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Marilyn Hagerty, Forum News Service, Published June 23 2013

Marilyn Hagerty: Cancer makes friends of strangers

GRAND FORKS - When life deals out lemons, some people believe in making lemonade. If you need to sit for two hours or more while you are getting chemotherapy, you might as well make the most of it.

That’s the conclusion of Donald Puppe of Hensel, N.D., and Arvin Sundby of Karlstad, Minn. The two were total strangers when they started out several months ago with cancer treatment in Grand Forks.

Now there is a bond between the two men. They are able to laugh and joke their way through sessions at the Cancer Center of North Dakota in the south end of Grand Forks.

Total strangers before they were stricken, they enjoy meeting up at the Cancer Center. And Sundby, a former auctioneer, says, “You know, I actually look forward to these sessions.”

Puppe agrees. He’s a former bar operator. He believes cancer — like life — is what you make of it. He takes his weekly or biweekly sessions in stride. He feels sure God can do anything and everything.

With this kind of faith, he became acquainted with his oncologist, Dr. Anil Potti at the Cancer Center. When he was referred for treatment of prostate cancer, he preferred coming to Grand Forks and staying relatively close to home. He drives the 80 miles down from Hensel and has a family member along to drive home.

Both he and Sundby find that it is easier, quicker and not as expensive as traveling a long distance for treatment. They like getting back home at night. Sundby, who has been battling myeloma, or blood cancer, can make it into Grand Forks in a little more than an hour.

The two were bantering back and forth as they sat side by side in reclining chairs at the Cancer Center Tuesday. They were hooked up for their chemotherapy. There was nothing grim about it. They were cracking jokes. On a table nearby, there were Rice Krispies bars that a patient brought in from Northwood, N.D.

‘Like a party’

Most everybody in the large treatment room knew each other. Those who enjoy the camaraderie were entering in. Sundby said it was “like a party without the booze.”

Moving among the patients were nurses and the oncologist, Dr. Potti. He is tall, slender and erect and says quietly he believes it a joy to have people like Sundby and Puppe in the center. “People like them give us more than we could ever give them. It is a privilege to serve them.”

Patients who come to the infusion center for chemotherapy are mostly from the Grand Forks area, Dr. Potti said, with outreach to Devils Lake and Crookston. Potti returned about a year ago to Grand Forks where he was once on the faculty of the UND School of Medicine. He received his training in oncology at Duke University. He works with William Noyes, M.D., a radiation oncologist who operates the Cancer Center.

Some patients prefer to read or sleep or listen to DVD players during treatment. When Puppe and Sundby are there, many join in the fun. They find that underlying bond as cancer patients. Dr. Potti insists that cancer is just another disease and you just deal with it. He says a person with cancer can continue with life just as a person with high blood pressure or other ailments would.

Sundby, in his 70s, grins about his situation. He met the news that he had cancer head on. He said, “Oh well, that means I will maybe live to be 95 instead of 100.” Right now he is at a point with his treatment for myeloma that he can take a break in treatments. Puppe, in his 80s, has reason to be optimistic. He has seen his Prostate Specific Antogen, or PSA, count go from a high of 269 to 5.

There are smiles. There is bonding.

Puppe says Joy Leppi, oncology nurse, is “quite a gal.” Dr. Potti considers the two an inspiration to other patients.

When Puppe first met with Dr. Potti, they had a long talk. The doctor said, “I will treat you as though you are my own father.”

In his quizzical way, Puppe wanted to know, first of all, just how well the doctor treats his father. Then he found out, the Dr. Potti calls his father every day. And his father lives in India.