Family comes to grips with father's terminal battle against lung cancer

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Edward and Lorraine King stand in the waiting room at Peninsula Internal Medicine.

She's patient, calm and stoic even, as her husband paces, slowly and a bit breathlessly, in his jeans and flannel shirt.

It's obvious he doesn't want to wait and the nervous energy is forcing him to keep moving, examining the paintings on the walls despite his shortness of breath.

After a few minutes, the couple is called back to the exam area, where nurse Heather Morning begins the routine checkup questions.

She has Edward step on the scale and reads his weight: 127 pounds.

"I lost again," he says, quietly.

 

X-rays of Edward King's lungs betray the disease that will eventually take his life.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

At his side, Lorraine just grimaces.

In the exam room, Morning continues her questions, interrupted by Edward's flirtatious and somewhat ornery mood.

He tells her she's pretty and asks if she's married.

His wife laughs under her breath.

Morning plays along, but continues her work.

"Age?"

"77."

"Allergies?"

"None that I know of."

"And what brings you here today?"

"I'm dying. Don't you know that?"

A couple weeks later, Edward and Lorraine sit on the couch in their Soldotna home. He looks thin, frail, under a knit Afghan.

He pulls an oxygen tube across his upper lip and Lorraine turns the tank on from a back room.

"I can't do things I want to do anymore, I'm so short of breath," Edward says. "I really am not as able to do anything. I cannot take the power lawn mower and mow that lawn. The activities I did do working in the garage, woodworking I just can't do it anymore. I just don't have the wherewithal."

Looking around, it's hard to believe the house is home to a dying man. Each room is a testament to to Edward's formerly active lifestyle.

The lawn is well-manicured and adorned with thriving flowers. Two handmade bird houses stand on tall poles in the yard, offering shelter to the swallows Edward loves to watch dart across the sky.

On the living room wall hangs a row of military medals, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. There also are carvings of puffins, whales and other Alaska creatures, all lovingly made in Edward's garage-wood shop.

In the garage itself, dozens of carved cartoon characters stand on shelves, and the walls are lined with colorful fishing hooks, lures and other river litter Edward has collected through years of beach walking. A closet holds a broad collection of fishing gear, and Edward can spend hours talking about being on the water.

Edward has lived a full life. He's been a soldier, a student and a working man.

He's a husband and a father, not to mention a grandfather and great-grandfather.

He's a collector, a storyteller, an Alaskan.

He's the kind of man, secure in his age and personality, who will speak his mind without a care for what people think.

He'll make you laugh. He'll make you cry.

He may even make you blush.

But these days, his resume is winding down, because Edward also has been a smoker. And though he abandoned the habit in 1998, 50-plus years of breathing carcinogens took their toll.

In April, Edward was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors and hospice workers are helping him manage his breathing and pain, but they can do little more. The tumor will eventually kill him.

So now, the once active and verbose white-haired man spends much of his time surrounded by medical workers, struggling to breath, let alone walk or talk.

He and his wife are gathering family to their side and preparing for the end of his life.

And, they are telling their story, hoping to put a human face on a disease that kills thousands of people every year to convince others of the dangers of tobacco use, before it's too late.

Edward was born in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s and grew up in the nation's capital amid the Great Depression. He doesn't speak much about his childhood, but he admits his tobacco addiction began early in his youth.

Though neither his mother nor sisters smoked, Edward said both his father and brother did.

Smoking was a way of life at the time, he said.

"Most of us kids smoked because everybody else smoked. In those days, if your peers did it, you did it too.

"I remember we had these machines. You would buy tobacco in a big pouch, then take papers and make cigarettes.

 

Edward King is suffering from lung cancer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"(My brother and I) used to make cigarettes for our father it was kind of fun.

"I picked up the habit ... I was a kid in junior high, 13 or 14 years old.

"Where we'd get the money, I don't know. But we'd still buy cigarettes, like kids today.

"My father said, 'I don't care if you smoke, but I don't want to catch you picking them up off the streets.'

"I smoked from that day forward."

Edward graduated from high school in the early 1940s, just as World War II was heating up in Europe.

