Rita’s Cancer Journey – Part Three: Chemo Finale – Hallelujah!

From: Lonnie Shalton
Sent: Thursday, December 27, 2012 11:07 AM
Subject: Rita Update – “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”

 The subject line was suggested by Rita. You are probably thinking that it should be no surprise where Rita would be on Christmas. Of course she would be in Kansas City. But it turned out to be touch and go whether she would be on the Missouri side in our condo or on the Kansas side in a KU hospital bed.

First, the good news. She was released from KU at about 2:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve day. The rest of the story:

After the chemo treatment on December 12, Rita had her usual Groundhog Day routine of a couple of good days while the steroids wore off. The low grade fever then hit again (cue Peggy Lee). In an effort to thwart the fever, she switched after a couple days from Tylenol to Motrin and a seeming miracle happened – the fever dropped to almost normal, just in time for her December 19 birthday. Her birthday started off with yoga, followed by lunch brought in by Molly Ellison and joined in by Anne Devaney, and ended with a birthday dinner two floors below with Irv and Sharyn Blond (they are so conveniently located and often provide food…and we also like them a lot).

The good news proved to be temporary. After a condo lunch with Cheryl Dillard on Thursday, Rita could feel it coming on again and the fever spiked to 101.6, a full degree over the 100.5 base line that triggers a call to the cancer center. They had her come in late Thursday afternoon for blood work and she started on some antibiotic pills to fend off any potential infection. The fever stayed below the magic number until Saturday evening, but it spiked again and we were told to get her to the hospital for admission. With a very effective process, the room was assigned before we got there and she was in a hospital bed just before midnight. They hooked her up to antibiotic IVs and took several swabs and blood draws to try and run down what appeared to be an infection. This would be no surprise as the blood work showed that her white blood cells count had gone down much further than after her prior chemo treatments – probably that cumulative effect thing.

By luck of the draw, Rita’s oncologist Dr. Khan was on hospital rounds Sunday morning and it was good to see the familiar face. He added a shot of Nougats (or something similar) to her meds for the hospital stay. It is not uncommon for a chemo patient to get a Nougats shot the day after a chemo treatment. This drug boosts the infection-fighting white blood cells in the bone marrow. Rita had the shot after her first chemo treatment, but it was not recommended for the next three because her white blood cell count had stayed strong.

Dr. Khan said if her fever stayed below 100.5 for 24 hours, she could go home for Christmas Eve. As Monday morning came, Rita’s fever had stayed down for the 24 hours, but some of the blood cultures had not aged enough to confirm the lack of infection. Under normal protocol, Rita could not be released, but the doctor on Monday rounds (somewhat reluctantly) accepted Dr. Khan’s 24-hour test to allow Rita’s escape. She just had to agree to hurry back if the cultures turned out positive.

The end result was that there had been no infection and the white blood cell count went back up. The fever subsided. Why? Hard to tell. Every chemo patient reacts in their own way and fever happens to be Rita’s side effect (along with that no-hair thing). She feels lucky that she does not have nausea and that her appetite remains good. There will likely be Nougats shots for her final two treatments scheduled for January 2 and 23.

Rita’s take yesterday on the morning after Christmas? She went to yoga. Wearing her “Highway Honey” do-rag.

Although there was some low grade fever later yesterday, today started well and she will soon be enjoying a Jack Stack Barbecue lunch brought in by Sandy Thompson and Ellen Martin.

Music Update: When we got home on Christmas Eve day, our latest Amazon order was waiting. We were replacing the wonderful Johnny Mathis vinyl album with a CD. Rita added it to the Sonos library to go with our other Christmas albums: the standards of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Mike White’s Warm Christmas, the more recent and very good set by Sheryl Crow, and our favorite rock ‘n’ roll tracks, Phil Specter’s A Christmas Gift for You, featuring Darlene Love. One of the first things we did upon return from the hospital was play various versions of I’ll Be Home for Christmas – the song is on four of the albums. The other part of the song title was thankfully not applicable: If Only in My Dreams.

