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Men of Science

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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Once in a while I have an idea for a story that entails my doing a set of short profiles of individuals sharing some common characteristic.  In the case of this story, I profiled four senior men of science, all medical professionals and researchers of one kind or another in Omaha, Neb. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the essence of these men and their work in relatively few words.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons, and I suspect you will be as impressed as I was by some of their groundbreaking and lifesaving activities and findings.

Men of Science

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The Man Who Would Slow Aging
Denham Harman, professor emeritus and world-renowned researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, humbly chalks up his work uncovering the mysteries of aging to a series of chance occurrences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, Calif., he displayed an inquisitive mind early on, developing a passion for building model airplanes and setting his sights on studying aeronautical engineering. But then one day in the 1930s his father bumped into an oil executive at a Bay area tennis club where Harman’s brothers played and landed Denham a job as a lab assistant with Shell Development Co. “This was in the midst of the Depression — there were no jobs,” Harman said from the cubbyhole office he still works in every day at age 86. This chance encounter affording an opportunity he dare not refuse set him on a new course — “I got shifted, so to speak, and I was very lucky” — that within two decades found him posing a radical theory of aging now accepted by the scientific community.

While working for Shell he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, which, just happened to be one of the top chemistry schools in the nation. After working on lubricating oils he was transferred to the reaction kinetics department where, he said, “just by chance our primary concern was free radical reactions, which in those days was a very unusual focus. There was not that much known.” His research helped Shell gain 35 patents, including one for the Shell No-Pest strip. Then, in 1945, his wife Helen unwittingly planted the seed for Harman’s breakthrough postulation when she showed him a magazine article —Tomorrow You May Be Younger — about aging research in Russia. It got him so hooked on the idea of aging as a biochemical process he made the rash decision, at 33, to halt his career as an industrial chemist to enter medical school. When Cal-Berkeley flatly turned him down, telling him, ironically, “You’re too old,” he went to Stanford. Why change careers in mid-stream? “I just thought here’s a field that’s real interesting and which I know nothing about,” he said. Besides, the question of aging still dogged him enough he sought a broader knowledge base with which to tackle the enigma.

During a 1950s stint at Donner Laboratory in Berkeley where, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do but think, I figured it was a great time to look at this problem. So, I asked myself the question man has asked for a long, long time and still asks: What causes aging? What causes that transition? Everyone goes through it. We’re all familiar with it. We more or less accept it. There’s a lot of theories that try to account for that but no one theory is accepted. I looked at the problem from the premise there’s a single basic cause. Mother Nature uses the same things over and over again and this is what you would expect. Also, it was obvious genetics and environment were involved. So, what could cause this to take place? I thought of everything I could think of, but it just didn’t jive. I began to think maybe I had wasted my time getting on about aging — that maybe I didn’t know enough.”

Then, in one of those moments when a burst of inspiration arrives only after much deliberation, it came to him. He recalls, “I was sitting at my desk reading at the Donner Lab when all of a sudden it flashed in my mind — free radicals. I don’t know where it came from, but there it was. I looked at that problem and everything fitted — the chemistry-biology fitted.” The trouble is, initially almost no one else agreed with what he dubbed “the free-radical theory of aging.” He was all alone, out on a limb and his many detractors “were trying to chop it off,” he said. By the time he joined the UNMC staff in 1958, he was engaged in animal tests to support his theory. What kept him at it in the face of doubtful colleagues was, he said, his view the aging process is “a very important problem — it’s the thing that kills us” — and his belief that the theory is correct. That’s the reason I’m still at this problem. It works. Otherwise, as a chemist, I wouldn’t waste my time if it didn’t.”

So, what are free radicals and how do they impact aging? Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. These lone wolf electrons create havoc in cells, setting off damaging chain reactions that account, he said, for the effects we experience as aging. Free radical production is stimulated by oxygen, which provides the energy we need to survive, and by environmental sources, but over time free radical reactions increase to a threshold the body cannot tolerate and we die. Harman contends an increase in antioxidant — vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene — consumption decreases free radical reactions, thereby slowing the aging process. “You’re putting in a preservative, in effect, that counteracts the deleterious effects.” The benefits of antioxidants — from increased life expectancy and reduced incidence of disease — have been shown in studies of rodents and birds. His efforts to promote antioxidant use — he’s long followed a daily regimen himself — has succeeded. “Americans spend around $4 or $5 billion a year on supplements, most of which are antioxidants, and even though I can’t prove it,” he said, “I’m sure a lot of those people will live longer then they would otherwise.”