Originally, he attempted to join the Navy.

"I tried in Washington, Philadelphia, Norfolk and New York, but I could never pass the colorblind test."

Eventually, he said, he was drafted and tried again for the Navy. Again, he failed the test.

"I joined Uncle Sam's Army in the infantry and went to basic training in Oklahoma, then went overseas.

"Our first engagement was in a place called Drusenheim, France. We had a full compliment of officers and enlisted men. We really got wiped out. It cost everything but about 40 men. I went from being a private to a sergeant to staff sergeant to master's sergeant (in a very short time)."

He also was wounded in battle more than once, earning the set of medals that hangs on his wall.

Still, he recounts his war experience with a vague sort of understatement.

"I spent two years over there. I was in there long enough to get hit a couple of times.

"It wasn't very pleasant."

In the midst of such peril, however, Edward had an old friend at his side: The government provided four cigarettes with each meal ration, and the smoking habit stayed with Edward as he left the Army in 1946.

After the war, Edward went to business-law school, though he stayed only a short time, as money was tight and his family needed the help.

It was then that he met Lorraine.

A New Jersey native, Lorraine had relatives in the capital, including a cousin who married Edward's brother.

"My cousin decided we needed to meet, because none of them liked his other girlfriend," Lorraine said.

"Margaret was her name," Edward recalled. "I hope she's done well."

In October 1946, the cousin and brother finally set Lorraine and Edward up on a blind date to see a film at a movie house Lorraine's uncle ran in D.C.

Edward was late so late, in fact, that he had to sneak in in the middle of the movie.

"I ruined a perfectly good date to go to that movie," he laughed, goading his wife.

 

Edward King unravels the tubing that delivers extra oxygen to his lungs during a trip through the King's living room. He is tethered to an oxygen concentrator nearly continuously.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"But look who you got," she countered.

"Things have a way of working out," he said.

The pair was engaged in April 1947 and married May 22, 1948.

It's a date Edward recites with confidence.

"I remember that date because I forgot once," he laughed, with a sidelong glance at Lorraine. "It was 55 years ago May 22."

After the wedding, the couple left the East Coast for good. They set off on a honeymoon to Colorado and simply never returned, choosing instead to settle down in the West and raise a family.

Edward took a job in a cold storage plant, where he swiftly worked his way up from $1 an hour to $500 a month.

"In 1956, that was good money," he said. "I was a supervisor, but I gave it up to be a desk jockey for Martin Marietta, an aerospace company. They had a contract to build silos for the federal government.

"I worked for them for a short time and was promoted to supervisor, then went into project engineering. I stayed with them for 25 years before I decided to retire."

In the meantime, Lorraine worked for Sears Roebucks.

"But all the time, I insisted she be with the kids in the morning and home when they got home from school," Edward said.

The Kings had four children Bruce, Sharon, Rich and Pattie. All four grew up and graduated from high school in the Denver area.

The also grew up in a smoking house.

"I smoked all that time," Edward said. "A pack, pack-and-a-half a day. The fact of the matter is, I can't say how much, because if you get busy and light up while you're involved in a project, a lot of the cigarette burns up in the ashtray. But you're still subjected to the smoke.

"I'd be real surprised if it hasn't bothered Lorraine. She was always around it. The kids were around it. I don't know how much effect it had."

It wasn't until years later, after the Kings moved to Alaska and were living around their grandchildren, that Edward finally gave up the habit.

 

Edward King, bottom, helps his brother Bob select a lure from a display in King's garage before a fishing trip earlier this month. King has for years collected lures he finds while fishing.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

As the King children grew, they all slowly migrated from Colorado to Alaska. Edward and Lorraine followed in 1989 to be closer to their kids and the first of many grandchildren.

"Bruce went to college in Fort Collins; Sharon went to teaching school in Greeley; Pattie got married out of high school; and Richie went to college for a semester then came to me and said he didn't want to go anymore," Edward said.

"He was the first to come up (to Alaska). He and two other fellows came up here and wanted to climb Mt. McKinley. In time, why, he got into business, then decided on the fishing business. We helped out, and he got a setnet location. Ultimately, he got enough money put together and bought into a fishing boat, and that's what he's doing today."

