Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Blades of the mill: A man battling with cancer

Barb Schwarz Karst
Robert Schwarz



“The doctor said it might be lymphoma,” I told his nurse after he had left the room and my temperature had gone from normal happy being to the sweat of a man facing a firing squad in seconds.
“So,” she casually said.
“So!” I said, “People die from this.”
“Not in the last twenty years,” she answered. When the doctor came back and confirmed her statement, I wasn’t totally reassured; but I was somewhat calmer. I stopped sweating.

Cancer wasn’t prevalent in my family’s history—heart problems, strokes, diabetes, yes; but most of my relatives who didn’t drink or smoke heavily lived to ripe old ages. I had a half-uncle and a grandmother who had cancer. My grandma, who had a stomach tumor removed in the 1950’s, was never told by her relatives that it was malignant; and she lived to be ninety-eight, never dying from cancer. Other than that, nothing. My mom really feared cancer, but she died of complications from diabetes and a broken hip. I had never smoked nor had I been a heavy drinker (pretty much a lightweight); so why me? My doctor later explained completely, “Who knows?” he said, “Just a chance splitting of a cell.” During the weekend, I nervously awaited the appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Brock Wittenberger (whom I later named “Doc Brock the Rock;” there are greater strengths than physical).

I should digress and tell how fortunate I am to be here today. I had been seeing Dr. Wittenberger, of the Billings Clinic, for a number of years due to a high platelet count I had inherited from my father (some kind of … thrombosis). Waiting at my dentist’s office one day, I felt a strange lump on my neck. I asked the dentist about it; he told me it was probably nothing, but the next time I saw a doctor I should have him take a look. It just so happened, it could only be by the grace of God, that I had my six-month appointment with Dr. Wittenberger that afternoon. That was the first of two direct and many indirect interventions by God.

The following Tuesday I saw Dr. Wittenberger, ready to do what needed to be done with lymphoma. Shock number two awaited. The good Dr. said he hated to inform me that what I had was not common lymphoma but a rare form called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, something only discovered about fifteen years previously. “Wow, what percent chance of survival do I have, Doc?”
“I don’t like to give percentages,” he answered.
“I want to know,” I insisted, the sweats creeping up on me again.
“About 20 percent,” he finally gave in. Twenty percent … That’ll take you back. He provided me with two methods of attack, in my left hand the traditional, and in my right hand a new study, a lot rougher, but showing some promise.
“If you were me, which one would you choose?”
“I can’t answer that for you,” he replied.
“Come on, Doc, give me a break.” He pointed to the one in the right hand; I heeded his advice; and to date, that has seemed to have made all the difference. From then on, it was an all out battle, but my army was so much stronger than the cancer. I had Dr. Wittenberger and his associates; the Research Nurse, which was, at the time, Kathy Wilkinson; the terrific nursing staff at Deaconess; outstanding family support; and a pretty great intervention by God.

Let me explain that last one. The following Sunday, I was a bit upset with my Savior, in the “why me” mode, and I decided “To heck with it; why go to church?” However, by Sunday evening, I realized that God might be my only chance; and I attended the 7:00 p.m. mass at St. Pats, a church I rarely frequent. Feeling dismal, I seated myself in the back, by an older gentleman. A younger gentleman, about thirty-three (that’s important), moved in beside me. A little irritated (I like to sit on the end), I grudgingly let him in. As traditionally done at Catholic masses, when it came time to join hands for the Our Father, I grasped the old man’s hand with no effect; but when the younger man took my hand, something amazing went through me like a bolt of electricity; and I knew right then that everything would turn out okay. I went to communion; he did not, and when I got back to the pew, he was gone. I have never seen him again. What I truly believe is that when I speak of him, I should be capitalizing the word “Him.”

I won’t bore you too much with the procedure because it was way beyond me. I had to spend three-and-one-half days in the hospital for each treatment—no infusion center for me, except the day before I went—and I always had a room near the nurses’ station and a pretty immediate answer when I pushed any button. They treated me like royalty. I had some nausea (can’t smell hospital food to this day), but mostly, I just felt tired. There were eight treatments, one every three weeks. The newest drug was Rituxan (Rituximab), one still used a lot today. Needless to say, it has worked so far, five-and-one half years.



Although I was always a mediocre athlete, I loved to play and coach sports. It gave me the ammunition I needed to go through the cancer ordeal. When I graduated from high school, I was 6’1,” weighed 141 pounds, and had played four years of football, receiving a “mercy” letter when I was a senior. The best game I ever played, broadcast on the radio, was the one where I had to give my dry jersey to a starting defensive back. He proceeded to have one of his best games, which, since he had my number, I got credit for over the air. When I got home, my Dad (he stayed home because of the weather) was beaming with pride. I told him the truth, and the beaming eyes turned to ones of disappointment. However, I did learn a lot of patience and humility, which gave me the idea that I could overcome odds.

