A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg

Punching the Ghost


When Dr. Jim first told us that Dan’s PSA levels were high, we were concerned, but neither of us believed it could be cancer. We’d been through this back in 2002, and it had just been an enlarged prostate. And, to all outward appearances, Dan was a healthy, active man of 53. Soon after we met in 1996, he quit smoking and doing recreational drugs. He drank red wine or vodka at night and I’d give him the raised eyebrow after two glasses, but he had cut back drastically since his rock and roll days. 

     Our daily diet consisted of fresh, home-cooked food that included a salad plus a vegetable with dinner. The only time we ate red meat was on the rare occasion when we went to town and had lunch at The Rose diner, or dinner at the Hog’s Breath Saloon. In Maine, we ate fresh haddock or salmon almost every day. At the ranch we ate pasta and lean meats, mostly chicken and turkey.

     Of course, we did eat some unhealthy foods. One of Dan’s favorite lunches was a turkey sandwich and Lay’s potato chips. Every few weeks, he’d roast a turkey breast and we’d have turkey sandwiches for lunch every day until it was gone. We both agreed that a sandwich without chips was like a cake without frosting, and that right there was my weakness: sweets. I’d eat cardboard if it had butter icing on it. 

     Dan wasn’t cursed with a sweet tooth; he was a savory person. In the winter he’d make oatmeal for breakfast and add a pinch of salt and some milk. I’d add milk, brown sugar, raisins, and sprinkles. It was a childhood thing. When my sisters and I were little, my mother would get us to eat our bland hot cereal by stirring in a bit of brown sugar and milk. Then she would sprinkle tiny, colorful balls of decorative sugar on to the steaming surface. With the stroke of a spoon, the boring gray food was transformed into irresistible swirls and rainbows. It was the sixties, and Moms were told that cow’s milk was about the healthiest thing you could feed your kid. Dan still liked milk, and he drank a glass almost every day.

     When Dr. Jim called us the second time, sounding concerned about the PSA level of 151, we started taking the threat more seriously. I spent that night at my computer, researching prostate cancer and nutrition. If something looked promising, I would add it to the list only if three reputable medical websites confirmed its benefit. The next day I went to Joy's Natural Foods in Pagosa with the list. I bought powders, seeds, supplements, oils, organic fruits and vegetables, and a book called, SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life.

     I printed daily schedules, with separate sections for food, supplements, and water. Once Dan had eaten everything from one section, I would mark the time next to it. Two hours later, I’d take him a big glass of water and cross one water off the schedule. Other sections included smoothies with a base of bananas, spinach, blueberries, and soymilk, made in the blender. In the back of a kitchen cupboard, I found an Acme Supreme Juicerator and used it to make carrot/broccoli juice. I began growing wheatgrass and bought a special juicer for that.

     There were so many bottles and bags, I had to clear a space on the kitchen counter for them. The schedule would change, as different foods and supplements fell in and out of favor. At first, flax oil was good, and we added it to the smoothies. Before long, new internet articles said flax seed should be used instead.

     After two weeks, our schedule was fairly well established:


200 mcg Selenium / 500mg Vitamin C / 100mg Grape Seed Extract - 50mg Grape Skin - 200mg Grape Seed Powder / Oatmeal / Grapefruit / Whole Grain Toast / Tea+Green Tea


Cartenoid Complex / 25,000IU Vitamin A / 3,000mcg Lycopene / 1,000mcg Alpha-Carotene / 1,000mcg Alpha-Lipoic Acid / 1,000mcg Antarctic Krill / 50mg Brocolli Concentrate  / 25mg Pumpkin Concentrate  / 10mg Carrot Seed Oil / 30mg Red Wine Extract / 380mg Apple, Grape, Cranberry, Soy, Pine Bark extract / 50mg Zinc / 450mg Tumeric Extract / 50mg Tumeric Root

Decaffeinated Green Tea


Fish Oil / 100mg CoQ10 / 400mg Vitamin E / Fruit Smoothie w/Flax Seed


Carrot/Broccoli Juice




500mg Vitamin C / 450mg Tumeric Extract / 50mg Tumeric Root / 100mg Grape Seed Extract / 50 mg Grape Skin / 200mg Grape Seed Powder / Soy Milk


Mangosteen Juice / Wheatgrass Juice 

Water / Water / Water / Water / Water / Water / Water / Water


     I tried some of the recipes in the SuperFoods Rx book. Dan liked the Grilled Wild Salmon Burgers so much I made them for lunch twice a week, tweaking the recipe along the way. Eventually they became salmon patties, with oats instead of bread crumbs, and a ginger remoulade on the side.  

     Dan used canned tomatoes for most of his pasta recipes, and now I learned that the processing actually increased their nutritional value. Canned tomatoes were considered a whole Super Food, and they were found to decrease cancer risk in men. So, I started using them to create healthy sandwiches, substituting olive oil for butter in the frying pan, tofu for mozzarella, and topping the tomatoes with a sprinkling of freshly toasted pumpkin seeds and basil leaves. Dan had taught me the importance of presentation, and it was even more crucial now that flavor was taking a back seat to nutrition. Each plate was wiped clean of spills, then seeds or chopped basil scattered around the hot sandwich and small salad.

     I was spending more time in the kitchen now, no longer sous-chef, but co-chef and chief juicer. It made me feel like I was doing something to help, and Dan welcomed me into his domain. Not every new recipe was a hit, but when he liked something, he asked for it frequently.


     Always a late riser, Dan was sleeping later and later into the day, sometimes coming down at 11:30 or noon. I used the time to do research, in my make-shift office next to the pool room, which was buzzing with activity as repair work continued after the burst pipe disaster. The dehumidifier had finally been taken away, and I did not miss its constant dull hum.