Rich credits his father for his career and for making him the man he is today. A commercial fisher, Rich, his wife and their two children spend summers fishing here and winters selling their catch in Hawaii.

"I am who I am because that old man drug me out on the river all my life," he said. "I'm a commercial fisherman now, but it's all the same to me. It's about what's inside."

Bruce also made his father's love of fishing into a life for himself. In 1975, he followed Rich and Pattie to Alaska, where he and his three children still live. He works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Kings' daughters took other aspects of their parents' teaching away with them and pursued careers working with children.

Sharon, who has three children with her husband, Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale, works in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"She's what you call a mediator between parents and the school at Redoubt (Elementary School)," Edward said.

Pattie, who now lives in California, went back to college and law school when she was in her 40s and is a social worker.

"For a time, she was working directly with kids, determining who keeps their kids, things like that," Edward said. "She wanted to adopt all of them."

"Some nights she used to go home and cry at what the kids were going through at home," Lorraine added. "But I think she's happy now."

Though she lives the furthest away, Pattie has been back to Alaska a few times this summer to spend more time with the family as they face Edward's illness.

Throughout the last few months, the house has been teeming with the Kings' four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren (they also have one more on the way).

These kids, after all, are the ones who inspired Edward to give up smoking in the first place.

"It was really the grandkids," Lorraine said. "They'd come home with pictures of lungs and stuff and just hassle him."

He admits he tried several times through the years to stop smoking, using "the patch" and other over-the-counter cessation programs.

He cheated every time.

"I'd go down to the local gin mill and give someone a quarter for a cigarette," he said.

Finally, though, he stopped cold turkey. His last cigarette was at 10 a.m. Aug. 2, 1998.

"I quit because the kids were after me. What affected me most is that they were learning in school that they shouldn't be smoking, and people could tell I was a smoker from the smell.

"That day, when I ran out, I just didn't buy more."

Unfortunately, it was too late.

In January of this year, Edward began suffering coughing fits.

"It started hurting my ribs. I went to see the doctor, and they gave me an antibiotic. I took it for three or four days, but it didn't help. So I went back, and they gave me a stronger antibiotic. Then I went to the hospital after it didn't get any better and had an X-ray.

"From the picture they took, the doctor looked at the X-ray, and so did the technician. They both said it looked noncancerous. It looked like pneumonia.

"I came home, and three to four days later, I let myself back in the hospital, because I didn't improve. They treated me for pneumonia for three or four days. They had me on oxygen over that time, and that helped."

A month later, Edward still wasn't feeling right. Another X-ray was taken and sent to a pulminologist in Anchorage.

"When he first looked at the X-rays, he was not too elated by what he saw. He was of the opinion it could be serious. In the middle of April, they decided to do a brochoscopy.

"Two days later, they told me on a Friday, I had cancer."

Lorraine was out of town the day Edward got the call, so he turned to Bruce and Sharon.

"When I got home, they were all there," Lorraine said. "I couldn't understand why. When they told me, I think I could have just died."

Edward has an adenocarcinoma, the most common of all lung cancers. Though such tumors can be caused by factors other than tobacco use, about 85 percent of all lung cancer patients are smokers or former smokers.

The cigarettes Edward smoked through most of his life almost certainly are to blame for the disease.

 

Sharon Hale reads a booklet describing the dying experience her parents received from hospice workers. The organization has helped the Kings and their family prepare for the final day's of Edward's disease.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The couple has learned a lot about cancer in the time since Edward's diagnosis and they know that while many types are treatable, he has little hope for recovery.

"There are lots of kinds of cancer," he said. "For mine, there's no treatment. No chemotherapy, no radiation and no surgery."

The fact is, only about 14 percent of all lung cancer patients survive as many as five years, and Edward's age does not help his prognosis.

 

Lorraine and Edward King discuss medications with hospice nurse Gloria Hammon during a twice-weekly house visit. The Kings both say the workers have helped them as they deal with Edward's disease. "We had to call them one morning and they were here in a shot. They are so helpful," Lorraine said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The family slowly is learning to deal with that fact, though they still are bouncing through the stages of grief.