Harman, whose research was long supported by a patroness, the late Mrs. Leon Millard, has in recent years seen funding dry up, a frustrating turn of events he ascribes to changing research priorities. Of more concern, he said, is the scant work being done on life prolongation and disease prevention using his theory’s tenets. “A great deal can be done, but we’re not doing it, and that’s disturbing.” As for himself, he continues writing articles, making presentations and giving interviews that lay out his ideas. Retirement doesn’t enter his mind. “I think you’re much better doing something,” he said. While he suspects his own life span may have been shortened due to recent health problems, he said time remains his main asset. “It’s what I have most of, but these are things you can’t predict.”

An Uncommon Man’s Search for Cancer’s Hereditary Links
As just one example of the uncommon life he’s led, Henry Lynch grew up a school drop-out and street fighter in a rough section of 1930s New York but persevered to become a medical doctor and noted cancer researcher. “I didn’t pick fights but, boy, the neighborhood I lived in it was a very common occurrence to meet bullies, and you had to defend yourself,” said Lynch, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and president of the Hereditary Cancer Institute at Creighton University. Even though he never attended high school — a result of his wartime service and working to support his family — he cultivated his naturally brilliant mind by reading “voraciously,” saying, “I did it on my own. I spent every free moment I had looking up things in the library. I had no doubt in my intellectual abilities.” Or in his physical prowess, which he put to use as a stevedore, farm hand and prizefighter.

Henry Lynch

Still a hulk of a man at 75, Lynch enlisted in the Navy as an under-age, but over-sized 16 year-old seaman in 1944. Serving as a gunner on freighters and transports, his tour of duty took him from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. He boxed during his two-year hitch and once back stateside he resumed fighting as an amateur before turning pro. “I loved to fight,” he said, adding he boxed under assumed names in a 20-bout pro heavyweight career in order to retain amateur status in a hoped-for bid to play college football.

At first, it was as much his desire to play football at the University of Oklahoma under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson as it was his need to feed his hungry mind that led this then street-wise New York tough to enroll in college there in the late 1940s. By the time his failed tryout with the powerhouse Sooners ended his gridiron dreams, he was “consumed with studying.” He continued his studies at the University of Colorado and at Denver University and the University of Texas in Galveston. Trained in genetics, Lynch was serving an internal medicine residency at UNMC in 1961 when the course of his professional career changed. “I was called to see a family with multiple cases of colon cancer, but with no polyps. That was something I thought was quite unique. I studied that family. I went into great detail…not just studying the immediate relatives but extending it as far as I could to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “And I collected pathology extensively and wrote up all the clinical histories so I could put together and really understand how this could be a syndrome, and ultimately it emerged as one.” For his pioneering work, the syndrome was named after him. That first case history led him to track more families with colorectal and other cancers and it “influenced my whole decision to become a medical oncologist,” he said. It was also the start of a massive hereditary cancer data base he manages at Creighton, whose staff he joined in 1967.

Like any new idea, Lynch’s assertion some cancers have a hereditary basis was dismissed those early years. “People thought I was crazy. They kind of laughed or said I must be dealing with a chance situation or with an environmental factor,” he recalls, adding he often paid for fact-gathering trips out of his own pocket in lieu of grant support. His faith in his findings did not waver, he said, because “with a background in genetics I saw what we call a segregated model in the way cancers were moving through families and I knew it had to be hereditary. Finally, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that people began taking me seriously.” Today, Lynch is an acknowledged leader in his field, the author of 12 books and hundreds medical journal articles and a keynote speaker at medical conferences around the world. Despite his lofty status, he still goes out in the field recording case histories. He said getting good data “is not just a matter of the history, it’s winning confidence from the family members and gaining rapport. You’ve got to really care and they can tell right away whether you care or not. And I care. I really do. I care about them not just as research subjects but as human beings and they appreciate that.”

