My Son’s Father’s Story – Lung Cancer: The Loss of a Co-Parent


On the eve of my son’s 30th birthday last month, his father passed on to the next place. Sadly, estrangement had kept us from knowing he was even ill and had been battling lung cancer for two-and-a-half years.

I am omitting names in what follows to respect the privacy of my former husband’s family.

The Illness

My son’s father died on July 17, 2014. He was 65. His second wife, now sadly his widow, kindly sent me the following information about his battle with lung cancer, paraphrased in part here for informational purposes about the most common cancer worldwide: lung cancer accounts for 1.37 million deaths annually and is the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States.*

After being diagnosed in November 2011, he underwent concomitant radiation and chemotherapy in 2012. The target tumors responded well, but unfortunately he had developed tumor masses in both lower lungs. He was involved in a clinical trial through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for about a year, and one of the drugs they administered “had great results” until he developed antibodies, and the cancer began to grow again. He started a third course of therapy with a new drug that was “supposed to be keyed to his haplotype.” This was disastrous, leading to immediate side effects. The drug was ineffective, and the rate of tumor growth accelerated. On May 31, 2014, he was admitted to hospice care and was “able to remain home in comfort for the most part” for the final weeks of his life.

I don’t have any details about the specific type of tumors he had or the drugs that were used to treat them. However, a list of resources appears following my personal thoughts below with links to sites offering general information and support.

The other piece of information I don’t have is his smoking history over the past 25 years. When we were together, he smoked a pipe, but I believe I’ve heard from family members that he took up cigarettes. However, I just don’t know. What I do know is that smoking, radon, and secondhand smoke are the leading causes of lung cancer† and that about 90% of lung cancer deaths are due to smoking‡.


Remember that your lungs embrace your heart.

I rarely make absolute pronouncements about anything, but I was exposed to cigarette smoking during my young life and have suffered from its second-hand effects, including bouts of bronchitis. And cigarettes produce one of the foulest odors on earth. So, if you smoke, stop. I know, I know. All smokers say this is nearly impossible, such an addictive substance is tobacco. But so lethal a substance is nicotine. Consider whether you’re willing to sacrifice your life—or the health of your loves ones—to this merciless substance and the sludgy tar it dumps into your breathing apparatus.

And here’s some good news: you can reverse some of the effects of smoking when you quit. Don’t die of lung cancer, or emphysema, or any other smoking-related disease. Find another way to create a legacy.

What happens when you quit smoking...

[Click to read more about the benefits of quitting smoking]

*American Lung Association – Lung Cancer Fact Sheet
† US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Smoking Effects Pictures Slideshow: How Smoking Affects Your Looks and Life (slide 23)

The Legacy

The best way for my son and me to be present at his father’s memorial service on July 23, 2014 was in thought and spirit. But we also sent a bouquet of red, white, and blue flowers to honor him as a father, a former husband, and as a Vietnam veteran.

My son sent this message for the card: “I never would have been the person I am today without you. Even at sad times like these, it’s important to remember that legacies live on forever.”

My message was quite brief, but packed with silent memories:  “With love and remembrance of tender times past.”

Like many people who experience the shock of loss, and I did feel this despite the fact that we parted ways years ago, I found myself emotionally hurtling back in time to the early 1970s. I wasn’t much thinking about our marriage, but I did relive, in my heart, the early days when we met and formed a gentle alliance of two troubled young souls. He was in Vietnam at the time, serving as a parachute rigger on a naval aircraft carrier. I was working as a medical secretary and contemplating putting myself through college at night (which I subsequently did).

In retrospect, I think we had what used to be called a “puppy love,” one that shouldn’t have stretched itself into the shape of marriage and to its inevitable breaking point. On the other hand, without that marriage, our son—his father’s greatest legacy—wouldn’t be here. I think most marriages are based on a good reason, even if that reason is temporary—but, as it was in our case, sacred enough to produce a lasting treasure.

Strangely (or not), some of the early ’70s music that reminds me of our youth was swirling around in my mind just before I heard the news of his passing: The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens, Bread, Roberta Flack, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. . . . But the artist who captures that time for me most quintessentially is Elton John.

The first gift I received from my future first husband was Elton John’s first American-released, self-titled 1970 album, which many remember best by the single “Your Song” (although it was another, lesser-known song that prompted him to give me the LP). However, to honor his memory as a US war veteran, the track I have included here (see below) is one that Elton still plays in concert, a poignant and soulful salute to a war veteran nearing the end of his life. I don’t fully understand Bernie Taupin’s enigmatic lyrics, but it is easy to glean that the veteran feels lost and forgotten by the world he had fought to defend.

On a somewhat happier note, I was heartened to hear from his widow that he was “greatly helped” by the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). She said that being admitted to this organization gave him “a sense of honor in service and dignity that had been robbed from him when he returned from active duty back in 1974,” something that was a great blessing in both their lives. In ways that it is not important to discuss here, his involvement in the Vietnam war affected his life profoundly, and I am sincerely grateful that his wife shared this information with me.

VVA Chapter Map

[Click to locate a local VVA chapter]

In closing, I offer the following elegy in the hope that the father of my son will rest in peace, honor, and dignity. And that somehow he will know that he was deeply, if imperfectly, cared for when the world, and we, were a little younger. . . .

Elton John – “Sixty Years On”* [Click] 

Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

from Elton John (1970)

Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave
And señorita play guitar, play it just for you
My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through

You’ve hung up your great coat and you’ve laid down your gun
You know the war you fought in wasn’t too much fun
And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gun
I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on

Yes I’ll sit with you and talk let your eyes relive again
I know my vintage prayers would be very much the same
And Magdelena plays the organ, plays it just for you
Your choral lamp that burns so low when you are passing through

And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gun
I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on

*The full 2002 concert is available on YouTube. “Sixty Years On” begins at 3:00.
More information about the song is available at



American Lung Association – Lung Cancer Fact Sheet

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA–US) – Radon & Smoking Health Risks – Smoking Effects Pictures Slideshow

World Health Organization – Cancer Fact Sheet No. 297


MedlinePlus – Hospice (End-of-Life) Care

Vietnam Veterans of America

2 thoughts on “My Son’s Father’s Story – Lung Cancer: The Loss of a Co-Parent”

  1. What a loving, caring story you have written. It is sad but so sincere and so well done. My heart goes out to you and your son (my wonderful grandson). I hope that now you can both start healing and go forward with your lives. My fondest hope is that this sadness will bring you and Matt closer in heart and realize that there is a lot of love for you both to share. Peace and love to Stephen and peace and love to you and Matt. I will always love you. Mom and Grandmom


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