Dick Siemeck loves life, even at 83. Even after surviving cancer over and over again.
He has had major bouts with colon cancer, lung cancer and a cancer in his bladder and kidneys. And he has regular jousts with another type of cancer that’s much less serious.
At his age, when his physical self is dragging, he says with a laugh, it’s hard to tell whether it’s something left over from cancer or just the aging process.
No doubt, cancer has taken a lot out of him — he sees it most in loss of energy and stamina. But he has a healthy glow about him as he sits on a couch in the living room of his well-appointed ranch house on a bayou in St. Martin.
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“I’ve had a good life,” he said. He and his wife, Lori, traveled in their 40s and 50s, when he worked in the Middle East handling construction contracts.
He retired when he got the diagnosis of colon cancer at 60.
Cancer wasn’t the first time I was aware of my mortality.
When he says, “We’ve had our share of fun and troubles,” the first thing he mentions in the troubles category is 4 feet of water in their home from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They lost all the photos from their travels, and he had become a pretty good photographer after investing in a Canon camera with all the trimmings.
He doesn’t discount cancer as trouble. It is painful to hear him tell the tale of extensive surgery from stem to stern and the removal of a large portion of his insides, accompanied by three months of different kinds of chemotherapy and wide swaths of radiation. That was 23 years ago, and he was part of a clinical trial for the chemo to treat colon cancer. There were week-long trips to Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans for the radiation.
But he says with all earnestness, cancer isn’t the death sentence is was just a generation ago. He’s proof.
Cancer No. 2
Make no mistake, beating it is tough on the body, he said. But it’s worth it.
Early detection is so important, he said. His family doctor, Dr. Henry Furr, diagnosed his colon cancer in the Ocean Springs clinic with a scope. Doctors gave Siemeck a 20 percent chance of surviving it.
Five years later, “they said, ‘It looks like it’s gone,’” Siemeck said. “They don’t say you’re cured.”
Seventeen years later, when he was in his late 70s. Three spots showed up on his lungs in a routine annual checkup.
They ordered a biopsy. Had the colon cancer come back?
No. It was lung cancer from smoking. He had been a three-pack-a-day Pall Mall smoker in his 40s.
More chemo and radiation. But no surgery. This time, chemo made him sick and clouded his thinking.
No hair loss either time, though. And he never lost his ability to eat and keep his strength up. He and Lori believe appetite is a major component to his beating cancer.
After five years of X-rays, CAT scans, PET scans and tests on his lungs to try to find cancer, there was none, he said. “We were done.”
Cancer No. 3
Then two years ago, he couldn’t urinate. A scope into his bladder found a cancer tumor and the surgeon cut it out right away. A three-month checkup found a tumor in the right duct to his bladder and he lost a kidney to cancer.
The surgery was done locally and robotically.
This time, no chemo or radiation. The surgeon got it all, he said. He has periodic checkups.
“They follow you until they they feel it’s safe, or until they’ve got the car paid off,” he said, half kidding about the doctors.
He believes in using local doctors, when they have the expertise. He found no need, during his last two bouts with cancer, to travel a distance for treatment.
The cancer that has been the most niggling for him isn’t an invasive cancer at all. It’s a type of skin cancer that his dermatologist removes regularly — basal-cell carcinoma — while making sure fair-skinned Siemeck doesn’t have any melanoma.
“Outside of that, everything’s great,” he said. “I always lived my life so I wouldn’t have regrets at the end .... try something different, make money, don’t be afraid to have fun. You only have one shot at this.”
Growing up fast
Siemeck grew up running the streets in the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s and 1950s. His block was Polish, the next block would be German, the next Jewish. Life was full-speed ahead there, he said. “Here, it’s quiet. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Lori, who also grew up in Chicago and has known him since her youth, said, “He survived cancer, and I survived him.”
He joined the military and served in Korea and the Far East. They moved to the Coast in the 1960s, and he worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding. He left the yard in the 1980s and took the consulting work overseas for 15 years. He and Lori, now 76, traveled to 28 countries during those years. He’d make reservations for a hotel in Singapore and they’d meet up to travel — she flying in from Ocean Springs and he from Saudi Arabia.
Cancer and the ensuing treatments ended their travels, but there are trophies on the walls — a stencil cutout from Bangkok, a print from Japan, a placard from Paris, porcelain from Portugal.
What to do
So how did he do it, and how does he continue to do it?
Siemeck said he accepted the cancer diagnosis right away each time and did what he was told, knowing everything would be all right in the end. If there was a choice to make between types of treatment, he made the decision and kept moving. No second-guessing. He believes a power greater than himself is in charge.
“Cancer wasn’t the first time I was aware of my mortality,” he said. He overcame issues when he was younger and learned to accept “what life hands you.”
He has the unflappable support of Lori, who isn’t prone to hysterics.
Seriously, that’s important, he said. She was by his side and helped him keep things in perspective.
Speaking of perspective, a positive attitude is vitally important, he said. A doctor told them that early on and they used it through all three cancers.
Positive attitude and a good appetite, he added.
“And in all fairness, I’m a lot tougher than the average guy,” he said.
How does he feel today?
“Pretty good,” he said. “I’m no kid anymore. I’m 83. I think that’s half my problem.”
“The saddest thing out there is people who carry around the old idea, ‘Oh my God, cancer. It’s the end of the world.’ That’s just not true anymore.”