He and his colleagues not only track but identify pathological genes that cause disease and they apply preventive methodologies, including prophylactic surgeries, that remove or reduce the risk of cancer in patients. Genetic engineering, he said, will one day allow physicians to manipulate mutant genes. “If we can figure out the chemistry we might be able to design drugs that are the antithesis to what that gene is making, so we can block it and we can cure cancer and other diseases. That’s on the horizon. No question about it.” Where does Lynch draw the line in genetic intervention? “I don’t think we can foresee specific boundaries to this at this moment,” he said. “But if used prudently with the cardinal feature being the interest of our patients and following the orthodoxy of do-no-harm, then I think it’s fair to progress and to use all the tools God gave us to help humanity.”

Still actively engaged in work at an age when most of his peers are retired, Lynch can’t imagine quitting his passion. “Well, I will never retire. I just love my work. Besides, I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what I would do. My whole life is in this direction and I see a whole lot of problems there and some of them we can  solve,” said Lynch, who has a wife, Jane, and three grown children. “It’s a joy knowing maybe I can help people.”

The King of Calcium
When Creighton University endocrinology expert Robert Heaney discusses the benefits of good nutrition in fighting the onset or progression of disease, he has a knack for making what could be a dry recitation of facts into an engaging discussion. For example, listen to his explanation of why our calorie-rich modern diets are actually nutritionally poor in comparison with our forbearers: Hunter-gatherers, he said, enjoyed an amazingly varied diet by foraging off the land and its bounty of nutritionally-rich nuts, roots, leaves and berries, whereas since the agricultural revolution our diets have been dominated by cultivated seed plant-derived foods — cereals, breads, legumes, wheat, rice, corn, millet — that provide high energy but low nutrition. “One of the issues modern nutrition is confronting,” he said, “is the role it may play in the chronic diseases that affect human kind today — cancer, degenerative cardiovascular disease and dementia. Does nutrition play a role there? Nobody knows. But there’s some evidence it does.”

Muddying the works, said Heaney, an Omaha native and Creighton grad who, with wife Barbara, has seven grown children, is the often spurious nutrition claims promoted by quacks and charlatans. “A lot of this stuff is just made up by people who don’t know anything about what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here like a crank and say, It’s all nutrition — if you just ate right you wouldn’t have any problems. That’s not true. But I am convinced there is a role nutrition does play. The field I’ve worked in, osteoporosis, is an example.”  He said the high incidence of osteoporosis today is likely due to diets low in calcium and vitamin D, two essentials for keeping bones healthy and strong into old age. “If your calcium intake is low,” said Heaney, the author of the book Calcium and Common Sense, “you are constantly withdrawing calcium from your bone bank in order to meet the needs your body has today. The problem is that as that goes on day-after-day, year-after-year, 24-7, that revs up bone remodeling and leads to structural weaknesses. So…much of the damage associated with osteoporosis is due to this high level of remodeling, which makes the bone more fragile.” While some progress is being made in assessing who is at risk for osteoporosis, he said identification is complicated by the fact “we’re immersed in a society in which everybody has low calcium intake but not everybody gets osteoporosis because some are more sensitive to low calcium and others are more resistant.” He said factors that impact the equation are starting to be “worked out. For example, African-Americans have a bony apparatus that tends to protect them against low calcium intake whereas whites will tear down their skeleton much more readily.”

Robert Heaney

Research by Heaney and others clearly makes the case for calcium and vitamin D in reducing bone fracture rates in older patients. He said where he used to be asked by science writers if calcium is vital or not, “I don’t get those questions anymore. There’s a high awareness of the importance of calcium and I suspect that’s due to the media. What the general public doesn’t know is how much calcium they need and what amounts are contained in the foods they eat.”

According to Heaney, calcium is also a marker for a nutrition-poor diet. “We did a study at Creighton of 300 or 400 volunteers that found those who had low calcium intakes — meaning less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake — tended to get less than 70 percent of the recommended intake of four other key nutrients. So, a low calcium intake tends to translate to having a poor overall diet low in lots of other nutrients.” He said the preferred way to get patients to increase calcium is through diet. “The best way to get the nutrients we need is from eating other organisms. We don’t know enough to put it all into pills. So, we stress food. If I can get you to eat calcium-rich foods then I know I’ll have a much better chance of your getting all the nutrients you need because dairy foods are such good sources of so many of these nutrients. We recommend fortified foods as a second or third line of defense and only recommend supplements as a last resort.” He is quick to note calcium is not the only nutrient crucial in osteoporosis and nutrition is not the only factor impacting the disease.