Merry Christmas

Christmas Traditions: We were home for Christmas, but a couple of our traditions required modification. With the disease immunity issues, Rita could not do much mingling. This meant we could not host our two regular events during the season. One is a cookie baking day hosted by Rita for the grandkids and mothers. This started when Brian’s girls Alex and Carly were about 5 years old (now 28 and 27) and has continued annually and grown in size as Stacey’s and Jason’s families returned to Kansas City. Alex graciously volunteered to host this year and Rita sent over her cookie cutters and rolling pin. Many cookies were baked on the Saturday before Christmas and the kids as usual added their own cookie shapes, both quirky and traditional. A new generation was added to the crew this year with great-grandchildren Jillian and Macklin. Rita believes that Alex did such a good job that maybe the rolling pin “has been passed to a new generation.”

The other missing event for us was Christmas Eve when we usually have the family over for a nice evening with the Plaza Lights view. Our niece Wendy came to the rescue this year and hosted Christmas Eve at her home in Independence. Rita and I kept tabs on the family holiday activities as Alex, Carly, Miyo and Emma kept a string of Instagram photos coming to us. On Christmas Day, we joined them at Brian’s house via the magic of FaceTime on the iPad.

Birthday Age Update: The high outside temperature in Kansas City on December 19 was 43 degrees, and so under “Rita’s Rules” she was 43 on her birthday. On December 20, she aged 20 years to 63 – it turns out Rita’s Rules only work on the day of the birthday.

Trivia Update: On the Groundhog Day trivia question, Bob White was the first to respond and said I’ve Got You Babe. Bob Adams came soon after with the correct answer: I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher. I had to tell the first Bob that he did not have it quite right (not “I’ve”) and he weakly responded “The curse of grammatical training. Not compatible with rock and roll.” Honorable mention goes to Pam Scinto and my son Brian who also responded quickly and correctly. As a short reminder of Bill Murray’s frustration waking up day after day on February 2, click here.

Nutcracker Update: On Sunday, December 23rd, granddaughter Miyo danced in her final 2012 performance as a Ginger Girl in The Nutcracker. She loved her third season and got an added bonus on Sunday when The Kansas City Star Magazine included a set of photos from the Sugar Plum Fairy Luncheon. This is a fund raiser for the Kansas City Ballet and Nutcracker dancers perform. Miyo is the one in the middle.


To the village: HAPPY NEW YEAR!


From: Lonnie Shalton
Sent: Thursday, January 03, 2013 11:49 AM
Subject: Rita Update – A New Year


First, a message from Rita:

To our friends and family, a New Year’s message.

To say I have been looking forward to 2013 would be an understatement.  With only one chemo to go, I can see the finish line.

But first, a moment to reflect on New Year’s Eve 2012.  This was our 35th consecutive year spent with Woody and Jane Overton, a tradition over the years that has included a revolving group of friends, but always Woody and Jane. This year, Richard and Alison Martin joined us at the Overton residence. Last year, 2011, we invited Albert Riederer and Sandy Midkiff to join us at the condo, but instead they wanted to host.  So we readily accepted and enjoyed a delightful evening at their home; I place in evidence the photo below.  We had hoped for a repeat in 2012, but Albert left us just days ago.  His spirit though remains and we toasted his well-lived life, and his legacy of family and friends to recount his exploits. Fred Slough’s eulogy at the funeral mass was Exhibit A and drew a standing ovation.


I look forward in 2013 to repaying the good works that I have received over the past months.   Knowing how much they raised my spirits and lightened the load, I want to share that experience.


Friends and Family,

After Rita exited the hospital, she was fever-free for the next week and most happy to say “I holstered my thermometer.” Yesterday, just prior to her fifth chemo infusion, she was feeling so good that she went to stretch class at Woodside before heading over to KU. As with the prior chemo sessions, she marked the occasion by hand signaling the treatment number – photo below snapped by Anne Devaney. Chemo number six (THE LAST!) is scheduled for January 23.


