Some thoughts on living and dying.

Month: January, 2013


Today was her day in the oncologist’s chair.

She has Stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is generally treatable and curable.  She’ll have to go in for more tests (probably next week) to see if it’s in her bone marrow.  There are a couple of treatment options involving radiation and chemotherapy.  She’ll probably start with a new trial program in a couple of weeks.  There are very few side effects from the trial regimen.  If that doesn’t appear to be working, we’ll probably switch to a more traditional chemo/radiation program.

The thing that worries me most is that she doesn’t have a Dr. Ginny to take care of her.  But we’re both knocked out so far with Dr. Jason.  And the rest of the in-house medical staff is coming on board.

My daughter-in-law Carley is a white knuckle flier.  She was nervous getting on the plane coming to Richmond because they said it might be a bumpy ride.  But then she thought, nothing else bad could possibly happen to this family–so she relaxed, had a drink–and had a fine flight.  

People keep saying, “What can I do?” Here’s an idea.

One of the joys of being an agency president or creative director is that you get credit for the work the people around you create.  I’ve built my career on the talents of a lot of talented people.  I didn’t develop the gecko.  In fact I tried to kill it.  Four times.  No kidding.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been getting fabulous notes from wonderful people complimenting me on all kinds of things.  Allow me to brag for a moment.  Last Friday more than 1800 people from more than 20 countries read an average of almost three pages on this website.  I’ve heard from Fortune 500 chairmen, media chieftains, marketing leaders of all stripes and from many of the best agency people on the planet.  (I hope you’ll all forgive me for not responding individually.)  Like Lou Gehrig, I realize I might just be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

About 15 years ago, the agency did some work for the group that started “Take Our Daughters To Work Day.”  I remember one of the directors saying she wished a campaign could be developed to help black teenage girls gain confidence.  So many things in society–in the media, in middle schools and high schools, in music, in pop culture–were conspiring to reduce their self-esteem.  It’s haunted me for years that I was never able to pick up that banner.  It would have been a good and important thing to do.  And now that I think about it, I bet a lot of people could use a pat on the back.

So here’s my idea.  In addition to sending me a note about how wonderful I am (and, yes, I still want those notes), send one to someone else–someone who may not get all the hurrahs I’m getting.  Maybe it’s your kid’s teacher.  Maybe it’s the woman in the next cubicle.  Maybe it’s a niece or nephew who’s been through a rough time lately.  Maybe it’s your oldest friend.  Maybe it’s your newest.  Everyone deserves to hear the things that will be said about them at their funerals before their funerals.

If all 1800 of us sent that note this week, 1800 people would have a better weekend.  And wouldn’t that be nice?

Three more nurses I should have mentioned.

They are really more angels than nurses.  They don’t do the meds or any of the close-up and personal stuff the nurses have to handle.  But they do do a lot of the hard stuff.

The first will surprise no one who knows me.  Helen Vennard retired a few weeks ago after 42 years at the agency–and 34 years with me.  (All together now:  “That poooooor woman.”)  For the past 15 years, she’s put up with the hospitals, the doctors, the scans, the treatments, the blood work–all the scheduling nightmares that are part of what makes modern medicine in America so screwed up.  She’s scheduled appointments, rescheduled them when I wasn’t available, gotten me to the huge majority of them on time (actually delivering me when necessary) and arranged my trips to Baltimore and New York–and back to Richmond.  And who was the first one to call to volunteer to help when I came back home last week?  You guessed it.  

And now there’s Lucky–Susan Lueke, my new right (and left) arm.  Susan’s been amazing: keeping me connected to the agency, picking up visitors at the airport on a Saturday night, coordinating hospice care and coming by every single day, volunteering to do even more.

Finally, a word about the angel who got me into this mess.  Fifteen years ago, John Adams and I were having lunch and discussing the fact that we had never gotten the health check-ups IPG had asked us to get.  John mentioned it to Julie, and the next thing we know we’re scheduled for a trip to Johns Hopkins.  We never would have done that on our own.  (What can I say?  We’re guys.)  I would not be here today if Julie hadn’t made that happen.

One final note to anyone from IPG who might be reading this message:  I promise they didn’t do any of this on company time.