Even at 75 Heaney is still at the top of his game, evidence of which came with his being honored as the 2003 recipient of the E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Clinical Nutrition for his creative work as a clinical investigator in generating and testing new concepts in nutrition. For him, research is a never-ending exploration, journey and challenge. “It’s all those things. It’s always a question of why and how. Those are the interesting questions,” he said, adding he’s had a curiosity for how things work since he was a kid taking clocks apart. He said he “doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering” retirement, adding he’s too busy anyway between his research, writing and speaking commitments. Besides, the grant funds he secures for CU’s osteoporosis research center are what keep it open. “The day I stop, the work stops. That’s why I’m happy to keep doing it.”

High Flying, Straight Shooting Doc
University of Nebraska Medical Center otolaryngology physician-professor and  retired Air Force veteran Anthony Yonkers has applied his healing arts in a wide variety of settings. He’s served as flight surgeon aboard jets, provided medical advice to Stratcom leaders running nuclear scenarios in its underground command post, taught medical students and resident physicians in training, conducted research into new head-neck procedures and performed countless operations that improved patients’ lives. The Muskegon, Mich. native and University of Michigan grad came to Omaha in 1968 as an active duty Air Force major assigned to Erhling Bergquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base. As an ex-serviceman, Yonkers is widely respected in his role as an attending clinician at Omaha’s V.A. Medical Center.

While never an Air Force pilot, he learned to fly in the Offutt AeroClub and even got to take the stick of T-38 trainers on flights he accompanied. These days, he pilots his own single-engine Mooney to medical conferences, family get-togethers and relief efforts undertaken by the Order of St. Lazarus, a humanitarian organization he is active in that provides medical care to leper colonies around the world. He and his wife Mary have four grown children.

When Yonkers neared the end of his Air Force active duty in the late ‘60s, he was set to go back to Michigan when a position opened in the new Department of Otolaryngology at UNMC, where he’d volunteered. “I was only going to stay a year or two to see how this brand new department worked out…and lo and behold I’m still here 35 years later,” said Yonkers, who continued as a reservist, rising to the rank of brigadier general, until 1998. “It’s been kind of exciting to see the department develop as we’ve added more staff and areas of concentration,” including a center treating patients with head and neck cancers, a prosthetic division building radiation shielding devices to help save tissue and molding false ears and noses and a sleep institute addressing patients’ chronic sleep disorders.

Yonkers and his UNMC colleagues participate in studies looking at everything from sinus infections to breathing disturbances to cleft lip and palette repairs to the treatment of papillomas of the voice box. He said new insights into treating medical conditions often arise from clinical experiences that prompt questions that in turn spur quests for answers through “studies of what best proven methods or accepted techniques work best in a given set of circumstances.”

For Yonkers, one of the most pleasing aspects of his work comes in his role as a teacher. “It’s fun in that you’re seeing young people develop. You’re taking a medical student with maybe one year of general surgery training and in four years you’re turning him or her into a specialist that can go anywhere in the country and hold their own. That makes you feel good.” He said practicing medicine gives him great satisfaction. “It’s a fascinating area. It’s an opportunity to work with people and to do something to alleviate their discomfort and to make their lives better. It’s very satisfying.” At 65, his passion for his work remains undiminished. “That’s the reason I’m still here and not retired,” he said. While he knows there may come a time when it’s prudent to lay down his scalpel, he believes older docs like himself offer what cannot be taught or replaced. “Through the years you build a feel or sixth sense for things and it takes awhile to accumulate those assets and nuances. That kind of knowledge is hard to measure and is lost in a forced retirement.”

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

 

 

Harry Duncan

 

 

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

    Image result for nancy duncan story

 

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

Nancy Duncan: Her final story

May 9, 2010 1 comment

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I got to know the late Nancy Duncan better than I do a lot of my profile subjects.  You might even say we became friends.  I had written about her and her work as a professional storyteller.  We hit it off.  When she developed cancer and began undergoing a regimen of treatments and surgeries, she began doing what came naturally to her — putting her experiences into stories.  When told she was terminal, she and I eventually arrived at the idea of her telling one last story, in effect, by sharing her odyssey with the public.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).  Not long after the article appeared Nancy died peacefully, having said all her goodbyes and having left the gift of her humor and intelligence and grace with thousands in the form of her stories, which will live on forever.

