Feighan: Despite cancer, Clinton Twp. man still blessed

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Jerry Fleming has every right to feel angry.

Six months ago, Jerry’s beloved wife, Sandra, died of a rare and an aggressive form of ovarian cancer at the age of 40. Jerry almost didn’t make it to her funeral because he, too, is fighting cancer.

But Jerry, an IT professional from Clinton Township, doesn’t feel angry. Even as doctors have stopped his own treatment because it wasn’t working — Jerry is now in hospice — he isn’t bitter.

“When he does talk about stuff, he still feels blessed,” said his son Justin, 24, who lives with Jerry, earlier in September. “He’s got me, my brother and sister. He’s got a lot of people who love him.”

I first wrote about Jerry, 52, in February after loved ones organized a fundraiser to help him and Sandra with their medical bills. Sandra’s ovarian cancer had returned late last summer after an earlier bout with the disease. Then in a surreal twist of fate, what Fleming thought was a swollen gland in his neck late last fall turned out to be Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tonsil.

Holding vigil by Sandra’s bedside at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute earlier this year, Jerry would sometimes simply take the elevator downstairs for his own treatments.

Chatting over coffee at the hospital, Jerry told me he hated to see Sandra in pain, but was serene. Rather than curse the fates, Jerry, who relied heavily on his faith, said he and Sandra were still grateful for all the time they had. They’d known people who’d died much younger.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said.

In March, Sandra took a turn for the worse. When she went into hospice, Fleming told me in an email she lasted two days before she died.

“I was holding her hand when she passed,” he wrote. “Her mom was laying on her shoulder kissing her.”

After Sandra died, Fleming almost didn’t make it to his wife’s funeral. So sick from his own treatment, he had to miss the viewing because he was too ill. But again he relied on his faith. “I was given a reprieve from God to be able to make the funeral for which I am so grateful,” he wrote in an email.

But after going through more than 30 rounds of radiation and seven rounds of chemo, Fleming’s son, Justin, said the doctors mentioned hospice. They’d tried to get Jerry into an immunotherapy trial, but he wasn’t accepted.

“He’s very tired,” says Justin. “He’s tired of the tests. He’s been through this with his wife. He’s been through it himself.”

In a world where medical professionals so often focus on the quantity of someone’s days – days, months or years — Jerry is now focused on quality. He wants time with his family. He wants to manage his pain. And he wants to focus on all the good in his life — even now.

“We don’t know exactly how long he’s got,” says Justin. But now in hospice, “he’s able to spend the last of his days with the people he loves.”

Today, Fleming sleeps a lot. His sleep apnea complicates his cancer, making breathing difficult.

His kids, meanwhile, are trying to make sense of a situation that doesn’t. They gathered – Justin, his brother, Jacob, 27, and sister, Erika, 22 – just days ago to be with Jerry as the end seemed near. “It was so good to be together,” says Justin. But Jerry held on.

Thinking about losing his dad, “it’s difficult to get into that head space myself,” says Justin. “He’s my dad.”

Twitter: @mfeighan

Editor's note: Shortly after this column was published, Jerry Fleming died after a nine-month battle with cancer.