She again was selective about her jewelry. She wore a ring and a necklace from South American cities, including a charm from our favorite waterfalls at Iguaçu. This was her ode to travel as we think ahead to our return to international globetrotting. She is also wearing a contemporary silver bracelet, a Christmas gift from Molly Ellison’s granddaughter, 7-year old Molly Grace.

Her hat choice was a do-rag with a penguin design. She is also holding a do-rag covered with snowmen penguins that she wore during her two-day KU Hospital stay. These do-rags were courtesy of my assistant Deonna Poole who first tried to find penguin do-rags on the internet, but the selection seemed to be limited to hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Not to be deterred, Deonna enlisted her mother and they produced these two very cool handmade do-rags.

The other item to highlight in the photo is the beautiful crocheted blanket handmade by granddaughter Carly. We don’t know where she found the time – she is mother to one-year old Jillian and a full time student at UMKC. You may recall that another homemade blanket was used by Rita in her earlier sessions – sent by Diana Brewer from Arizona.

Friends and family do the nicest things.

For the next step in the journey, we wait to see what the fever gods have in store for the next couple of weeks. Every chemo session has brought a different experience, and we expect more of the same. Not knowing what is going to happen is second only to what actually occurs. Rita is not giving up on the early advice she received that chemo is her cancer-fighting friend. But with friends like this….

In the meantime, back to lots of Netflix movies and Sonos music. Some good TV coming up too. The season is over for Homeland (what a finish), but January 8 brings the fourth season of Justified with the best good guy, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, and best bad guy, the Shakespearean-talking Boyd Crowder, most enjoyable career criminal since Tony Soprano. We got hooked on Justified in its second season (one of the best ever for any show), bought the DVD for the first and then watched the third last year. Now part of Raylan’s groupies. Downton Abbey returns on Sunday, and our favorite con-man Neal Caffrey and sidekick Mozzie will be back in White Collar on January 22. We are also taking advantage of the extra condo time to get through a couple of very thick books: Rita with Robert Caro’s current LBJ installment The Passage of Power and me lifting and reading 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective (actual weight of 10.6 pounds).

More on Albert:  Rita and I first met Albert Riederer in the 70’s when we all worked in the trenches of Democratic politics. In 1978, Albert ran for the county legislature and Rita was among the avid campaign workers who wore their shirts proclaiming Albert’s virtue of  “Hard Work.” I was the new chairman of the Committee for County Progress and wanted to get as much support as I could for our friend and political ally. The first goal was Freedom, Inc., then a powerhouse in local politics. I met with Doc Holliday and we struck a deal: the CCP would back Freedom’s Jon Gray in his at-large race and Freedom would back Albert in his. I thought it was a good result, but CCP power broker Jim Nutter thought I had blundered in my first deal as CCP chairman – he felt we could have extracted more from Freedom for other CCP candidates. He proved I was indeed naive when he and Alec Bratt successfully backed a political unknown who beat Gray in his race. Albert won big and followed up by winning three terms as prosecutor. He and Nutter joined forces as strong allies of Governor Mel Carnahan. Jon Gray has told me he treated his loss as the beginning of his career – a very distinguished one including over 20 years as a circuit judge.

More New Year’s Eve: As Rita noted above, our streak is now at 35 years with the Overtons for New Year’s Eve. We have often had snow, as we did this year, but never enough to get us to a cancellation. It all started in 1977 when an ice storm nearly brought the city to a standstill. I was then one of the owners of the Brewery restaurant in Brookside and we slid through the streets and met Woody and Jane there. Jane was pregnant with Beth at the time and this is how we keep the count on our New Year’s Eve streak – Beth is now 34 and along the way has provided Woody and Jane with grandchildren Thomas and Olivia.