 

Nancy Duncan: Her final story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Professional storyteller Nancy Duncan felt the tell-tale lump on her right breast in 2000. She recalled it being “about two digits long, as round as a pencil and as hard as a rock. I knew the minute I touched it what it was.” Doctors soon confirmed her suspicion. Cancer. “Somehow it had just sneaked through the mammograms.”

After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, her illness appeared under control. Then, in April 2002, she found “a little chip of a tumor” under her arm pit. “They told me it had recurred, and when they found it there they figured it was somewhere else. They did a CAT scan and there were these little specks everywhere in my liver — like from a shotgun blast,” she said. Her cancer had spread. “Metastasized. It’s a nasty word. Nobody wants to hear it. You never know where it’s going to go when it gets outside the breast,” she said. “It’ll go to your bones or to your lungs or somewhere else. Mine just happened to go to my liver.”

“Well, Nancy, you’re a terminal,” is what her doctor told her. Terminal. Aren’t we all? — Duncan wondered. The only difference between me and my doc, Duncan thought, “is that she thinks she knows what I’m going to die of.” That, and the fact the malignant tumors carrying Duncan’s death sentence play a cruel game with her. “They grow and then the chemo shrinks them. Enough so you can barely see them or they’re not visible. In about four or five months, they figure out how to get around that drug and then they come back. That routine is what I’ve been doing the past two years,” said Duncan, the Nebraska Arts Council’s Artist of the Year.

Her four-year “dance with cancer” has propelled the former theater maven into a journey of self-discovery that’s informed every aspect of her life and work. Her unfolding death is the subject of her final, most profound story.

“Storytelling is always a process of learning about yourself,” said Duncan. “The story transforms along with you and that’s exciting to realize that and to let that happen. It’s a dialogue you maintain with that story for the rest of your life.”

The most surprising thing to happen in the narrative of her evolving death, she said, is the tranquility she’s found. “It’s totally taken away the fear” she had of dying. Her late husband, Harry Duncan, an acclaimed poet and fine book printer, died at home under her watch. That experience is helping her prepare for her own death.

When she first got news of her terminal illness, she panicked. “Then, I remembered what Harry did. He just stopped eating and drinking and he was unconscious after three days and gone in a week. From the day he decided he didn’t want to live anymore, he went in this kind of graceful state. It wasn’t like he was a beaming idiot or anything. He just seemed totally at peace. Very relaxed. Loving. It was like he was teaching us all that when you’re ready, you don’t have to hang around and be tortured to death. So, I thought, I always have that option. My kids have agreed they’re not going to mess with that choice.”

The comfort Duncan gained in contemplating her own blissful exit carried over to a new freedom she felt on stage. “The interesting thing is I totally lost my fear in performing. I became completely relaxed,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to perform two years without any fear. Yahoo! Because that is what your audience really wants. They want you embodied in that art form. They want to see you, the most they can possibly see you, broken open. And fear just gets in the way. It’s a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a good thing, because it tells you this is an important occasion and you need to be present for it. It helps you stay on your toes. But it’s also a bad thing because then you’re editing, and you don’t want to edit. What you want to do is listen to your audience and remember things and let them pop into the story. Why did I have to have cancer in order to lose that fear?”

She’s considered her cancer from every conceivable angle. She’s talked frankly about it in stories. In the published Losing and Getting, her cancer-ridden breast converses with her healthy left breast in a stream of bitterness, guilt and humor. She’s talked about losing her hair but gaining a new appreciation for life. She’s performed her cancer story for many audiences, but especially for women who are cancer survivors, patients and potential victims. She knows firsthand their fear.

“There’s also a lot of lessons you learn…” Like the harsh reality of health care in America. “If I didn’t have supplemental insurance I wouldn’t be alive today because I couldn’t afford all these chemo treatments. And a lot of people can’t afford them. They don’t have a choice. They’re not given the opportunity to have their lives extended like mine has been. Given the fact there’s so much money being made treating cancer and that cancer is growing exponentially in the world, there’s no incentive to find a cure…and definitely no incentive to prevent it. I think we don’t really want to prevent it because we don’t want to change our lives. We’re too lazy. We don’t want to give up our fossil fuels and our fatty foods. We’re so complacent. I’m as bad as anyone else. That makes me mad sometimes.”

