Herb Howe is what we used to call a "cute guy."
Tall (6-foot-2), blond, blue-eyed, athletic. You know -- a jock.
"That's just it," says Herb Howe. "I didn't want to be just another dying jock at Harvard."
Howe was a grad student at Harvard when doctors found that what they thought was a simple ganglion cyst was, in fact, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer -- fibrosarcoma. He was given an 80 percent chance of dying, and probably sooner than later.
This was simply not acceptable to Howe. And from that first moment when he shook his doctor by responding to the news ("like any good grad student") by taking notes, Herbert Howe took control.
If he did things by the medical book, it was by his rules.
He listened to his doctors, but only to a certain point.
Of course he got depressed, even bitter here and there, especially during the height of a chemotherapy protocol which had particularly explosive (and depressive) effects on his system -- including a devastating impact on what had been normally randy sexual hungers of a 30-year-old bachelor. Moreover, he learned about that particular blow from a technician at the last second, even as she plunged the burning chemicals into his veins for the first time.
But even though his control was at first tenuous and often held only by the slimmest thread, Howe managed to turn the cancer's power to his own advantage -- and to it's own destruction. He laughed at it, stormed at it, cursed at it, belittled it, scorned it. Never, never gave it the reverence that putative harbinger of death might be thought to deserve.
And he threw himself into a fierce athletic regimen -- running, swimming, canoeing, bag punching, scuba diving, skate-boarding even hang gliding, which, after three years, left him muscular and fit, 30 pounds lighter than when he began, but infinitely healthier. Apparently his cancer, once believed to be in a stage of rampant metastasis, was left shriveled and beaten.
Now, with the cancer apparently in full retreat (although he must continue regular monitoring for another four years or so) Herbert Howe has put his grad-school note-taking to good use. Taking time out from his profession as an expert in African affairs at the Library of Congress, he's written a book, "Do Not Go Gentle," (W.W. Norton, $10.95). It is not just about his own illness experience, not just advocating exercise as a cancer therapy, but is more a kind of journal-cumphilosophy about himself, about some other cancer victims he met along the way and about friends and relatives.
Herb Howe grew up in Madison, Wis. His father, chairman of the University of Wisconsin classics department, is a champion swimmer and he once told his son that "we're all in a losing war against time . . . but it's at least nice to win some of the skirmishes."
It was really with that in mind that young Howe began to run. With that thought plus the idea, something he now calls the "sports metaphor," that if he could swim that one more lap, canoe that 72nd mile (he really did), then maybe, maybe he could make it through the rigors of the brutal chemotherapy, get his doctorate and perhaps even beat the illness itself.
His family is a big one, and close. He is deeply fond of nieces and nephews whose approach to it with regards to them -- did much to put in perspective the values he honed and polisehd during his ordeal.
He took a kind of "Saturday Night Live" approach to things right from the start.
On the way to a family reunion only hours after he got the news, he found himself faced with a bus-ticket line as long as he and his sister, who was with him, would miss their bus.
"I suddenly said to her, 'get on the bus, I'll get the tickets.' I ran to the front of the line and there were these two proper dowagers with flowered hats. I rushed up to them and I said 'Excuse me, but I just found out I've got a fatal malignancy and I've got to get a bus ticket.'
"Whether out of fear that it was contagious or whether out of sympathy, they withdrew and I got the tickets.
"That was my first notion that cancer was kind of a permission-giver that could allow you to do things you otherwise wouldn't."
That was important, Howe feels, because it was "the notion that it was up to me, and it was necessary for me to take control of my life."
Howe believes he learned a lot about people in a short time through his illness and it is all related in the book. Moments of greatness or of pettiness, always with a sense of the Belushi-like absurdity of it all.
There was the friend who, on hearing the news, insisted Howe take a $5 bill. "You never know when it will come in handy," the friend had said. Says Howe, "Being a political science student I suddenly felt that I knew what it meant for Third World countries to be given aid and the donor feels we should be happy and bow down. . . ."
There was the "Planet of the Apes" mask he wore at the bus station so his niece and nephews wouldn't be shocked by his baldness during his radiation and chemotherapy.
(The mask came in handy later, too, when he lay huddled and unmoving -- but masked -- in a hospital bed, waiting for a worried nurse to peek in to see if he was okay.)
There were the people who made him feel that it was his fault, that somehow he was responsible for having gotten ill. On the other hand there was his observation that the acronyms for cancer therapy were sadistic: CAD (the one he was on) or MOP or SCAB. "Sounds like a demented New York City taxi driver," he says cheerfully.
Because the doctors were skeptical about all his heavy exercise, fearful even that it might be deleterious, Howe didn't see it at first as medically useful. Then he began to hear about links to cancer with stress, efforts to heal cancer with relaxation and imaging techniques and Norman Cousins' humor-approach to illness.
More recently, a study of breast cancer victims at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore provided evidence that women who were angry and combative about their cancers had a better chance at survival than others.
Herb Howe is a fighter, but a laughter too. One of his favorite stories concerns his then 10-year-old niece who was being quizzed by a nosey neighbor.
"Oh," assured the loyal niece. "It's really nothing. My Uncle Herbie just had a hysterectomy."