A 77-year-old Seymour man hasn’t been able to eat a bite of solid food or drink anything in more than six years because of the treatment he received for throat cancer.
Ron Brown, however, doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him.
After surviving that treatment and a second round of treatments he had for a bout of lung cancer five years later, he feels pretty qualified to give advice to others who might find themselves in the same position.
“Always stay positive and do what your doctors tell you,” Brown said.
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Brown said he has had a positive attitude for a long time.
One of his cancer doctors once asked him why he never mentioned death in the three years that he had been treating him.
“I told him that was not an option,” Brown said. “He said most of his patients don’t have that attitude.”
Most just wanted to know when they were going to die, he said.
“They just give up,” the doctor told Brown.
Brown said a series of events June 13, 1977, including the loss of his job, strengthened his resolve to maintain a positive attitude.
“My company had been bought out, and they (the owners) had been making all kinds of bad business decisions,” he said. “I pushed myself back from the desk at 5:30 and thought I had more problems than anyone else on the world. Six hours later, Mom dropped dead.”
At that point, Brown said he had had enough.
“I said, ‘I’ve had my last pity party,’” he said. “I said ‘no more,’ and from that day forward, it has been nothing but positive. I’ve had some tough days, but no bad days.”
Schooling, then Navy
Brown’s story begins with his childhood when he was growing up in the small community of Sparksville in the far southwestern part of Jackson County. At that time, the town had about 85 people, two grocery stores, including one run by Brown’s father, a post office, two churches and a school.
Brown attended that school until 1952 when he headed off to join the freshman class at Medora. That same year, the Sparksville elementary school was closed, and all of the kids in the community were sent to Medora.
Four days after graduating from Medora High School in 1956, Brown joined the U.S. Navy. Two of the other 20 members of his class joined the military because it was a time when there were few jobs.
Brown spent more than two years of his four-year stint in the Navy serving on the USS Columbus, a Baltimore-class heavy cruiser. He was a fire controlman second class (radar).
“We controlled the three main batteries,” he said. “They were nine 8-inch guns. There were three of us, an officer and two enlisted guys, and when I was on target, I pulled a trigger. When he was on target (the other enlisted man), he pulled the trigger, and when they gave the word to fire, the officer pulled his trigger and shot them all.”
In those days, the guns would throw the nine projectiles 20 miles.
“But now with missiles, that’s nothing,” he said.
Brown also spent time during his last year or so in the Navy on a destroyer tender. It was during the Cold War — a time of rivalry between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
“We dealt with a lot of things about Red China,” he said.
“There was a lot of stuff no one knew much about. You were given orders about what you could not write in your letters. You couldn’t tell where we were at or what we were doing because we were involved in landing Nationalist Chinese, who were fighting Red Chinese.”
‘55 years later’
On May 14, 1960, Brown returned home; and six weeks later, he married Shirley Durbin, who lived near South Boston between Salem and Henryville.
The two had met on the square in Salem when he was home on leave the year before. The two dated for the rest of his leave, about a week. He proposed to her by mail and sent her a ring.
“Here we are 55 years later,” he said.
In October 1960, he went to work as a maintenance man at what was then known as the Medora plastics factory. By 1977, he had worked his way up through the ranks to plant manager.
By that time, the Browns had two children, Mark Allen Brown and Paula Jo Brown. Both graduated from Seymour High School, he in 1980 and she in 1981.
In 1984, he left the plastics factory amid rumors it was closing. He returned to the factory in 1986 and helped shut it down in 1988.
He then went to Georgia to help shut down a similar factory owned by the same people and then did the same at a plant near Ann Arbor, Michigan. In that case, he and a partner purchased the plant cheaply out of bankruptcy. The two made it work, and it provided Brown with a way to support his family until he retired in February 2003, when he was 65.
‘How about right now?’
Six months later, a chance conversation at the end of an appointment with his ear doctor led to the discovery he had throat cancer.
“He asked me if there was anything else wrong, and I said, ‘Yeah, they’ve been doctoring me for two-and-a-half months for a throat issue involving sinus drainage,’” Brown said.
Brown told the doctor there was a pain in his throat that wouldn’t quit, and the doctor said he needed to get a CT scan right away. The doctor asked him how soon he could get that scan.
“I looked at my watch and said, ‘How about right now?’” he said.
A cancellation allowed that CT scan to be done the same afternoon. Brown said it showed a tumor about the size of a golf ball at the base of his tongue.
“It was Stage 4 cancer,” he said.
He met with a team of three doctors, including radiation and chemotherapy specialists, at the University of Michigan. They came up with a course of treatment that had to be reviewed by another team of 10 doctors.
“They made the decision to get treatment for me started the very next week,” Brown said.
He underwent seven weeks of treatments, including five radiation treatments and one chemotherapy treatment per week.
“It was very intense,” Brown said. “I was burnt from my chin down four or five inches on my chest. I had to keep Vaseline on it all the time.”
He lost 85 pounds from that period, going from 265 to 180, Brown said.
‘What’s the bad news?’
Doctors have learned a lot since that time, he said.
“They can pinpoint it (the cancer cells) now,” he said. The treatments don’t leave behind all of the skin damaged by burns.
In 2008, he went back for his fifth-year checkup.
“I was going to be down to yearly checkups,” he said. “My doctor said, ‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ I said, ‘Give me the good news.’ He said, ‘You can forget your throat cancer.’ I said, ‘What’s the bad news?’”
That’s when the doctor told him he had lung cancer.
“Here we go again,” Brown said.
He went through the same schedule of five radiation treatments a week and one chemo treatment per week for seven weeks.
Things were going along pretty good, or so Brown thought. But one of the tests came back positive in 2011.
That’s when his doctor said his lung cancer has spread from his right lung to the upper part of his left lung.
“And I think it’s spread into your brain,” the doctor said.
Brown said he told the doctor he wasn’t too concerned about the brain cancer.
“The doc says, ‘Why?’” Brown said. “I said, ‘Doc, I don’t have a brain.’ He asked me how I could joke about something like this when I was getting that kind of news from me.”
That’s when Brown explained his philosophy about having a positive attitude.
A couple of days after that discussion, Brown said, he was awakened during the night by a person in the room.
“It was Jesus Christ, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry,’” Brown said.
That was before a biopsy showed the cancer the doctor thought had spread to his right lung was actually scar tissue from the radiation treatments he had received from his lung cancer, and the “brain” cancer was actually a sinus condition.
Steak in a can
During his years of cancer treatment, Brown volunteered for at least four experimental chemotherapy treatments or tests. The only one he remembers involved testing every 90 days for two years to determine how much damage had been done to his saliva glands by the treatment.
He didn’t know he was part of a fifth one involving a special additive they were putting into his chemo treatments until he talked to a person who had been assigned to monitor his case the first day he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003.
“He said, ‘I know more about you than you know about yourself,’” Brown said. “He said he had been tracking everything that had happened to me from the beginning.”
That person told Brown that experimental treatment was one of the reasons he survived the throat cancer that was already in the fourth stage. That treatment had a much higher success rate and was much better at slowing the spread of cancer, Brown said.
The intensity of all of his treatments has left Brown unable to eat or drink, so he takes his food in liquid form out of two cans for each meal. He cuts the label off each one, takes out a marker and marks it with whatever he feels like eating that day. It could be steak and potatoes or pie.
It’s just another mechanism he uses to cope with the effects of his cancer treatments, Brown said.
The Browns moved back to Seymour in 2011 after his son and his family decided to move to Knoxville, Tennessee.
They just wanted to get back home, he said.