Lessons from Bill — Facing death, words of hope

The following is a story about cancer patient Bill Gasperson. Click here to read the complete list of lessons Bill wrote.

Cancer can happen to anyone. That’s item number one on Bill Gasperson’s list.

Man or woman, young or old, devil or saint — cancer doesn’t care.

In 2007, doctors diagnosed Bill with cancer. This year, at age 29, he faced the reality that cancer would end his life.

Bill Gasperson

Bill Gasperson

“Each day is a blessing and you should treat it that way,” he writes, in number six on his list.

The list is a project Bill completed this year. In nine paragraphs, Bill explains what he has learned during his three year battle with cancer.

He describes the importance of having a strong support system — that’s number two. In number three, he writes about the value of second opinions. Having a good nurse is also essential, Bill writes in number eight.

Despite his painful journey, Bill’s list is filled with hope.

It’s an approach that didn’t come automatically, but was learned along the way.

Trouble on Mt. Hope

Things could always be worse — that’s number five on Bill’s list.

“I’m always amazed that it can get worse,” he writes. “Pretty soon, I’ll have to say, ‘it could be worse — I could be dead!’ But when that happens, I hope we’ll just smile at the inside joke.”

When visited recently in his home, Bill was sitting on the couch with his legs propped on a wheelchair in front of him. Beside him sat his wife, Sarah Ballard Gasperson, a nurse in Boone Hospital’s NSICU. For all he had been through, Bill remained remarkably calm and positive.

When asked how he was doing, he said he felt fairly normal. Then he stopped and corrected himself.

“Well, other than being paralyzed,” he said, with a smile.

Bill’s home is tucked in the woods on Mt. Hope Road north of Columbia. It is a point of pride.

Just a few years ago, Bill helped build the beautiful house for his wife and daughter. He installed the wood floors by hand. He also wired the house for electricity with his father-in-law.

It was a time of excitement for the family. They were moving into their first new home with their young daughter Katie.

“We were just a young couple starting a family,” Bill said.

But around this time, Bill began experiencing back pain. Since he worked at a carpet warehouse doing physical labor, the back pain wasn’t unexpected.

Bill had also been losing weight, but that too was not unusual — he and Sarah were on diets.

When the back pain persisted, Bill went to the emergency room and eventually came to Boone Hospital Center for an MRI. The results were a shock.

The image showed a large tumor growing out of Bill’s spine and into the muscle on his left side.

“We were just thinking he had a herniated disc or something like that,” Sarah said, with Bill adding, “Something a little more normal.”

Doctors feared the tumor could paralyze Bill within a week. He was taken to surgery that day, and the tumor was removed. But Bill’s struggle was just beginning.

Tests showed the tumor was cancer. Bill was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a dangerous bone cancer normally associated with children and teenagers. In adults, Ewing’s sarcoma is more deadly. Even worse, Bill’s cancer had already spread to his lungs.

“We knew right away it was going to be hard for us,” Sarah said.

Soon after the cancer discovery, Bill was put on an aggressive 18-month chemotherapy treatment. While the chemo made Bill sick, it did stop the cancer. When the treatment was finished December of 2008, scans showed no signs of cancer.

But by April of 2009, it had come back.

This back-and-forth battle continued during the next year and a half. When Bill was being treated, the cancer disappeared. But soon after treatment stopped, the cancer would return.

His family spent an incredible amount of time at the hospital.

“We counted not too long ago and he’d been either at the doctor or in the hospital something like 115 days this calendar year,” Sarah said. “It’s just become our second home.”

This year, Bill’s health continued to decline. In the spring, the cancer in his back paralyzed Bill from the waist down.

Then this fall, doctors discovered large tumors in his brain. There were few treatment options. With his declining health, Bill likely couldn’t survive brain surgery.

Sitting beside her husband in their living room, Sarah said she knew Bill’s days were limited, but she still had hope.

“They say he’s dying,” Sarah said. “It’s just a matter of trying to prolong things as long as we can.”

With help, acceptance

“There is no reason that I got cancer,” Bill writes, in number seven on his list.

It was no fault of his own, and it was not a punishment from God, he writes.

