy, he knew something had to be wrong when his doctor was standing at the foot of the bed. “You’ve got stage 3 colon cancer and you’re on the schedule tomorrow to have surgery,” the doctor told him.
Then the Starks had to break the news for a second time to their kids.
“The biggest question,” David said, “one I’ll never forget, was ‘Did you catch it from mommy? You said cancer wasn’t (contagious) .’”
Having already had one parent undergo surgery and chemotherapy, it was probably even harder for them to hear this news, Becky said. “They thought they were done, and now dad is going in for surgery.”
His first day of chemotherapy was “almost surreal” after he had accompanied Becky so many times. At first, the treatment team thought they were just coming back in to say hello and thank them.
“Then they saw me wearing the (patient) wrist band and they went, ‘No way!’”
Becky “was my coach going through it,” David said. “She had had chemotherapy. She knew the drill, the routine and you knew what to expect. She’d say, ‘Here’s something I tried.’ That was invaluable. While a lot of couples go over how their day was or their calendar, we compared cancer notes. ‘So, which steroid do you have?’”
Social media provided an important element of support as well. Between the two of them, the Starks figure they had more than 2,000 people who posted messages of support on a Caring Bridge site they set up to provide updates on their treatment and recovery.
Being a patient at John Stoddard Cancer Center, an organization he previously oversaw as Iowa Health – Des Moines’ chief operating officer, was “a little bit of a Catch-22,” David recalled. Or as a couple of colleagues suggested, it sometimes felt like “Undercover Boss.”
“It was hard when I was being wheeled into the operating room and I was the patient,” he said. “I think it’s made me a better administrator going through that. It’s not just hypothetical – I’ve been there.”
At Blank Children’s Hospital, his colleagues again wore “Stark Cancer Fight” bracelets, which they had done while Becky was in treatment.
“Outside of the chemotherapy days that I was off every other Tuesday, I was at work every day,” he said. “That was important to me, not in terms of some heroic effort, but in terms of some normalcy.”
A return to normal
Looking back after a year of being cancer-free, David said the experience has made Becky and him closer than ever.
“It put things in perspective,” he said, “and it allowed us to grow closer together. We had conversations that most couples don’t have, particularly at this point in their marriage.”
“I feel like both of us understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Becky said. “And where weaknesses are, we can compensate. And with those strengths, they’re even stronger.”
Do they feel they’re through the worst?
“I don’t think there’s any other way to feel,” David said. “You have to believe that, that it’s over. That’s a pretty powerful ‘drug’ that we take, along with prayer. We’ve had excellent care and follow-up and today we are both cancer-free, which is a great place to be. We will closely monitor it the rest of our lives, and that will impact our kids. … There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about cancer, but you don’t let it dominate your life.”
Or let it ruin your Tuesdays, for that matter.