Since finding she’s terminal, she’s tried maximizing the brief periods she feels well between her taxing treatments, stealing moments here and there to work and to spend time with the many friends and relatives who comprise her extended care team. She’s also managed performing occasionally and nurturing some of the storytelling festivals she’s helped found and grow, particularly the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha. She’s annually given 600-plus hours of volunteer time to Nebraska Story Arts, the organization that puts on the festival.

Even as her condition’s worsened, she’s continued being the state’s most visible and vocal advocate for storytelling. Omaha sculptor Catherine Ferguson called Duncan “one of Nebraska’s most treasured women. She has dedicated her professional life to connecting people to the arts and humanities. Nancy’s performances have always gone beyond entertainment to become educational.” Story Arts president Jim Marx said, “Her gift is to imagine possibilities, inspire others to join her vision and to will them into existence through tireless effort and encouragement.” Nancy’s daughter and fellow storyteller, Lucy Duncan, said, “She has a great generosity of spirit in her teaching of storytelling and wanting to spread the art form. Her support of my telling is a direct example. Instead of feeling, This is my territory, she says, Let’s share this. She’s done that with a lot of people — not just me. She’s also very beloved in the national storytelling community.”

Lately, Duncan’s good spells have grown fewer. The artist has been homebound since the end of May, when she gave her “last” performance at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market.

Her three grown children and several grandchildren are staying with her now in the big mid-town house she and Harry shared. It’s where he died of cancer in 1997. It’s where she intends dying, too. As the debilitating rounds of chemo have taken her longer and longer to recover from, she’s considered not undergoing them again, knowing full well stopping them will mean certain death.

“I have to pay such a huge price to feel good for about two months,” she said.

For now, at least, she tarries on, telling stories to her grandchildren or soaking up
the good vibes of her army of friends who flit in and out of her place all day long. Some come to do chores. Others bring her things. Some just come by to chat.

 

Reminders of her friends are everywhere, most poignantly in the paper, silk and rubber hands adorning the inside of her front door. Each “helping-healing hand” was sent or delivered to her and is adorned with a message that’s variously funny, outrageous, wise, enigmatic, just like the stories Duncan’s told since 1984, when she turned away from a career in the theater to pursue storytelling professionally.

Some visitors come to say goodbye, although few use that word, because even though Duncan is physically frail now and needs around-the-clock support, her effervescent spirit shines through, making it all the harder to imagine her gone. The light-up-the-room sparkle is still there in her eyes. So, is the ear-to-ear smile. And the cascading laugh. Ah, The Laugh. It’s an irrepressible cackle that starts in her chest, rolls up her giraffe neck and spills out her crescent mouth in a high-pitched sound that recalls the coyote-witch figures she portrays in tellings.

Then again, there’s a chronic fatigue that didn’t used to be there. Every now and then she catches her breath, swallowing hard to stem the pain from the stints in her liver. Her body, once as expressive an instrument as her animated face and voice, is gaunt and still, betraying the fight she wages to keep death at bay.

Her impending death is being recorded by Omaha videographer George Ferguson. The documentary she asked him to make is meant to help other dying individuals in their search for healing. It’s only natural that Duncan, who’s used stories as a way to interpret life, should use storytelling as a means of understanding her own end.

“I thought it might be useful to somebody else who’s dying the same way, but also to see how useful storytelling can be in helping you go through this process,” she said. “where grotesque things happen to you and people are poking your body here and there. And, where, in the middle of having stints put in your liver, people around you are talking while you’re drugged. And the craziness of discovering systems that you are either a victim of or you have to figure out how to defend yourself against. Not to mention a whole new vocabulary you learn.

“I’ve met people who, when diagnosed with cancer, kind of isolate themselves and live at home quietly and some who sadly get really angry and stay angry until they die. And to me dancing with cancer has not been like that. I was angry the first weekend before the biopsy results came back. That was the weekend when I fired God and hired HER back a couple times. But then I got over that because I’ve always believed that in every trauma there’s some kind of a grace at work and you just have to open yourself to it and figure out what it is. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it says, Wait, stop, who do you really want to be? And, so, cancer gives you some time, mostly, to do that and that’s a great privilege. I mean, I think it would be a great privilege to drop dead of a heart attack, but it wouldn’t be for your family because it’s so traumatic.”