I also played high school basketball and began coaching it when I started teaching. My basketball players taught me dedication. The ones I coached in Roberts would work in the fields until sundown, then drive into town, surround an outdoor playground court with their cars, turn their lights on, and play ball. In the winter, they did anything in the gym I asked of them.

I learned the true meaning of courage through my cross-country and track kids. Because these sports are not as popular as basketball and football in this state, few people realize what it takes to be a state champion cross-country team, or what it takes to run extra stairs after practice to be the state long-jump winner. Those kids had guts. They chose to put themselves through this. With this cancer, I did not have a choice about what to do. If I should die, I was not going to have “after a courageous battle with cancer” written in my obituary because, as these kids taught me (some of them later in Viet Nam), courage is a choice!



I’d be lying if I said that movies and plays hadn’t influenced my life. I love the film media. I’ll even take in a “chick-flick” with Ruby. I enjoy all genres (yes, even musicals), and I’m so happy to have grandkids so that I have a reason to go to the Ice Age movies and other animated films. I’m a movie nut. However, drama and action movies are my favorites. Hanks, Washington, Pacino, Eastwood, Hoffman, Newman, and the unparalleled Nicholson are actors I rarely miss. The end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest brings tears to my eyes every time, and Eastwood’s giving his final orders to a whole town in Unforgiven always makes me think, “Atta boy, Clint; you tell ‘em.” (If I weren’t afraid of horses, I’d have been a cowboy). When Newman slams the door on any possibility of redemption in Hud, one cannot help feel sorry for what he will miss in life.



I’m one of those lucky people who can eat anything, go to the gym a couple times a week, and not gain weight. Some people hate us. My parents were not wealthy; second helpings and ice cream weren’t always available. So when my local priest, Father Rose, took me under his wing and let me serve two morning masses on Sunday and had his housekeeper feed me breakfast in between, I got to sample the “good life” in cuisine. The fact that my Mom, my step-grandmother, and both my sisters are great cooks didn’t hurt, either. The next generation is learning a little from them, but home cooking will never be the same after the invention of the microwave and fast foods. Swiss steak, potato dumplings and gravy will probably never be experienced by my unfortunate grandkids. Homemade ice cream will also be a rare treat for them; although, my son keeps threatening to get an ice cream maker. These days I contend with store-bought ice cream and chocolate syrup, fast food, microwavable meals, and some raw fruit and vegetables. However, my girlfriend, sisters, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and son-in-law, treat me to a home-cooked meal every so often. They spoil me.

Then there are special restaurants that come along every once in awhile, Café Italia in Billings, for example. I’m so thankful I’m around to enjoy it. But hamburgers and salads still make up most of what I eat. Dr. Wittenberger’s going to give me hell if he reads this.

Greatest Things

(Rodgers and Hammerstein)

My favorite things, huh? Top of the hill would be grandkids. Whoever said, “Grandkids are the reward for raising children” had great wisdom. Mine were just here over the Fourth of July. I could never understand how my Mom and Dad could treat my kids so much better than they treated my siblings and me. Now, I can. Thanks “Gavster,” “Anna Banana,” and “Logey” for being Grandpa’s greatest joys. I’m certainly praying hard that I can be around for the arrival of Rylee in September. Thank you Tiff and Tom and Katrina and Rob—best gifts, ever. Of course my kids, Mom and Dad, siblings, and friends come next. I’ve been really lucky to be able to always stay close to these remarkable people.
“To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (Willie Nelson). The women in my life have given great love, and some have caused even greater pain. However, even in the ones who have caused that pain, I can still “cherry-pick” things to love. After cancer, I felt that I was through with pursuing the “fairer” sex; but then Ruby came along. She’s a much appreciated late addition to my life.
Otherwise, I like to travel, but mainly to see the grandkids or go to Missoula to visit this fine artist (my little sister) and her husband or golf with my brother at some famous course like Torrey Pines or PGA West’s Stadium Course. Starting this fall, I’ve been asked to serve on my Parish Council; and since I owe my second lease on life to the Man upstairs, I figured that I’d better say “yes.” Life is good as it should be in one’s November.

Recovery and Remission


Without the staff at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center and a little supernatural help, I wouldn’t be here, today. I also had help from my pal, Jim, who had the same form of cancer. He had been cancer free for six years, and he was extremely fit when I met him. He gave me a lot of confidence and encouragement. Imagine how I felt when I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and Jim walked in.

“What are you doing here, getting a check-up?” I asked him.

