CANCER TALES Warrior dad battled tongue cancer to the end

By LISA BURKE JONES

Robert L. Burke and his nephew, Capt. Corey King of the Georgia National Guard before King’s deployment to Iraq in Spring 2005.

Robert L. Burke and his nephew, Capt. Corey King of the Georgia National Guard before King’s deployment to Iraq in Spring 2005.

There were not too many battles that my father, Robert L. Burke, could not win, but his last one, the one he fought the hardest, he lost.

Dad was the youngest of seven children. He was originally from Helena, Ark. He married my mother, Sara, a Georgia girl, and they had four children. They settled in Georgia after he retired from the Air Force.

Dad was the person in our family we could always turn to for help with anything. If he did not know how to do it, he figured it out. He once built a console color TV in our living room out of a kit he bought.

Dad was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in June 2003. He had never smoked and was not a drinker. He was exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke during his days in the military when it was an accepted practice to smoke in the workplace.

Surgery was an option, but we were told it would probably be disfiguring and affect his ability to talk. Anyone who knew Bob Burke knew that some of his favorite things were talking (to anyone) and his grandchildren. He chose instead to have chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Unfortunately, the radiation also affected his ability to talk and to swallow.

In August 2004, dad was told it was possible his cancer had recurred so he decided to go ahead with surgery. The tissue in his neck had become so hardened the surgeon was unable to successfully remove the tumor; there was some fear of cutting into major blood vessels in the neck. The surgeon said there was still a chance this was not a recurrence and just damage caused by radiation. While he was in the hospital they inserted a feeding tube. He had lost nearly 100 lbs since his diagnosis.

In November of the same year he had a tracheotomy. Now he could no longer eat and could barely talk.

In March 2005, we learned that there was definitely a recurrence. He attempted chemotherapy again, but unfortunately due to his weakened state he could not tolerate it. He chose to discontinue the chemo.

Dad?s last outing in public was watching his oldest granddaughter graduate from high school as her class valedictorian. He had been looking forward to this for a long time.

He spent the next six months in hospice care at home. He mostly sat up in chairs for 24/7 due to his inability to lie flat. He sat at the dining room table all through the night with his head on a pad. As he worsened, he sat in a wheelchair.

Dad lost his battle on Nov. 21, 2005, 15 days shy of his 70th birthday. This was the Monday of Thanksgiving week, which was his favorite holiday. We still miss him terribly and look forward to the day when cancer is eradicated.

  • CANCER TALES: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES WRITTEN BY METRO ATLANTANS TOUCHED BY CANCER
  • Cancer touches us all. Nearly everyone living in metro Atlanta knows of someone living with cancer or dying from it. Email us your story: JKJOHNSTON@AJC.COM

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