Old Penguin Story: This is also a New Year’s Eve story. Rita and I often travel and long ago concluded that we could not properly take care of pets. However, some 20 or so years ago we acquired a blow-up penguin about 5 feet tall. Granddaughters Alex and Carly suggested the we name him “Chilly Willy” after the cartoon character. We came close by naming him “Willie” and he was introduced as our pet to many of our friends. When we vacationed, Willie guarded the house. One time while we were gone, he stayed with Ken Hill in Ken’s hospital room. After release from the hospital, Ken hosted a black-tie cocktail party at his home and two of the celebrities attending were newly elected Governor Mel Carnahan and Willie, outfitted with bow-tie and cummerbund over his natural tuxedo suit.

Eventually, we put Willie in the spare bedroom upstairs and kind of forgot him. Bad decision. We got a letter from Willie saying he was enjoying travel. Rita rushed upstairs and, to our embarrassment, found that Willie was gone. We started calling the usual suspects, our Big 6 pals: the Brewers, Jim Graham and Sandy Thompson. They fully denied any involvement. Andy Sipowitz and Raylan Givens could not have made them talk. We continued to get photos from Willie to show he was traveling well – sometimes with resorts, oceans or mountains in the background. We feared he was having so much fun that he was channeling Patty Hearst and bonding with his captors.

On New Year’s Eve in 1999, Rita and I hosted the Overtons plus the Big 6 and Richard and Alison Martin. As we were eating dinner and awaiting the year 2000, the doorbell rang. Rita opened the door and shrieked “Willie’s home!” He carried travel photos and a note saying he was sorry he ran away, but had enjoyed his travel, including as a stowaway on a cruise, and he might go on another adventure if we mistreated him again. No one was at the door with Willie. Our main kidnapping suspects were sitting at our dinner table – clearly a conspiracy was in play. My son Brian was the other lead suspect since he sometimes helped Willie guard the house when we were traveling. Brian was also on our family cruise and those photos of Cabo sure looked familiar. But Brian had to have help – he had not been to the mountains, the resorts nor Mexico. Could we shame the kidnappers into confessing? Not for the longest time. Some still deny the whole thing, but they always have a hard time controlling their giggling.


When we moved from our house to a condo, Willie ended up with grandchildren, but eventually leaked away. His legacy remains via photos such as the attached: above, New Year’s eve with Rita, Jim and Sandy; below, at a Mexico resort; and in Pisa (the conspirators also sent photo-shopped versions; Willie was not actually with us in Italy). I will not attach the one showing him in a plastic recycling bin – fortunately the kidnappers did not carry through on that threat.



New Penguin Story: We set up our Christmas tree this year and the most featured ornaments were the many penguin varieties collected over the years. A new penguin ornament came in the mail this year from Barbara Reres. Next to the tree, we placed a stuffed penguin received as a gift from the zoo to recognize Rita’s adoption for the new penguin exhibit. Then another penguin arrived, a ceramic model with a sweater vest – from Nancy Gaba, my now-retired assistant. Then another, a stuffed version from Pam Scinto, one of Rita’s STA pals. Our own very nice penguin colony on and under the tree.

More Do-Rag Highlights: Rita received a Springsteen-themed version acquired at the November concert by Pat Titterington and Cheryl Dillard – a nod to the most famous do-rag wearer, maybe in the world, Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt. Not to be outdone by Van Zandt, three of our granddaughters dropped by the condo to model the Jim Graham do-rag collection. In the photo: Jason’s Miyo (13), Stacey’s Melissa (15) and Brian’s Emma (10). Yes, they are darling.


Music Trivia Question: Let’s try this again. After chemo #6, I plan to post remarks inspired by some great song lyrics: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.” Without benefit of the internet, please name the singer/songwriter who wrote these lyrics. Bonus question: name the title of the song.

Your good vibrations have been absorbed and appreciated now through two surgeries and five chemo treatments. Keep them coming for number six.


From: Lonnie Shalton
Sent: Thursday, January 24, 2013 11:52 AM
Subject: Rita Update – Six and Done – Hallelujah!


