CHESTERTOWN – More than 500 people were milling around outside the Dierkers’ tidy white farmhouse and the portable potties still had not arrived.
Toilets or no toilets, the Dierkers had decided, after more than a half- century of farming, it was time to close down their business and auction off their equipment.
Frank Dierker was tired. Drawing the curtain on his life’s work was emotionally draining. He long had been tinkering with the idea of retiring. Cancer clinched it for him.
“I knew I had to slow down,” Dierker said. “We had about made up our mind to sell out the equipment and I guess when I found out I had cancer, it just made it a very logical decision.”
Cancer is nothing new to Dierker and Charmayne, his wife of 52 years.
Their daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer both in 1992 and 1994. She and her mother co-founded a support organization, Mothers Supporting Daughters with Breast Cancer. Last fall, Dierker found out he had prostate cancer.
Dierker typifies an Eastern Shore trend. Pockets of the region have the highest mortality rates in the state for four categories of cancer: lung cancer; colon and rectum cancer; overall cancer mortality for men; and overall cancer mortality for whites, according to the Maryland Cancer Registry, which monitors and compiles cancer data.
No one seems to know what causes these so-called “cancer clusters.”
“I could barely believe we were going through another chapter of this,” said Charmayne. “I thought, ‘Here’s my chance at losing another family member.'”
Dierker agreed. “Cancer was not too foreign for us,” he said.
His blue eyes watered.
“The initial reaction is rough, it’s very rough,” he said. “The fear of the unknown is the biggest thing there is.”
At first, Dierker was angry, said his daughter, Lillie Shockney, a nurse and director of education and outreach at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Baltimore.
“I don’t think there’s anybody — and this is going to sound like a queer statement — that’s been diagnosed that hasn’t considered suicide,” Dierker said. “And if he tells you he hasn’t, he’s lying to you.”
But Shockney’s strength as a two-time cancer survivor rubbed off on him, Dierker said.
“If she beat it twice, I can beat it once,” he said.
So he read everything he could about his condition.
“I’ve read so much I’m dangerous,” he said. “It has helped me know why I’m still so tired now when I feel like I ought to be out doing what I want to do.”
After the diagnosis, he wanted to know that all of the machinery was sold, the farm operation closed down, the crops sold and the land rented so his family would not be saddled with any burdens.
“You become very emotional. You start laying plans. I want to get all of this done so it’s done before anything happens to me,” he said. “You look at the future with you in it. You look at the future with you not in it. You can’t run it from the grave but you want to control it until the day you go there.”
Then the radiation began. “You see others not getting along good. It’s distressing,” he said.
Every weekday throughout December and January, Dierker left his farm near Chestertown at 5 a.m. and drove his truck the two hours to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for radiation. The treatment left him fatigued, but the drive was therapeutic.
“That has been my life — driving tractors by myself,” he said. “I think you either go to isolation or you go to group therapy.”
Support groups are not too popular on the Eastern Shore, where an I-can- handle-this-on-my-own attitude tends to prevail. Dierker is no exception. He didn’t tell many people about his condition; word just spread through the small Kent County community.
“Everybody knows whose check is good and whose wife isn’t,” he said. “Farming in this area is a cut-throat business…. You get sick or walk slow, somebody’s going to try to rent your land before somebody else gets there. But basically people have been pretty nice.”
In addition to generally keeping their health to themselves, self-employed workers also tend to pass up insurance and distrust the medical facilities available to them on the Shore, said Dierker, who has health insurance.
The costs of combating cancer can be exorbitant; the two-month radiation treatment cost about $30,000 to $40,000, Dierker estimated.
“If it works, that’s cheap,” he said.
He recalled a friend who knew he had prostate cancer but didn’t seek treatment until he was old enough to get Medicare. He has received radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“He’s still around and doing OK,” Dierker said. “He put it off so that he would not use up the family resources…. This would be a horrible decision to have to make. Am I going to take the family house? Am I going to spend the children’s education (money)?”
Money may help cope with cancer, but it’s not the cure-all, he said.
“I thought we had all the money a person could need. We could buy anything we wanted. We had political power,” he said. “Yet when cancer comes we couldn’t buy what we needed and wanted. Neither one of these things is of any use to you.”
Laughter helped alleviate some of the strain, Dierker said.
“I’ve always been a jokester and love to laugh,” he said.
When a new nurse weighed him before his treatments, he leaned on her shoulder to take some weight off the scale. He frequently kidded the Johns Hopkins staff and brought them baskets of sweets and boxes of candy.
The congenial atmosphere of the hospital may have kept his sprits up, but the treatments sapped Dierker’s strength.
“I was so tired you can’t hardly walk. I still am. And I have sweats all night long,” he said. They could go on as long as five months after treatment.
But Dierker escaped many of the usual side-effects, like diarrhea, soreness and the inability to urinate. Many of the other patients receiving radiation with him ended up with walkers or wheelchairs, he said.
“When I walked out of there the last day, I gave everybody that `Yeah, boy!'” he said with a triumphant gesture. “Halfway through the treatments, the glass is half-full, not half-empty. You learn to look forward to what’s coming up.”
By day’s end, all of Dierker’s farm equipment was sold and he’d found someone to work the land. He’ll take his newfound time and visit his son, an Air Force general, in Korea next month.
The toilets never showed up, but so what.
“You take it a day at a time.”