Faces of Cancer: Love overcomes cancer for couple

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldOctober 31, 2011 

Today, one Richland couple will focus on the endless love they have for each other rather than the cancer that surrounds their lives.

Oscar and Mary Strunk celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary today, an astonishing feat for anyone, much less a couple who have endured far more cancer than anyone should.

Just a week ago, Oscar, 87, was declared free of the colorectal cancer he was diagnosed with in February. Because of his age, he was not given much of a chance, and his family wondered if this might be their last anniversary together.

"Honestly, the doctor gave him about a year," said Brigit Strunk, the couple's daughter, who lives in Benton City. "It did seem like it would be their last anniversary."

But Oscar successfully underwent treatment at Kennewick General Hospital.

"Dad never complained," she said. "You could tell he was fighting. We knew we had one shot at radiation and one shot at chemo."

He was given small doses of each because of his age, and he reacted well.

In addition, Oscar also found out last week that a CT scan showed his lung cancer had shrunk to just about nothing. He also has battled bladder cancer for the past 10 years and skin cancer for even longer.

"Through it all, I can't believe he could do what he did."

Brigit said all of her father's cancers have been linked to the 36 years he worked at Hanford. As a result, his prescription drugs, treatments and doctor visits are covered by the government.

Mary, 86, was diagnosed 18 years ago with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It is a form of cancer that tends to affect people older than 50. It is difficult to defeat outright, so doctors mostly keep an eye on it and try to keep it under control.

Mary tried chemotherapy, but she had such a terrible reaction to the drugs, she chose to not go that route anymore. Instead, she gets blood transfusions as needed, and that seems to keep the cancer at bay.

Cancer has long been an issue in the Strunk family.

Oscar's mom died from breast cancer. His father, a coal miner in Illinois, died of lung cancer. Two of his sisters died of cancer, and one of his sisters still is battling cancer. Mary has lost three sisters to breast cancer. And their daughter Brenda died 17 years ago after a 10-year battle with breast cancer. Her birthday would have been last Friday.

The couple came to Richland from Illinois in 1950, drawn to the area by Hanford jobs. They moved into their current house in central Richland in 1957, and Oscar retired in 1986.

Last week's good news about Oscar's colorectal cancer was tempered by the fact that Mary's last remaining sibling, a younger brother, died of a heart attack.

"It's been a glorious week of happiness," Brigit said. "But on the other side, we also have sadness."

Through the tragedies, the Strunks' love remains resolute. For years, Oscar has tenderly tucked his wife into bed each night.

"He has his own little way of doing it," Brigit said. "He did this even through his treatments."

They enjoy sharing ice cream together, just as they did when they were teenagers during World War II back in Illinois. And today, their main concern is each other.

"If he eats, she'll eat," Brigit said. "They have a love and a bond that is so strong. It is amazing. They don't go to bed mad. They always say, 'I love you.' "

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