"His brother in North Carolina. We told him, and he took it bad," Lorraine said. "And we had to tell Rich and Pattie. They're still having a hard time accepting it. They weren't here from the beginning."

"Rich doesn't think it's going to happen. He's an optimist from way back," Edward added.

Rich, however, says he's making his way toward acceptance.

"I had a great summer with my father. We had a chance to get on the river," he said. Recently asked to work on an obituary for his father, Rich instead wrote a poem.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. "But this tells you how I feel."

For Lorraine, the hardest part is watching her husband get weaker.

"It's kind of hard to think of, he's always been so active," she said. "Now, all of the sudden, he can't do anything.

"We do kind of joke about it. You've got to. I could be sitting, crying all day. But that's not going to help me, and it's not going to help him.

"The doctor said to make sure I have some free time to myself, because the worst is yet to come. Some days, I know he's going to get sicker, and I wonder, 'Am I going to be able to handle things?'"

 

Lorraine King shakes her head as Edward cracks yet another in a string of jokes while talking with family earlier this month. The King household has had a steady stream of visitors from around the country this summer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For much of the family, a healthy anger at the tobacco industry and a desire to help others avoid Edward's fate provide an outlet for grief.

"I always knew it was bad, I just didn't understand how bad," Lorraine said.

"I just want to do something," Pattie added.

Shortly after he was diagnosed, Edward too felt the desire to tell others of the dangers of cigarette smoking. He wrote an editorial letter and sent it to newspapers across Alaska.

"It is a horrible situation to realize that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to help you, and that you must make known to your family the extreme circumstances they must deal with on a daily basis," he wrote.

"I cannot stand it when the tears start flowing for them and flowing for me as well. It is a pitiful sight to see a grown man cry, but the crying is mutual when the others get started crying."

The letter, as Edward had hoped, was not only published, but also read in several school classrooms.

"It's weird the way it happened," Edward said.

"Sharon had a kid in class with a lighter. She started yelling at the kid. She got worked up and another teacher heard," Lorraine explained. "The teacher told her she needed to read this article in the paper, and Sharon asked who wrote it, then said, 'That's my dad.' All the teachers read it in their classes."

"It's actually good if it teaches someone," Edward said. "I want them to know as long as they continue to smoke, they subject themselves to the same problem I have, but their time may come much before mine. The progress is different. It affects many people at a young age, when they're still raising families. And once you get it, there's no retreating. When you get it, you might as well consider yourself done for at some point."

"Today, when I see young kids on the street smoking, I just want to go up and whack on them," Lorraine said.

Now, the Kings are dealing with the daily changes in their lives and preparing for an even greater change after Edward's death.

"I can't do things I want to do anymore, I'm so short of breath," Edward said. "Yesterday, a welfare worker and RN with the hospice program came by. They have this device they put on my finger to measure the oxygen rate. I've been wondering if this thing helps me," he said, pointing to the oxygen line. "She took my oxygen rate, and it was 80. It didn't have the device on. While we were discussing things, I put it on, and she demonstrated that (my oxygen rate) went up to 88. That's a significant increase of oxygen in the blood stream.

"So I wear it. I will be wearing it a lot more.

"But I can't do anything that takes breath. I notice when I walk across a room, when I brush my teeth."

Lorraine is learning to do things she never had to do before, like mow the lawn.

"And I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know how to balance a checkbook. He said, 'You need to learn,' so I did. I was $500 off. Now I have to do it all the time."

The Kings also are making arrangements for Edward's funeral.

"I'll be cremated and buried at Fort Richardson National Cemetery. They play Taps and present a flag. It's almost like you're a hero."

After that, who knows.

"When you're dead, you're dead for a long damn time, unless you believe in reincarnation," Edward said.

"If I come back, I want to come back as a swallow. I like the way they dart around the sky."

In the meantime, Edward is taking the good with the bad and doing his best to look to the positive.

"If we can help just one person... ."



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