“No, not exactly,” he replied.

I thought “Oh, oh.” Sure enough the cancer had come back, and it has been back four more times since. However, the gutsiest 130-pound guy I have ever known is still here. He has lived way beyond the life expectancy of Mantle Cell Lymphoma, and that certainly gives me hope.

Jim was also very reassuring when he talked to me about my extreme fatigue after I had finished my chemotherapy. I was sure that fifteen days or so after my treatment ended, I would feel like my old self again. Jim brought me back to reality by telling me it took him two-and-one-half years to feel normal. It took me three, but I’m not as tough as he is. One day, I woke up and thought, “Hey, I feel pretty good.” But “normal”? I’ll never get there because I was three years older then and am five years older now. However, I do okay for a sixty-eight year old cancer survivor, except of course in golf where people with physical handicaps kick my rear. But, I can’t blame the disease for that.

Another friend of mine, Woody, who has survived leukemia for over ten years was so helpful to me with his encouragement; and best of all, he wouldn’t stand for any negativity. I took cues from both Jim and Woody when I helped my good friend Linda to survive her cancer. She was another tough cookie for whom I have great admiration. Not only was she fighting cancer, but she had daily major battles with a lot of uncaring people because she didn’t have insurance.

A little word of encouragement to those of you reading this who are battling cancer: it’s not the killer it used to be. Cancer deaths are going down while our population is growing. That’s a sign that cancer is becoming more of a “manageable” disease every day. New discoveries are on their way. Had it not been for the drug Rituxan (Rituximab), you wouldn’t be viewing my sister’s creativity today.

Finally, the major thing a cancer survivor must come to grips with is that recurrence is always a possibility. I asked Dr. Wittenberger what we’d do if it came back. His answer was simple; “Treat it.” So my days now are spent in remission, and I’m having the best time of my life. I just started yearly checkups, and that gives me 11½ worry-free months not to think about it. However, next February 1st, I’ll be back to sweating out blood tests and CT scans again. That’s part of my life now. It’s not so bad. I’m able to connect, again, with some of the finest people I know: Doc Brock the Rock, Kathy, Christina, Cheryl, and all of the others who helped God save my life, so that I could hear the most beautiful words in the world, “I love you Grandpa Bob.”

Each of the eighteen paintings contains an image of Bob and a line of poetry that signifies a major turning point in his life. When combining all eighteen lines, reading them consecutively from left to right, they become stanzas in a poem pertaining to those life-altering experiences. The poem, called “Milestones of Robert’s Life,” reads below.

Milestones of Robert’s Life”

By Barb Schwarz Karst

Ten little fingers, ten little toes
reared from sinner and saint, friend and foe.
Aged leather bounds, dusted in chalk, readin’ and writin’,
Yankees play in a lot.
Toil set aside as duties of men
long hard roads, baton snapped at the bend.
Reigned by passion, swept by flood,
two blessings born
blood of my blood.
House of cards collapsed to the table
chaotic in structure, stacker’s hand unstable.
Calling to God – “Is this the score?”
A sign, a test, a lesson no more.
Assemble all angels, their wings all aflutter.
Nourish the soul; then calm the stutter.
Transcending voice through verb and through noun,
together we dance on hallowed ground.
Hush for a moment; be quiet, be still
Quixote just conquered the blades of the mill.

Related articles

Artist statement – Blades of the mill: a man battling with cancer

The full exhibition can be viewed at www.schwarzkarststudio.com

BARB SCHWARZ KARST is best known as a painter who blends traditional media and subject matters with splashes of contemporary freshness and attitude. Originally trained as a watercolorist, she “pushes the envelope” by manipulating oils and acrylics. Her work has been featured in international and domestic exhibitions, one-person shows, and collaborative shows in Chicago, Miami, and Germany, among others. Her work is displayed inthe Montana Museum of Art and Culture. In the last two years, two of her acrylic paintings were shown by the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. She is publicized in several books and magazines, including the contemporary international art book, Art Buzz: The 2009 Collection, ASBA International Quarterly Magazine (Front Cover), Editor’s Choice III: Fiction, Poetry & Art from the U.S. Small Press 1984-1990, and the CutBank literary book. She has two works in the Montana Triennial at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) and is represented by the Dana Gallery in Missoula. Barb currently resides in Missoula, Montana.

BOB SCHWARZ taught high school English for thirty-three years and coached most of his career in Billings, MT. Known as a “stickler” for proper English prose and highly influenced by the great authors, Bob helped many beginning readers and writers develop a true passion for literature. Additionally, he has written several short stories. He currently resides in Billings, Montana.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 1, Issue 4 – Summer 2009

Summer 2009



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