Friends and Family:

Yesterday, Rita entered a chemo cubicle at KU for the sixth and final time. The photo shows Rita with Sharyn Blond, Anne Devaney, Sandy Thompson and Molly Ellison happily signaling final treatment #6. All visitors were treated to a champagne toast (actually sparkling cider) and Anne’s cookies served on dancing penguin napkins. Molly brought the balloon shout-out of “Congrats – You did it!”. When the balloon was tapped, it would play a snippet of “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang, at a sound level somewhat beyond the cubicle. This was not to be the only balloon. This morning, Rita was greeted at the condo with a long distance delivery of two big bouquets of congratulatory balloons from Barbara and Joe Reres. The mood is good.


As with prior chemo sessions, Rita’s jewelry and clothing carried messages. The cute hat was a gift from Ellen Martin. Her “I am blessed” socks came from Peggy Zilm who also dropped by the cubicle on her KU volunteer rounds. On the jewelry side, Rita wore grandmother/mother rings and bracelets. The diamond earrings were a gift some years ago from her husband (via her favorite diamond merchant, my NY client Gary Barnett).

The other jewelry piece has a story. When we were in Telluride with the Brewers last September, just six days before Rita’s second operation, we stopped in Durango before going to the airport for our flight home. Rita was on a mission to find a bead shop and enlisted long-time shopping partner Diana for the search. Larry and I are never much help on these excursions and usually get out of their way and go get a beer. The shopping mavens first pondered the situation while sitting on a sidewalk bench with a local bear and then scored the beads in a local shop.


As Rita went through chemo, she made a daily bead addition to a necklace string. A large bead symbolized each chemo treatment and then 20 small beads represented the days between treatments. She added the last large bead yesterday, and you can see the necklace of six large beads and 100 small ones adorning her long shapely neck (that yoga is good).

As you know, Rita’s primary chemo side effect has been a high fever accompanied by a drastic dip in her white blood cell count. That is why the Neulasta shot was added after #5 – this drug increases white blood cells and gives time-release doses over a 2-week period. The good news is that Rita had no fever spikes this time. We do not know if her spikes had merely run their course or if Neulasta was the savior, but we readily accept any theory with the no-fever result. As you would expect, Rita has taken the shot for #6.

However (there often seems to be a however), this does not mean she got off without a hospital visit. Overnight last Saturday, her right arm became swollen, red and hot. After consulting with the doctor on the KU cancer center hotline, we ended up at the KU emergency room at 7:30 on Sunday morning. Why is it always on the weekend? With an ultrasound, they ruled out a blood clot, and then settled on cellulitis to be treated with oral antibiotics. This is not an uncommon occurrence after lymph node removal as the lymphatic system is compromised and the arm is more susceptible to bacterial infection. The good news here is that the symptoms quickly subsided and the condition did not delay her final chemo.

Rita has remained somewhat isolated at the condo to avoid all those cold and flu bugs raging through the city. She did some occasional shopping (ran into David Welte at Cosentino’s and he asked why I was not doing the grocery shopping – well, we all know why – because Rita knows what she’s doing). With the fever abated, she increased her number of yoga sessions – not every day, but quite a few, plus walking side-by-side with me on the treadmills in the Townsend workout room. Spontaneous dancing continues to break out as music comes from Sonos – not really so spontaneous when it is “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke or “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge – songs like that demand a slow dance. Also enjoying the new TV seasons of “Justified” and “Downton Abbey” (yes, very incongruous genres).

This past Saturday, Rita did step out to take in a major event at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. With Rita sporting a signature hat (over a nice wig), we attended the blessing of the lifelong covenant of Doug Anning and Kirk Isenhour. Doug is one of my law partners and Kirk is Development Director of KC Care Clinic and the son of one of my law school classmates. They have been together for 22 years and this ceremony inaugurated St. Michael’s provision of same-gender blessings. The large crowd could not have been more joyous in celebrating with them.

