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Updating the Last Stage of Life

Ruminations on the prevalence of carcinoma in the modern world.


When I was studying psychology at the University of Kansas a good many years ago, I remember encountering the psychosocial theories of Erik Erikson and his eight stages of human development: infancy, early childhood, preschool, school age, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood and maturity. Later on, when I’d returned to college as a nontraditional student taking a second major in English, I ran onto Shakespeare’s take on the same subject which he’d confined to seven stages: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantalone, and old age. Now, in recognition by any measure of myself having arrived at the last stage of this human drama, I come to this topic with some perspective, and I’ll have to admit I think both those old boys had things pretty well figured out. There’s one category, however, in the light of recent developments, I’d amend and relabel. That’s the last one. Let’s see if I can muster a case for that.

Approximately four weeks ago I suddenly noticed a suspicious growth on the back of my right hand and immediately arranged an appointment with a dermatologist to get it checked over. Well, he proceeded to take a biopsy and the outcome wasn’t what I’d hoped. I had squamous-cell skin cancer, the net consequence being more surgery, nine stitches, more lab tests and a very sore hand. But ultimately the lab results revealed I was once again cancer free.

The episode did, however, qualify me for an unenviable membership in the same “club” as my wife Dee who was treated for breast cancer nearly five years ago. And we two now can claim the distinction of serving in both roles as cancer survivors and cancer caretakers. During this ordeal, however, a somber relationship began manifesting itself among my close acquaintances and network of friends.

Many of the members of the “Wendy’s breakfast crowd,” with whom I still frequently indulge in coffee and bacon-and-egg muffins, were also diagnosed with skin cancer. Soon our group assumed the appearance of the walking wounded, with bruises, bandages, pressure strips and patches hither and yon as each one underwent some sort of treatment. Forehead, nose, cheek, hand, shin—little was spared. All of which thrust me into a morose state of reflection.

Of the five closest friends from my KU college days, four are now deceased, three the victims of cancer. Additionally, one former girlfriend from another college of that era has battled breast cancer. The senior-citizen coffee club at a bank I sometimes look in on has several attendees who’ve had multiple bouts with skin cancer, one even surviving the dreaded melanoma diagnosis. The couple next door to our vacation house at the lake have been visited by basal-cell cancer of the scalp. And that’s not to mention a retired-doctor friend of mine with whom I do lunch occasionally having had colon cancer awhile back and his wife breast cancer before that.

The hospital where my wife was treated conducts complimentary seminars for their cancer patients and survivors on different aspects of coping with the disease, the treatment and the aftermath. Last week we attended one titled “Cancer Kytchyn Sync” presented by a lady named Cathy Leman focusing on integrating food, nutrition and exercise to optimize preventing cancer or its recurrence. Cathy is an energetic and dedicated practitioner of her specialty, filled with verve and enthusiasm. She began her presentation, however, with the admission that the previous fall she had been stricken with breast cancer and endured a lumpectomy and radiation treatments. Nevertheless, she still wholeheartedly stood behind her research-based program.

At my wife’s most recent six-month followup with her oncologist, I posed some serious questions to the man. What factors are most responsible for the elevated occurrence of cancer among today’s population? What can be done to lower the risk? His response was candid, and quite telling.

The only definite, incontrovertible correlation, he declared, between any given factor and incurring cancer is—other than smoking—growing old. As we age, the incidence line on the chart spikes up. What it really comes down to, quite honestly, he said, is the luck of the draw.

Well, there it is. We can fiddle around with lab mice in a cage, graphs and statistics. But after it’s all said and done, we’re pretty much stuck with those renegade cells. NOT growing old seems like a self-defeating option.

Therefore, I’d propose renaming the last stage of the human life cycle “confronting carcinoma.” Seems only logical. And the best we can hope for is…an early detection, a skillful surgeon, and a good health plan. Oh, yeah, and a little good luck is a great thing to have on your side.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

5 comments to Updating the Last Stage of Life

  • Congrats on beating skin cancer, Mark. As for the last stage of human life, those who are cancer-free in old age don’t fit in your re-named stage. If you’re dead-set on a new name that’s all-inclusive, how about THE GRIM REAPER STAGE — after all, when your time is up, you want to go to heaven, and the devil is in the details. 🙂

  • mistermuse,

    Well, THE GRIM REAPER STAGE does, indeed, include everyone and everything. But my guess is, the way the trend is going, most of those will be cancer victims. Just lost “my Catholic nemesis” I used to comment about in my posts to cancer–she was 59. A very distance relative who is 83 just had surgery last week for colon cancer. One of our Kansas Authors Club members who was most talented and energetic just died a few days ago of breast cancer–I’d guess she was in her early sixties. Both my wife and I have now had it. But, whatever, I couldn’t agree more with you that “the Devil is in the details.” That old scoundrel always is! Ha. 😉

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Don Frankel

    Mark, you’re forgetting Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Heart Disease, Stroke and well a whole host of things that the Grim Reaper has in his bag of tricks. When I was young I thought that life was, see the fastball and hit the fastball. Now that I’m a lot older I realize that life is, see the fastball and hit the fastball. To me it’s the late innings and if I live long enough it will be extra innings.

    Glad you got that taken care of in time. Just do your regular check ups and fuggatttabout it.

  • Greetings Don!

    Good to see you aboard again with my posts! No, not forgetting (although if I had Alzheimer’s that would be forgivable, wouldn’t it!). It’s just as the doc said, cancer leads the pack and often takes out those with the other ailments before the other ailments do their final work. Now, statistics show the “leader” heart disease leads cancer slightly annually; however, it takes out a good number earlier in life. The point is if you live into “old age,” it’ll likely be cancer that gets you. Isn’t that an uplifting thought? I’d rather it be pneumonia. 🙁

    I’d say for me, and I’m in the extra innings now, it’s see the fast ball and get the hell out of the way! LOL

    Thanks for comment.


  • Don Frankel

    Good thinking Mark. Yeah maybe it’s a good idea to duck our reflexes being what they are at this age. But yeah we need to get things going over here. I hope we can keep the conversation on a high level too.

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