I’m supposed to die tomorrow. Hope not.

Two weeks ago, the doctors gave me two weeks to live.  I’m pretty sure they’ll be proven wrong.  In fact, I’m actually making plans now for next week.  !!! A friend now in Ethiopia is planning to get here the end of next week. I told him to get here as soon as possible because I might have a funeral I have to attend at the end of the week. (Some people love that kind humor. Others, not so much.)

I’ve had some great doctors along the way, but the best is Ginny.  She’s proof that you don’t need a degree; you need stamina and common sense and a relentless sense of purpose.  When another doctor recommended something she didn’t agree with, she demanded a second opinion.  I gave up on keeping my meds straight years ago; she’s been diligent in minimizing how often I screwed up.  She has never, ever given up on me.  I confess–there were times in recent weeks when I was ready to throw in the towel.  (Not now. Not by a long shot.)

Jason, Carley and Patti have been excellent nurses. Ginny’s lead the team. 

My advice to all of you:  if you ever find a doctor as good as Ginny, marry her.



One week ago today.

One week ago today, the head oncologist told my wife I had maybe two weeks to live. Since then, some predictions are coming in at “a few months.”  And you always hear about someone’s Uncle Charlie who was entered into hospice 23 years ago and is still going strong. 

For those just getting this news, it turns out the flu and pneumonia are not my problems.  Cancer is my problem, and it’s spreading faster than before. So here’s hoping  I can pull an Uncle Charlie.

It’s amazing how freeing being given a limited time frame can be.  Everything on my “things to do today lists” is vanquished forever.  I completely stopped worrying about the items in my written lists and the lists that exist in the cracks in the back of my mind.  Those last ones pop out at unexpected moments to tell me I still haven’t lived up to  promises I made to others and to myself.  (Thank God I never saddled myself with a bucket list.) Those lists are guilt-magnets.  And now, poof…  Gone forever.  Good riddance.*

Now, with nothing I have to do, I’m looking forward to doing some things I want to do.  Tomorrow is going to be great.

*There is one list I can’t help feeling guilty about abandoning.  When I was a senior English major in 1970, the world was going a little crazy.  Protests, students taking over University, riots, Kent State, etc.  Of course (of course!) we couldn’t take tests in that environment.  So a skeptical but graceful professor in my “Modern British Novel” course, made us pledge that we read five specific novels.  I took the pledge and immediately lost the reading list.  I’ve been meaning for the past 43 years to see if I could find it to finish my assignment.  I’m not sure, but I’m betting that’s not going to happen now.


Not the flu after all.

Docs believe I’m continuing to feel a little punk because in the month between ending the last chemo program and starting the new trial program, I was taken off a number of meds.  A bunch of symptoms flooded in.  The new meds should start addressing those symptoms over the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, I’ve got a pretty good excuse not to do anything.  (And the doc actually said:  Eat whatever sounds good to you.  You need the calories.  !!!)

We see Ginny’s oncologist Thursday for a report on her lymphoma.  I go back to MSK on Friday.  We probably won’t have any news until then.


Ginny’s encouraged me to post this thank you note to two wonderful friends who sent me soups.

—–Original Message—–
From: Mike Hughes <mike.hughes@martinagency.com>
To: kitzbug <kitzbug@aol.com>; Elissa Goldman <Elissa.Goldman@martinagency.com>
Sent: Sat, Jan 12, 2013 12:59 am
Subject: To my Jewish Mothers.

Eileen, meet Elissa, who runs our NY office and is my official NYC Jewish Mother.  Elissa, meet Dr. Kitces, my official Richmond Jewish Mother.

It’s often pointed out that Jewish Mothers invented guilt and Catholic Mothers perfected it.  (It’s also pointed out that for the past 75 years, only Jewish and Catholic Mothers have been able to produce Supreme Court Justices.  Not sure what that’s about.)

Since I now have one Catholic Mother and two Jewish ones, I feel qualified to make the following observations:

Catholic Mothers are Jewish Mothers with more kids.  

Jewish Mothers know their tribes will survive because they’ll persevere.  Catholic Mothers know their tribes will survive because they’ll procreate.