Inaugural Update: Four years ago this week, Rita and I were in Washington D.C. mingling on the Mall with a million plus people at the first Obama Inaugural. How time flies. This year, as Rita watched on TV, she replaced her do-rag with the Obama hat she bought at the 2009 Inaugural. The photo also shows our 2006 photo with then young-looking Senator Obama at a McCaskill fund raiser. Via TV during the Inaugural Ball, we joined the Obamas (though not in red gown and tux) in dancing to Jennifer Hudson singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Richard and Alison Martin were at the ball and Richard gave us live email reports during the evening.


Surgery Update: Aside from the bout with cellulitis, the news here has been good. Rita has had full motion and strength in her right arm and the tightening from cording is only a memory. She is again fully capable of changing the bed and pulling on those fitted sheets. But a strange thing has happened – I am still doing this one. Oh well, so long as I don’t have to cook.

Wild Animal Photography Update: You have previously seen Rita walking with the penguins in Antarctica and the leopard photo from our South African safari. What next? And when?  Sooner than you think. See the the hawk that has recently been landing on our balcony rail. Rita snapped what seems like over a 100 photos, but we like this one because it best shows why it is called a Red-tailed Hawk. On a safari note, Rita has been receiving a string of animal-themed get well cards from Cheryl Waterhouse of Fresno. Cheryl’s husband Ralph was formerly the director of the KC zoo, and Ralph and Cheryl have led our five African safaris.


Music Trivia Update: My last message tested you on some song lyrics, but only two responded with the correct answer, first from Pat Hininger and then Ted Folkert. Bill Carr did not really know, but he guessed right because of the nature of the lyrics. The singer/songwriter is Leonard Cohen. Nobody got the bonus question – “Anthem” is the song title.

Okay, it is a little obscure and to be fair, Rita and I would have missed both questions if we had been asked not all that long ago. Rita has some history with Leonard Cohen – as a college girl, she acquired his first recorded album Songs of Leonard Cohen. She still has this vinyl treasure that includes “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy.” We both gained more appreciation for Cohen’s work as his haunting Hallelujah” was covered by a large number of artists and has become a staple as background for big events. One of Rita’s favorites is the k.d. lang version played during her yoga sessions. This led to acquiring Cohen albums and various cover versions of “Hallelujah” – all now transferred to Sonos of course.

I also did some reading about the meaning of the lyrics in “Hallelujah,” and there are scores of interpretations. Along the way, I kept stumbling into references to lyrics in another Cohen song, “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in

Rita said at the beginning of the cancer journey that she would not feel sorry for herself, and after all, “everybody has something; this is mine.” As reflected in her messages to you at Thanksgiving and for the New Year, Rita has found cause to celebrate this marathon because of your words and actions of support: “raised my spirits and lightened the load” – “unexpected positive experience” – “a reminder of my part in the universe of relationships and history” – “both uplifting and humbling” – “nourishment of body and soul”.

Cue Leonard Cohen. Cancer may be a crack in Rita’s life journey, but it has let in a blazing, brilliant light generated by her village of supporters.

As it turns out, these thoughts are not all that original. I Googled “a crack in everything” together with “cancer” and got 768,000 hits. That’s some great poetry.

Cohen has had a remarkable resurgence in his career over the last few years and at age 78 is currently touring North America and Europe. This takes me back to the first part of the lyrics above. With chemo over, Rita is ready to “ring the bells” and last week got an early opportunity to do so. She spotted an American Express offer of pre-sale tickets for Cohen’s concert at Radio City Music Hall on April 6. She got in the internet line and tickets are in hand. Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Of course, there are still scans to take, years of drugs, cellulitis risk and other oncology nuances on the horizon. Cancer has this tendency to disrupt your plans.

But a big hurdle has been jumped. No more chemo treatments. All join in: Hallelujah!


Click here for “Hallelujah’ by k.d. lang at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction of Leonard Cohen. He is in the audience and thanks her at the end of the video.