Lawrence resident Chuck Berg has spent most of his adult life teaching others about the joys of music, film, art and philosophy.
But during a trying six-year period in which he fought three types of cancer and flirted with the other side more times than he can remember, this consummate educator learned more about himself, his support system and survival than he dreamed was possible.
Berg, 71, first knew something was wrong in 2007. While teaching at Kansas University, his alma mater, during the spring semester, the film studies professor began to feel a tingling in his arms, legs and feet. At first, he thought nothing of it.
About this series
This is one in a series of stories about survivors of cancer provided by Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Endowment Association. These survivors’ stories and photographs hang in the hallway leading to LMH’s Oncology Center. This is the second such series. In 2010, the Endowment Association undertook a similar project about 12 other cancer survivors for the Oncology Center hallway. These stories offer hope to patients being cared for at LMH Oncology and their families.
“I’ve always been a coffee addict,” Berg admitted. “And I simply thought I was over-caffeinated.”
That theory seemed less likely a few months later, when Berg felt extreme pain in his back as he tried to lift his dog, Sam, onto his lap while watching the televised New York City fireworks display on July 4. The pain left Berg bedridden and worsened each week. A CT scan revealed that Berg had tumors wrapped around his spinal cord. Surgery and radiation soon followed.
Although there was some relief from discovering what was wrong, the news about the cancerous tumors hit Berg hard.
“We were just devastated,” Berg said about him and his wife, Beth. “Certainly there’s the personal, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to live longer, fuller, I don’t want to be a burden on my family and I want to watch my two grandsons live and grow, along with my son and his wife.’”
Like so many of the greats he has taught about, legendary names in music and film who fell down time and time again before catching their big break, Berg, too, was asked to keep knocking on health’s door before reaching a resolution.
His second bout with cancer, and without question the most terrifying, came in the form of a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a blood and bone marrow disorder that led Berg to a life of weekly blood transfusions that lasted a full year.
“If I had one bag of red blood I had a hundred,” said Berg, who underwent joint treatment from Dr. Matthew Stein in Lawrence and specialists at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. “There were a couple of times I can remember coming out of 10-hour infusion sessions and collapsing, and I was rushed to emergency several different times.”
Throughout all of his battles — the third was a relatively ho-hum diagnosis and treatment for colon cancer in 2010 — the ups and downs, the good news and the bad, Berg learned to lean on Beth, whom he calls his “Rock of Gibraltar,” his family and the basic belief that life’s a gas and should be enjoyed at all costs no matter what comes your way.
“I feel like the proverbial cat with nine lives and I’m in the middle of maybe the fourth or fifth,” Berg joked. “I think life is about responding to our better angels. Beth always says, ‘Well, we’re works in progress,’ and indeed we are. So at this stage in the game I’m still trying to be a better husband, a better teacher, a better colleague, a better neighbor and member of the community. When I play music, I strive to have a more genuine openness and so on.”
One of the best memories in a lifetime full of them came recently when Berg, a U.S. Army veteran who served two years in Japan and has lived in Lawrence, New York City and Iowa City, Iowa, was asked to grab his tenor sax and play a gig in Fairfield, Iowa. He went. Beth did, too. Life felt right again.
“It was so wonderful,” Berg said. “Beth sitting there with some of our friends in Fairfield, Iowa, just listening to the music. She doesn’t have to say much for me to know how things are going. Just seeing her in the audience smiling was fabulous.”
Added Beth, who remembered the feeling of “soaring on the music,” while enjoying the vision of her now-healthy husband of 47 years doing what he loved to do again: “My respect and esteem for him just keeps climbing.”
Berg does not believe he’s special. At least not in any superhuman sort of way. He certainly feels fortunate to have caught a few breaks here and there and believes the love and support that have been showered upon him throughout the past six years are what kept him here and kept him smiling.
“My situation is far from unique,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve got my story and there are the particulars, but I really believe that. What I’d like to tell people going through something like this is there’s always hope and we are not alone.”
Berg currently is in remission for the myeloma, has no complications from the tumors that once tormented his back and has his colon cancer under control. There is a fourth battle underway — Berg recently began fighting a blood cancer known as T-cell lymphoma — but, as was the case throughout his days as a professor, everything he has learned and encountered during his three victories will be used to his advantage in this fight.
“Gosh, I’m still walking, talking, teaching and playing my horn,” Berg said. “So, that’s great. ... I’ve got another something on my plate, but I’m cautiously optimistic and, by any measure, I have to count myself as very lucky. I am extraordinarily thankful for my family, profession, friends, life, music, movies and all of that. Every day is a doggone blessing.”