Life Stories: Cancer Brings Couples Closer
By Deborah Salomon
The Big C means more than cancer to Seven Lakes -residents Dottie and Buck Kirk. The other Cs in their relationship include compassion, commitment and caregiving. Both are cancer survivors.
In a way, cancer brought them together - and together they will participate in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life at Sandhills Community College April 21-22.
They will walk the Survivors Lap. They will light candles during the luminaria ceremony, when names of non-survivors are read. Then they will return to a gracious home overlooking Lake Auman, filled with photos of -children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Because theirs is a story not of life and death, but of life and love.
In 1996 Dottie's first husband died of lung cancer, leaving her in their lakeside retirement house. The couple's children and grandchildren were in Ohio, so when a friend asked Dottie to fill in as a receptionist at an accountant's office, the former secretary thought why not?
Buck Kirk was raised on a -tobacco farm in Roseland, which he still owns and visits almost daily to check on the wheat and soybeans. He became a successful salesman in the galvanized steel industry. In 1995, during a business/golf jaunt to Florida, his wife died instantly of a brain aneurysm.
Tax time, 1997: Buck arrived at the accountant's office. There sat Dottie. Perhaps she distracted him because he left without paying his bill. When reminded, Buck mailed the check along with a note saying, "You have a very attractive receptionist."
Dottie wrote back, "Thanks for the compliment."
Buck suggested lunch. Dottie wasn't sure. "I asked around to see if he was a Christian."
Once confirmed, they met at a deli. "I wasn't that impressed," she recalls.
When Buck didn't call for three months, Dottie rethought the situation - and took action.
"I asked him to go out on our boat, with three ladies I know."
Even seniors need chaperones.
Mechanical problems prevented the sail from happening, but something clicked. Their friendship had deepened sufficiently that when Dottie - a healthy, active woman in her 60s - experienced alarming symptoms, Buck offered to accompany her to the doctor.
The First Challenge
Tests showed esophageal cancer, relatively rare in the U.S., especially among women. "It blew my mind," Dottie recalls.
According to American Cancer Society statistics, 15,000 esophageal cancer diagnoses, fewer than half women, are made annually, while more than 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer.
When Dottie reported for surgery at Duke University Medical Center in 2001, Buck was with her.
"They asked who would be my caregiver," Dottie says. "I remember Buck saying if my children wouldn't mind and somebody would train him, he would do it."
Caregiving, in this sense, supplements professional nursing. Usually a family member remains with the patient in the hospital and learns all aspects of home care.
"I had never done anything like this," Buck says.
Undeterred, he set up a cot in Dottie's hospital room for her two-week stay. "I got pretty good on the morphine drip."
Treatment for esophageal cancer is grueling, painful - literally gut-wrenching. Dottie required a feeding tube inserted into her small intestine for six months. Buck cleaned it twice a day. She experienced weeks of nausea and dry heaves.
Buck's son Forrest Kirk, of Pinehurst, recalls the experience with awe.
"This was a 180-degree change - my dad was never a caregiver at home," Kirk says. "When Dottie got sick it was like, where did this come from? He was totally devoted to her."
After the successful surgery, Buck accompanied Dottie to chemotherapy and radiation.
Along the way he fell in love.
Buck had moved into Dottie's house to continue care. "The preacher got after us about that," Buck says with a chuckle. He vowed that if he could get Dottie strong enough to walk down the aisle, they would be married.
On Christmas Eve 2001, Buck wrapped a diamond ring in a tiny box and hung it on the tree with the message "I hope you'll accept this. We'll set a date later."
"That's my dad," Forrest Kirk says. "He always liked to plan surprises."
Dottie was shocked. They had never discussed marriage. Her first reaction: "This could complicate things."
Nevertheless, on May 5, 2002, they were married after the Sunday morning service at West End United Methodist Church. Dottie wore a stunning full-length ivory dress. Buck looked like Prince Charming.
They honeymooned in Washington, D.C., and on the Outer Banks.
In 1998 Buck first noticed "something on my eye." Then, something in his nose. Buck had developed recurring squamous cell skin cancers.
During several surgeries and recuperation, "I kept on his case," Dottie says. "Buck didn't think his cancer was such a big deal but I told him, do you remember when I was sick? I followed your orders. Now I expect the same of you."
Buck's treatment is ongoing. Dottie has been cancer-free for 10 years.
"My doctor won't use the word 'cure,'" she says. "For the first five years, (cancer is) the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. Then, you're thankful for each day, you appreciate the world, you express your feelings so much better."
"We all grow through trauma and difficulty," says Beth Dietrich, a licensed clinical social worker at FirstHealth Cancer Center. "Sometimes couples navigate well, other times cancer tests a relationship. What we hope for is two people who grow together."
Dottie and Buck Kirk will attend Relay for Life as survivors and as part of their church team. Buck, previously chosen Caregiver of the Year, will walk the Caregivers' Lap.
"After the fact, I couldn't believe how Buck saved my life," Dottie says. "When I talk to people (at the Relay) I tell them don't give up. There's so much hope. There's so much out there."
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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