Jewish Mothers believe their kids are smarter than the Catholic kids.  Catholic Mothers believe Jewish kids are smarter than Catholic kids.  

Jewish Mothers are always immaculately put together.  Around age 55, Catholic mothers give up.

Jewish Mothers want their kids to be doctors and lawyers.  Catholic mothers want their kids to have good Jewish doctors and lawyers.

Jewish Mothers send wonderful soups and foods when their sons are sick.  Catholic Mothers heat up something frozen, then overcook it.

Thank you both for so much wonderful, delicious stuff.  


Let’s press the reset button.

 A few weeks ago, I started writing a blog about my medical activities because I didn’t want to keep clogging up people’s inboxes with messages about my health.  When I promised in 1998 that I’d be candid about my condition and my prognoses, I had no idea that 14 years later I’d still be sending out notes about me and my health.  I figured that a blog would let people check in when they’re interested.

What I didn’t anticipate was the heightened drama this would give my every doctor’s visit. 

People:   I’m fine.  Really.

The facts:  I’m not at some end-of-life struggle.  My docs and I have every confidence that I’ll be returning to work as normal within a few weeks.  As for my cancer, I’m basically where I’ve been since 2005:  Stage IV lung cancer with unusually slow-growing tumors.  One of the biggest challenges is to find new treatment options:  I’ve used up most of the normal ones.  (That’s why I’m at MSK starting a very promising new trial program.)

Here’s what’s new or newly discovered over the past couple of months:  Spots have shown up in my brain.  They are no more dangerous than the spots that I’ve had for years in my chest; doctors are amazed it took so long for them to show up anywhere new.  Hopefully my new chemo program will address all my spots–old and new.

Like old men everywhere, over the past few months, I’ve also had a wide range of illnesses, medicinal side effects and what my granddaughter calls boo-boos.  A few of those are cancer related, most are not.  (We now suspect that I have the flu–a pain in the neck, but not a call for funeral orations.)  Although there have been associated hassles, every procedure I’ve had over the past few weeks has been successful:  I’ve qualified for the trial program; I’ve cleared out a nasty pulmonary blockage; I’ve ended those damned, exhausting hiccups, etc.

The question I always ask my oncologists is, “Will I still be coming to see you in two years?”  The answer I’m still getting—amazingly and unequivocally—is “Yes.”

The fact that Ginny was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of weeks ago has frustrated and saddened me.  She’s on her way to getting a surgical biopsy as I write this.  (I can’t be with her—the flu.  My sister Patti’s with her.)  We’ll find out more about her prognosis later this week.  The good news there:  the docs tell us that this will almost certainly be completely curable. 

I’m being incredibly well taken care of.  I have zero needs.  I’m in a city with a zillion movie theaters—and by tomorrow I should be in good enough shape to start taking advantage of them again. 





I’m hearing so many wonderful things from so many wonderful people.  I just don’t want to oversell my predicament.  I am by no means at death’s door.  Really.  Doctors think they’ll be seeing me for at least another couple of years. 

And if they’re wrong, I’m firing their asses.

The last few months have been particularly irritating and frustrating because a ridiculous number of symptoms are taking turns with my sad old body.  So I can’t concentrate on work, tv, books, or my beloved magazines and newspapers.  So I’ve probably felt a little sorry for myself at times recently.  But that’s never a permanent state for me (with my vanishing memory and limited attention spans, I can’t have “permanent states,” period) 

But that doesn’t mean I’m being dragged through constant battles.  I’m still appreciating and loving my life.  I just can’t wait to get back in the game again.  (Game=family, life, work, pursuit of happiness.) 

I’ll be there soon.





1/3/13 The trial begins

At 11 a.m. I finally begin the trial program.  I take 5 pills.  I’ve already had 3 ekgs, bloodwork, 3 “vitals,” a physical from a doctor, significant time with nurse/practitioner, I will have more of all those things over the next 8 hours here at the hospital.  Then I’ll come back here tomorrow morning to do many of them again. 

Good  signs:  1.  even though I’m groggy, I can at least type this:  I haven’t been able to read or even watch TV since Monday.  2.  Not hiccuping at all.  For the first time since the Wednesday before Christmas.  3.  Little coughing.  4.  breathing feeling healthier again. 


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