“The longer this goes on, the more I realize there is no reason,” he writes. “God has a plan for me, and I am glad I have changed for the better in this journey, but whether I live or die at the end is up to him.”

Before he got cancer, Bill lived a healthy life. He was an athlete at Hallsville High School. He does not smoke or drink.

Thus, when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, it was difficult to grasp the fact that he was suddenly very sick and possibly near death.

Early in his treatment at Boone Hospital, Bill was introduced to Dorreen Rardin, the hospital’s Supportive Care coordinator.

Dorreen and the other Supportive Care staff members work with patients to find comfort during illness. They can help relieve physical pain. They also guide patients toward finding peace and emotional comfort.

To help Bill stay positive during his treatment, she had him to focus his thoughts on the present rather than on his uncertain future. To do this, Dorreen had Bill set small goals for himself — sitting up in a chair, going to rehab, eating a little of his meal.

“If you make a positive goal for today and you reach that goal, you feel better about yourself,” Dorreen said.

She also encouraged Bill to focus on his daughter Katie. Dorreen helped Bill redefine what it meant to be a dad. While he could no longer do physical activities with Katie, Dorreen showed Bill that he could still read to her, watch a movie or help her color a picture.

Bill writes about this in number four on his list.

“Cancer has taught me to be a more patient and loving father,” he writes. “I feel that since I know my time on earth is limited, I take time to do the things my daughter wants to do (like finger-paint or play dolls). I am more patient with her. I treasure all of the little things that she does, because I know I won’t be there for all of the big milestones.”

Since Katie was just a toddler when Bill was diagnosed, she became accustomed to having a sick dad. But as she got older, she recognized Bill’s condition wasn’t normal. That led to some difficult conversations.

She started asking if Bill was going to die.

“It used to be that we would say, ‘We hope not, that’s why the doctors are working on it,’” Sarah said.

As Bill’s health worsened, they began acknowledging to Katie that her dad would die, but hopefully not soon.

Dorreen’s advice is to answer a young child’s questions honestly and directly. Give them the information they want, but not more than they want. That approach worked with Katie.

Bill’s relationship with Katie also helped him find some meaning to all he has been through. He felt that by having a cancer normally associated with children, he was sparing Katie.

“When Bill was first diagnosed and they said it was normally a childhood cancer and he said, ‘Well, I’ll take it if it means Katie doesn’t get it,’” Sarah said, with Bill adding, “I definitely wouldn’t want her to have anything like this.”

Words of hope

As Bill wrote his list of lessons this year, he hoped his words would inspire others in a similar position.

He begins the last item on his list — number nine — by saying, “It is good to have hope.”

“For me it is easier to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” he writes. “I have had frank discussions with my wife and immediate family about what will happen after I die, and what I want for my daughter and my wife after I’m gone. This is very hard to do, but I want everyone to know I will be OK, no matter what happens.”

Bill died on Sunday, November 28, at Boone Hospital.

But even in death, Bill’s voice lives on.

The day after he died, Bill’s list began circulating on the internet — shared by Facebook friends, sent to blogs and posted to internet forums. The day after Bill’s funeral, the Columbia Missourian published his words in the newspaper.

To date, thousands of people had read Bill’s lessons, and the list had been sent around the world.

Many people who read the list saw it as gift Bill left behind — words of hope in the face of death.

At the end, Bill writes that he knows that when he dies, he will be pain-free and happy in heaven. He shares how he wants to be remembered:

“I always hope that I’ve left enough good memories behind that they will remember me for the person I was, the good times we had and the huge smile I was able to put on their faces.”

Memorial contributions can be made to the Education Fund for Katie Gasperson, c/o Memorial Funeral Home, 1217 Business Loop 70 W., Columbia, MO 65202.

One Response to Lessons from Bill — Facing death, words of hope

  1. Richard Brumley says:

    This is perhaps the most inspirational story I have ever read. I am sorry that I did not know Bill personally, but feel like I have known him all his life. I was fortuante to get to go to his visitation and it was truly inspiring. The caring people filed in steadily all night long. Sarah is a brave young lady with a good head on her shoulders and has a great family to support her. I am so very sorry for her and Katie and their terrible loss, but I know it was heavens gain.

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