Her decision to have her odyssey filmed was one she came to after much thought. “It took a long time to decide what my motives were here. Was I just doing this out of ego? Was it really a good idea? I talked to a lot of friends about it before I talked to my family. Most of my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, you better do this because it will give you something to keep you busy.’ My kids in the beginning were thinking what it would be like to have somebody around filming during the last week of my life. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about talking about the things that happened to me in terms of my cancer, but also in terms of how the cancer affects my life and the stories. So, finally, I think my kids have all come around to it.”

Storytelling, she said, constitutes the way we make sense of things. The story of her cancer and dying, she said, is “no different. Every time you narratize your story to explain something to yourself, that’s healing, because then you’re no longer so confused or befuddled by it. Then, when you tell it to somebody, they give it their own meaning based on their lives.” This search for identity and meaning is one she thinks America suppresses in its instant gratification apparatus.

“I think all my work with storytelling has been trying to fight that tendency in our culture that does everything to avoid having people talking deeply to each other, especially about death or anything important. As a society, we want to be entertained and we avoid things that might make ask us to think or deal with situations going on in the world. Problems are not going to get solved until we sit down with somebody else and really listen to their stories, so we can get to understand each other rather than blowing each other up. The more we put labels on people, the more we’re destined not to know them. When you really know somebody’s else’s story, you can’t hate them anymore. It’s a wonderful tool for peace,” said Duncan, whose residencies in schools and other settings have used  storytelling to break down barriers, to build self-esteem and to promote diversity.

“But nobody trusts it (storytelling), partially because nobody has ever listened to our stories. We narrow ourselves so much by not knowing each other. Storytelling works against that. That’s why I keep working on storytelling.”

She said too many of us seek the cold isolation of mass media diversions as substitutes for interpersonal communication around the dinner table or fireplace, where gathering with friends to talk and tell stories is a communal event and a celebration of our shared humanity. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

 

Harry Duncan

 

Her many tales, from the repertoire of “platform” stories she’s crafted for performance to the private stories she’s passed on to loved ones, are sure to live on through her family members, all of whom, she said, are born storytellers. That’s why her dying is more celebration than requiem. “Not only is it a celebration,” she said, “it’s a transition. It’s a very important transition from my versions of the stories to everybody else’s. Now, they’re all going to own these stories. I would love to someday eavesdrop on them, although that’s probably not possible.” Her performance stories are available on CD.

Duncan’s love for stories extends back to childhood. Born in Indiana to “depressed-alcoholic” parents, she did most of her growing up in Illinois and Georgia. A tomboy with a big imagination, Duncan roamed the woods in back of her Georgia house to act out the dramas in her mind. It was her pipe-smoking grandma, with whom she shared a room and found refuge with for eight years, that introduced literature and storytelling to her. “She read books to me until she dropped. She was not a big talker, but she told very well-honed stories all about her life. She was the unconditional loving parent in my life and my rock of stability,” Duncan said. “If I hadn’t of had my grandmother, I think I would have ended up in a booby hatch.”

Expressive by nature, Duncan first heeded her talents as a writer, earning a scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1958. It was there, as a student, she met and married Harry, then a teacher and fine arts press director. Eventually, she and Harry moved to Omaha, where he ran the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She acted on area stages and served as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse and as artistic director and, later, executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Company for Young People).

She applied drama techniques to her early storytelling. She built her signature story performances around Baba Yaga, a witch character adapted from Russian literature, and a chicken. “Baba Yaga was really the one who broke me open because she could say anything,” Duncan said. During the Fundamentalist Right’s rise to power, Baba Yaga got her in hot water with some area school districts that outright banned or picketed her shows. She was even spat at once.

Dissatisfied with her hybrid of theater and storytelling, Duncan began shedding makeup and costume to explore and expose more of herself on stage. Once she made herself more present in her increasingly personal stories, she found her voice as a teller. She never looked back at the theater, which she found limiting. “In the theater, you’re really not in charge of the material. The playwright or director is. In storytelling, there’s no separation of yourself from the story. You have to take total responsibility for it. You can’t blame it on the writer or director. It’s a different kind of bareness-nakedness, but also a different kind of responsibility.”

Speaking of responsibility, she hopes her militant views on cancer increase awareness. It’s why she doesn’t wear a wig or a prosthesis. “We need not hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer…we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it,” she said. “I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.” She said many women don’t self-examine or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know.”

Duncan’s curiosity, passion, concern and whimsy have made her a timeless teller  and, when she’s gone, her life and work will endure as a never-ending story.

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