In this episode, host Eddie Jackson interviews Sissy, the partner of their late Uncle Robert. Eddie and Sissy remember Uncle Robert, his struggle with cancer, and how he remained caring and considerate, even on his deathbed. Eddie also learns about Sissy’s own cancer diagnosis and the family’s broader relationship with the disease. Recounting this personal, familial history leads Eddie to reflect on their roots and their decision to pursue medicine.
Uncle Robert (left) and Sissy (right).
EDDIE JACKSON: This is Meta-stasis. I’m your host, Eddie Jackson.
We begin our series with stories of people who’ve survived cancer
YVETTE GRAY: I've just realized I had a lot of cancer in my family, man.
EJ: A little bit about me, your host. It’s been a hectic time in my life. In addition to the world changing with COVID-19 and the growing surge of political activism around racial justice, I’m about to start my last year at Rice University before heading to med school.
I thought I knew cancer well, but in making this podcast I realized how little I actually knew--both about cancer as a disease and how it has played into my own family history.
In school, I have poured over way too many textbooks, memorized way too many pathways, mutations, key regulatory proteins, case studies, clinical trials, literature reviews, research articles.
And still, that didn’t prepare me to talk about Uncle Robert.
Growing up, Uncle Robert was very important to me. He was a defining part of my childhood and he was one of the nicest and sweetest people that I have ever met. He showed up to every family event with an empty stomach wearing his best clothes. I often heard him cuttin’ up somewhere, because he always made sure to talk to everyone at the party.
EJ: He had suits in like every color, every like shade and anything you could imagine. I swear he had it.
YG: And he had a matching hat.
EJ: Oh yeah the matching hats, leather shoes. He had Gators, right?
YG: Yeah. He had Gators.
EJ: He always made sure to be dressed to the nines.
YG: If he wasn't dressed to the nine, something was wrong. It drove me crazy. But it is what it is.
EJ: When he passed away, he left me a pair of gold cufflinks that were covered in white and blue crystals; and I loved them. I wore them to prom that next year and it just so happened to perfectly match the blue suit I picked out. And even now, I wear them every time I have a big event. It feels like bringing Uncle Robert along with me, and it gives me the confidence to be myself…
Eddie in high school wearing Uncle Robert's tie clip.
I was in high school when he was first diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer. Six months later, he suddenly died.
To tell his story, I brought in Sissy--Uncle Robert’s partner and what followed was a mix of interesting and emotionally confusing moments. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about my own family.
For example, I had no idea that Sissy had cancer before she met my Uncle...and it didn’t seem to bother her.
YG: Ok, when I got diagnosed, I had a big mess right here and it thought I had mononucleosis. They kept telling me, I had mono. I had mono. Then one day the doctor took a biopsy and it was Hodgkin's disease. I think I might even cry. Cause I thought I was going to die from cancer. I had 25 cobalt radiation treatments.
I remember going to the hospital and they didn’t even really make me sick...I threw up a couple of times and that was it. It was no pain, no gain. I mean, I think I was just too young to realize what was going on with me. Cause I think I probably shouldn't have been a little bit more scared than I was, but I was good.
EJ: Cancer is in part triggered by genetic factors. Her mom, dad, and brother Frank also had cancer.
YG: My mom was a sweetheart. She was, she lived to be a hundred.
EJ: Oh wow.
YG: She lived like 40 years after her cancer. No -- ok, that's too long. She lived like 20 years after her cancer. Cause she got cancer when she was in her seventies, and that's when they took off her breast. She was the sweetest lady you ever want to meet.
Except for one time, I guess it was during her cancer thing, and my dad had pissed her off and she had his table full of magazines and she just threw the magazines at him. And that was the only time I ever seen her really mad, but she was a firm believer in God. She knew God would take care of her. And he did. She made the decision to have a breast removed, and she lost 20 pounds when she had a breast removed, and she was cancer free.
She took some chemo pills for a while and lost some of her hair. But she was already old. She was already losing her hair. So, no, I don't think it really bothered her at all. It probably bothered me more than her, but she really didn't ever change her attitude or nothing.
YG: And then later on in life, my dad got, I want to say prostate cancer, but I'm thinking it’s pancreatic cancer. Cause he died from it.
He had no reaction, pretty much. He didn't really change until the cancer took over his body. And then he just, he was like meaner, confused a lot, and just weak. Cause the cancer had ate him up right in. and she survived her cancer so I don't understand why he was such a hard headed stubborn man, that he wouldn't go and fight his cancer. Cause she had hers before he had his. Stupid. Well, I can't say it's stupid.
YG: So I'm thinking it runs in the family. So I’m gonna make sure my sons get checked out. Even though we're not blood related to my dad.
EJ: And it turns out Sissy was adopted! I had no clue!
YG: They were like foster parents. They had blue, cool older kids coming through their life. Right. This is why I'm the chosen one. They chose me, to adopt me! Yeah, so I am chosen.
Doesn’t cancer run in the family?
