Merrill and Cherrel Peterson fought cancer many times in their family.
Some say the very best gift you can give your children is good genes. Sometimes you do not have a choice. Merrill Peterson Sr. had no choice. His mother died of cancer at 84. His brother and sister both had cancer, and are both gone, too. When Merrill was in his early 60s he had a prostate cancer scare. However, it was only a scare. So when an achy back, progressed to rib, hip, and leg pain over a five year period, it was chalked up to the aging process. Until he was 83. Until his PSA test came back elevated. Then he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer that had spread to the bone.
This man was as large as life, in both stature and ethics. Full of honesty, humor, and love for his wife of 64 years and his three daughters and one son. Merrill was optimistic and able to focus diligently on a goal. His goal became the fight. He wanted to be here to provide, care for, and protect his wife, Cherrel.
Cherrel needed to be protected because she was a two-time cancer survivor. In 1991, her first tango with cancer ended swiftly with concise laser surgery to remove a large tumor from her back. The surgery was so successful that she did not require chemotherapy or radiation. Ten years later, ovarian cancer appeared and was defeated with the same vigilance. Cherrel is still bright and sunny with energy for life.
December 2003 brought new worries for Merrill and Cherrel. Their daughter, Karen, was diagnosed with Stage I Aductal Breast Cancer. Karen could be the mammogram poster-girl with this story. This cancer was a type that does not form a lump. The only way it was discovered was through mammogram. It was Karen's first. She was 45 years old. She and a very close friend worked together, went to get mammograms together, and were diagnosed together. Their surgeries were one day apart. Karen's was without lymphatic involvement so chemotherapy was not necessary. She had radiation after the partial mastectomy and feels fortunate to have caught it at such an early stage. Karen expresses feelings of being ambushed. She was shocked by the diagnosis because she was young and healthy. She did not feel sick. She would remind us "cancer is not picky." The whole family felt a collective sigh of relief. But it only lasted about two and a half years.
In September of 2006, Karen's brother, Rick, went for a check-up with his dentist of 30 years. "Dr. McKell saved my life." For three decades, Dr. McKell provided a variety of dental work and corrections for multiple dental problems. On this visit, Rick wanted to have an abscess lanced. It turned out to be a gumboil. McKell "didn't like the looks of it." With dedication typical of his practice, a petri dish was borrowed from the clinic after hours and a sample was sent to Castleview Hospital pathology. They didn't like the looks of it either. It was forwarded to U of U pathology. The diagnosis of chondrosarcoma. This is a slow-growing, soft tissue cancer. Rick was told this cancer could have been dormant for 20 years. The ear-nose-throat doctor said the cancer was in "just a little piece of the jaw bone." The MRI showed it affected half of the jaw. It was only during surgery that they discovered that fully 75 percent of the lower jaw was consumed by the cancer. The first surgery was Dec. 18, 2006. After the diseased bone was removed, there would be considerable facial reconstruction. A portion of the non-weight bearing fibula was removed and combined with titanium to rebuild the jaw line. Rick kept his top teeth and only three of his lower teeth. This was a 16-hour surgery. He emerged with a tracheotomy and at one point, five separate IVs running. Rick was faced with the challenge to learn how to swallow, walk, and talk all over again. There were multiple complications and one year later, on Dec. 18, 2007, a second surgery to continue the reconstruction occurred. Bone marrow from Rick's hip was transferred to the new jawbone to encourage enough growth for implants. The soft tissues used came from a cadaver. The cancer was completely contained in the bone, thereby avoiding the need for any chemotherapy or radiation. Rick spent two years working toward recovery. He endured the intoxicating aromas of Thanksgiving with his jaw wired shut. But he was still alive. For the next Thanksgiving, he got new teeth and the full satisfaction of the meal. Looking back, Rick and his wife agree the pain and struggles were all worth it because now, five years out from diagnosis, Rick has been declared cancer free. There were multiple weekly check-ups that gradually grew into monthly then bi-annual exams to get to this status.
During Rick's battle, Merrill's pain spread and became unbearable. Contrary to his stoic nature, Merrill asked his family for help and support. A joint trip to the oncologist in October 2009 revealed bone cancer "all through his body." An androgen (hormone) blocking IV treatment backfired with severe reactions that put him in the hospital. Discharged from the hospital, Merrill spent six weeks in a care center. He knew where he was headed and he was adamant about getting home first. His family rallied to care for Merrill at home until he died.
Merrill and Cherrel may or may not have passed a tendency for cancer along to their children. What they have given their children without doubt is a distinct sense of optimism, great faith, resolve, and a tremendous spirit to be all right. Merrill displayed a strong will to fight. The equalizer he passed along to his children in character and spirit far outbalances the sheer genetic factors. His family looks back at Merrill's great sense of humor to get through life. They respect Cherrel's tenacity and recall her and Merrill's mom as "tough as nails." Rick and Karen both attribute their ability to get through the trials of life to the examples of Merrill and Cherrel.
Come join us in the celebration and commemoration of survivors and fallen heroes at Emery County Relay for Life on July 15 starting at 6 p.m. at Emery High track.