Love in time of struggle
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
What first attracted Don Stranathan to Penny Blume? Her smile, he says, and her bubbly personality.
They met online last October and over the next four months fell in love. Theirs was a long distance relationship, New York to California, sealed by a common struggle.
Both are fighting stage IV lung cancer.
Stranathan, 60, discovered his illness while doing volunteer drug and alcohol recovery work in local prisons.
“It was a fluke,” he said. “I was getting tested for TB, and I tested positive on the scratch test, so they sent me in for an X-ray.”
It revealed a spot on his lung that doctors watched for two years before diagnosing it as lung cancer in June 2009.
“If it wasn’t for that test I wouldn’t have been aware of it because I had no symptoms,” said Stranathan, who has lived in Santa Rosa more than 25 years.
For Blume, a 50-year-old lifelong New Yorker, trouble with a pre-existing asthma condition caused her doctors to order an X-ray. It revealed small-cell extensive lung cancer, an aggressive form that makes up only 15 percent of the diagnoses.
Blume posted a question about juicing and supplements to online health forum Inspire. Stranathan responded. They checked out each other’s profiles and soon were Facebook friends. When Blume was hospitalized for several days, Stranathan sent flowers to her room.
“I had kind of given up on dating anybody, (because) who wants to hook up with somebody you know isn’t going to be around that long?” said Blume. “Then he was flirting with me.”
After four months of online chatting and texting, they decided to meet. Blume flew to California in January.
“I was a little nervous,” she said. “A girlfriend said to me, ‘Some people meet online, and they go to a coffee shop. But you fly across the country!’ I said, ‘What have I got to lose?’”
Their first visit a success, the pair accelerated their long distance relationship. She came to Santa Rosa again in April for his 60th birthday, and in May he made his first trip to New York. Over the summer, they made many more trips.
“We’ve been real lucky,” said Stranathan. “We’ve been together more than we expected.”
Even so, said Blume, “It’s tough. I’m still doing treatment. I think he feels bad he’s not there to help me through that sometimes.”
Stranathan keeps his cancer in check with oral chemotherapy and goes in every three months for an X-ray to monitor his condition, but Blume recently discovered lesions in her brain and she is undergoing radiation.
“I knew and Penny knew getting into this relationship that with both of us having terminal lung cancer it was going to be hard. I compare it to Russian roulette because you never know.”
The couple work to maintain their positive attitude amidst a constant barrage of doctor visits, radiation, medication, chemotherapy and the deaths of fellow cancer patients and friends.
“I admire Don’s attitude and optimism,” said Giles Scott, owner of Scott Technologies and Stranathan’s employer. “He never allowed this thing to take him out of the game or bring him down.”
Both Stranathan and Blume believe remaining positive is key to their health. They plan trips and activities together nearly every two months, balancing work and treatments.
“You have to have goals, and you have to have a bucket list,” Blume said.
“That is how we keep positive,” Stranathan said. “(It) gives you things to look forward to.”
Stranathan works as an account manager at Scott Technologies, where he was allowed to buy extra vacation time and telecommute from the hospital.
“I appreciate Don’s cheerfulness, work ethic and trustworthiness,” said Scott. “Even during chemo treatments, he came to work faithfully.”
Blume’s 17-year job as a diner waitress ended recently, so she is hoping to find a new position.
She also is working with Stranathan to spread the word about the need for lung cancer prevention and research, particularly screening.
“Our goal is to get the word out,” he said. “There’s a stigma attached to lung cancer, and the biggest push we have is that it’s not (just) a smoker’s disease.”
Many grocery stores and businesses are covered in pink during October, promoting breast cancer awareness. Yet lung cancer awareness month in November rarely gets the same fanfare.
“What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that more women die of lung cancer than breast cancer,” said Stranathan. “Basically, if you have lungs you can get lung cancer.”
He tries to raise awareness by being transparent with friends and family. “I post Facebook updates about my scans and all my reports,” he said.
As he and Blume make plans for the holidays, Stranathan said, “No matter how long you have, you have to live every minute and enjoy it. That’s what Penny and I do.”