EJ: Sometimes, yeah.
YG: Sometimes genes. I really never thought about my brother Frank. I forgot he died of cancer too. About a year after my dad. Well, Frank was like 30 years older. Nah. He was like 20 years older than me. So i really didn’t know him that well but we were close. They caught his late and there was nothing much they could do. He went downhill real fast.
And then on, in life I met Robert and Eddie’s uncle and he had prostate cancer.
EJ: At this point, I’d learned a lot about Sissy. She pretty much saw everyone in her family go through cancer at some point in her life. She’d seen them survive it, and she’d seen them die from it.
YG: And when Robert got cancer, it was later on and it didn't bother me because I knew they had a cure for it. I don't think it bothered him, really. It might have, and he didn't tell me, but usually he told me everything and we were just going to deal with it. He was more worried about his sex life than anything.
EJ: He never had chemo treatments.
YG: He never had any treatments. No, we didn't have time. Ran out of time. Far as I know, the men that I've known that had cancer, never had any treatments. Now imagine that men are so stubborn they don't want to get treated for cancer. That is really stupid.
EJ: For my family, this was one of the first times that it has hit so close to home. We worried about Uncle Robert. I remember tons of family members calling around to get people to pray for him and speed up his recovery. But he kept most of the details to himself so there wasn't much we could do.
YG: They did the biopsy. And then they discovered he had cancer. And then he waited a while till he went to the doctor again. And he waited and waited and he was still waiting when he died. He's a procrastinator. He didn't like doctors. He didn't want to go. I had to force him to go to the doctor, even just to see what was wrong with him. Cause he just doesn't, he didn't like doctors. He didn't like hospitals.
Men don't like doctors, they don't like to be told what to do, how to do it. Especially when it comes to their male organs. And they wanted to put some seeds in him, like radiation seeds. That's what they were. And they would have killed the cancer. They would have cured him.
EJ: But he ran out of time. On September 15th, 2016, Uncle Robert was T-boned by a pickup truck while he was picking up Sissy’s son from college. I remember my mom getting a frantic phone call from someone at the hospital. We rushed to the ER and saw him lying on a gurney. He was covered in tubes and stuck in a neck brace. He had to be helivaced to a neighboring hospital that could treat his level of trauma. The only thing he could talk about was how much pain that he was in. Even after taking pain medication and trying to fight through it, you could tell that he was hurting. He was immediately rushed into surgery. My family stayed up until 5 in the morning when he got out of the operation. I went to school the same day like nothing had happened.
YG: We were going to pick up my son from college. We were in the straight lane. The truck was in the turning lane. The truck just turned right into us and the dumb dude didn't even realize the accident was his fault. He was an idiot. It broke his back and I walked away with a scratch on my finger, and I don't even remember what finger it was to this day.
He gave up on life. He didn't want to have no tubes down his throat and that kind of pissed them off when they did one. Then he made them take it out. He wouldn't even leave it in.
When he realized he couldn't feel anything in his body, he just wanted to leave his body. He wasn’t gonna tell anybody. He wouldn’t have even told his mom, if I hadn't told him to tell her. He wasn't going to tell nobody, nobody.
EJ: It was pride or was he ashamed?
YG: He was just Robert. He just didn't want to, I guess, put the burden on other people about them worrying about him. How he doing. I know for a fact he wasn't going to tell anybody.
EJ: This sounded like Uncle Robert trying to take care of other people instead of taking care of himself. It says a lot about who my Uncle was.
YG: Robert was a sweetheart. He would do anything for you. When I first met him before he even got together, I've known him apparently for a long time. And I didn't know. I didn't remember that I knew him. We pretty much went to church together, long time ago. He would do anything for you that he could, my kid was like 16. Robert took him out for his driving test and we weren’t even together. I didn't even know Robert existed really. And then when my son went to prison, he took care of him. He was a sweetheart. Robert was the best thing in my life. And if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn't have met his family. People like Eddie and Alto and his other sisters...
EJ: Talking with Sissy brought up a lot of emotions that I haven’t felt in a long time. Listening to her story with Uncle Robert and her own family brought me back to my roots. It reminded me that shortly after Uncle Robert was diagnosed, I read a National Geographic article about Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG for short--a kind of cancer that has no cure. It made me feel like I couldn’t just sit around. I know how that feels and I don’t want other people to feel like they have no hope.
I want to do as much good as I can and maybe it’s through talking with Sissy and others to know their stories.
This is what we do with Meta-stasis.
Thank you for listening.
Metastasis is a part of the Digital Oncology Initiative at Rice University. It is produced by Bilal Rehman, Eddie Jackson, and Katherine Wu with executive producers Danyal Rizvi and Lan Li. This episode was hosted by Eddie Jackson and directed by Lan Li. This episode was edited by Katherine Wu and Lan Li with editorial assistance from Aysel Rizvi. Our music is by Moiz. Special thanks to Sissy Gray for talking to us in this episode.