It almost seems like you are rolling the dice:  sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Sometimes there is more at stake than a few dollars. Sometimes all it takes is a few dollars.

“I am probably here because somebody put a buck in a can,” said James Papa, a cancer survivor who is raising money for this year’s Forest Park Relay for Life to benefit the American Cancer Society.

Papa said that ‘buck in a can’ went to fund necessary research that most likely saved his life”and, most importantly, the money he is raising now could go to research that would have saved his wife Virginia’s life.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1,372,910 new cases of cancer in the U.S. in 2005. This year, in Illinois alone, they say there will be 59,730.

Also in 2005, the society estimates 570,280 will die of cancer, more than 1,500 people per day, making the disease the second leading cause of death in America.

To some these numbers seem distant, like something that happens to other people, but with so many different types of cancer the disease tends to hit close to home.

This was the painful lesson Papa learned in 1991, when a bleeding ulcer turned out to be a cancerous tumor and his life was turned upside down.

“It was March, 1991,” he recalled. “They found [the cancer] because I had a bleeding ulcer, there were no symptoms. I just had an ulcery stomach that was causing the ulcer. Then they found a tumor where the ulcer was.

“It just freezes you in your tracks,” Papa said. “You think: this is your time, this is what is going to kill you.”

Luckily for Papa, the cancer was localized and, most importantly, it wasn’t stomach cancer, so it had a good survival rate. But it still meant he had do undergo three treatments of chemotherapy and 26 rounds of radiation.

“The chemotherapy was really very hard; it was nauseating, gut wrenching; vomiting all the time,” he recalled sitting in his living room, staring into the memory. “They give you two weeks off. Then you start radiation. 26 continuous treatments…”

Papa said his entire family, which now consists of four daughters and 13 grandchildren, banded together to help get him through the treatments, and through it all was the constant love and support his wife gave him.

When it was all said and done, he had survived. He made it through with a clean bill of health and a new lease on life. 

The Korean War vet and aircraft instruments tech had his whole life ahead of him again. Then, six and a half years ago, his partner, companion and cheerleader was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Cancer, Papa said, frowning slightly, is not like a headache or a cold: You can’t take an aspirin and have it be gone. There are so many different types of cancer and so many different stages of cancer that no universal treatment exists.

“By the time they tried it all, it was five years,” he said. “She had stem cell, she went through everything; but she had to be disappointed every time, it got to the point where her heart couldn’t take it anymore.”

Papa recalls those early rounds of treatment, which the family once again faced, this time confident they would win, as they had with Papa. But every six months the diagnosis would come back negative: the cancer was back, the cancer had moved.…

“Nobody likes to hear those words,” Papa said, looking down at the floor. “She was the center of the house and my whole family almost fell apart.”

At the end of the five years, the family tried stem cell.

“That meant complete isolation for 17 days”and she was claustrophobic,” Papa said. “After all that, it came back again but her heart was too weak to try again and they had to give up on her. Go home, they said.”

Now, a year and a half after losing his partner in life, Papa sits in his house, keeping himself as busy as he can, traveling and socializing with friends. “It is the hardest thing in the world for whoever is left behind,” he said in a low voice. “It is the loneliness. Loneliness is a killer in and of itself.”

Papa said he is glad Virginia died first, because he wouldn’t wish the loneliness and pain of surviving on her. But he still misses her.

“She said to me, two weeks before she died: ‘there are two things happening here that neither of us wanted to happen, I am dying of cancer and you are going to be alone’,” Papa recalled, pointing to the plants she left behind that he is trying to keep alive.

The Papa family is still fighting cancer, however, hoping their contribution will help make battling the disease less of a gamble and more of a sure thing. They have a team in the Forest Park Relay for Life, they distribute cans to all their friends and neighbors.

Papa himself, an avid karaoke singer, donates any money he earns doing karaoke shows to the American Cancer Society.

He said losing his wife reminded him of something his father once told him after his mother died: “When you lose your mate, there can be a million people around, but you are still alone.”

Now he is determined to keep raising money to prevent it from happening to others.

“It was terrifying to know there was nothing else they could do,” he said. “They were at the limit of their research. If they don’t have the money for research, it is going to be a constant killer.”

Relay for Life is a national event for the American Cancer Society which raises money for cancer patient support and research.  In Forest Park, the event will culminate on August 12-13 with a relay at the Park District of Forest Park.

Teams wishing to raise money for the society can contact Amie Hadjis at 484-8541.