     The biopsy had been performed in Durango, and when the doctor called, confirming the presence of cancer cells, we were shattered. It left us emotionally and physically exhausted. But the tests also showed that Dan’s PSA number had stopped rising. It was holding steady at 346, and we were grateful for any scrap of good news. The next morning, as usual, I got up before Dan and went downstairs to make tea and do some research.

     I came across a blog by a man whose PSA number had been 1,000 at his first exam. He was still alive two years later, and in his 70s. I went upstairs to see if Dan was awake so I could share this encouraging news. He was lying  in bed, staring at the ceiling. I sat down next to him and he said, “I always knew I would die in this bed.” I’d read of people who died quickly after a cancer diagnosis, and now I thought I could see how someone could literally be scared to death by it. 

     “You are not going to die in this bed,” I said, gently but firmly. I told him about the man whose PSA number made Dan’s look wimpy, and it was just enough impetus to shake him out of his funk. (I believe the blog was called “PSA Rising.” I’m sure that man died years ago, but I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his story so people like us could benefit from it.) 

     This became my morning routine: wake before Dan, make tea, scour the internet for words of hope. Every fifteen minutes I would tiptoe upstairs and peek in the door. If he was asleep, I’d hurry back downstairs. If he was awake, I’d sit and talk with him about advances, new drugs, and inspiring stories until he was ready to face the day. He was spending a lot of time in the studio, looking through old demos and songs, and making lists for what would eventually become Love in Time.


From the beginning, Dan had asked me not to tell anyone about the cancer. At first, it was an easy secret to keep, because I didn't really know what we were dealing with. But once we had a definitive diagnosis, it was hard to reply in a natural way when friends would casually ask, "How’s Dan?" I stopped taking phone calls, limiting my conversations to emails so I could just ignore the question in my replies.

     We were going to wait until we knew what our plans were before telling our ranch managers, George and Cary, about the diagnosis. That decision was taken out of our hands. 

     One sunny afternoon, I went outside, hidden behind a hat and sunglasses, to cry a few secret tears. I was in the garden, digging weeds near the front steps, when George drove by in the jeep. Seeing me, he pulled up in front of the garage and came over to talk to me. I can't remember what he said, or what I said in return, but then he nodded sympathetically and said, "It's hard, isn't it?" I looked at him, and nodded, unsure of what he meant.  Then he said, "I know. So-and-so told me." 

     It was a small town, and Dan was its most famous resident; a leak had been inevitable. I was only surprised at how quickly it had happened. In a close-knit community like Pagosa Springs, the news would spread like wildfire. I suddenly felt nauseous and said I had to go inside. I didn’t want to tell Dan; he had enough to deal with. But if a friend from town called with sympathy, he would be caught off guard, like I’d been. So, I found him in the studio and explained what had happened. He didn’t seem surprised, he just sighed with resignation. 


     The first person Dan shared the diagnosis with was his old friend, Irving Azoff. Irving immediately began making phone calls on our behalf, asking his many contacts around the country for recommendations for the best prostate surgeons.

     We had no idea what to expect from the future with this cancer. Would Dan be in and out of the hospital while in treatment, or would he be bed-bound? How long did he have to live? Weeks? Months? Years? Many years, and a full recovery?

     The only thing we did know, was that staying in a major city would not be conducive to Dan’s recuperation. Going from the beauty and quiet solitude of the mountains, to concrete, sirens and horns was doable while performing on tour, but not while battling cancer. Dan had always gained strength from the wild places, so we needed to be near the mountains or the sea. 

     When concert promoter Don Law contacted Irving and suggested a surgeon in Boston, we checked him out. Dr. McDougal’s credentials were impressive, and he’d written a book in 1996 called, Prostate Disease: The Most Comprehensive, Up-to-Date Information Available to Help You Understand Your Condition, Make the Right Treatment Choices, and Cope Effectively. He was based at Massachusetts General Hospital, which was only five hours from our home in Maine. 

     We loved Boston, having stopped there a few times while on tour. When Dan was in college and thinking about where to go to pursue a career in music, his first choice had been Boston, because of its college and folk music scene. The idea of being able to explore the city, with its gorgeous old architecture and fine restaurants, appealed to both of us. And, if there was time, we would be able to finish the house in Maine. It felt right. Once the decision was made, things happened quickly. Suddenly, we had an appointment in Boston, in five days.


We knew the time had come to tell our parents what was happening. Dan sat at his roll-top desk and, after dialing his mother’s home in Peoria, he swiveled the chair so he could look out the window at the trees.  I sat a few feet away, on the step into his office.

     When she answered, he said, “Hi, Mom.” I could hear the high chirping of her happy reply and when she stopped talking, he said, “Mom, I have to tell you something.” Margaret’s mother-ears heard the strain in his voice, and she probably asked, “What is it, darling? Is everything okay?” Whatever she said, the concern in her voice, the home in her voice, broke him. After a few seconds, with tears in his eyes, he silently handed me the receiver. The old telephone cord stretched across his chest and bounced between us. Margaret was saying, “Dan? Are you there?”

     I said, “Hi Margaret, it’s Jean.” My voice was steady and calm as I told her that Dan had gone for a physical recently and they’d found some prostate cancer. I told her that we had an appointment on Monday with one of the top surgeons in the country, and we were confident that Dan was going to be fine. She asked how he was doing and I said he was doing okay, we were both just really tired and kind of emotionally wrung out. 

     Dan had pulled it together and was holding his hand out, so I told Margaret I was giving the phone back to him, and I said goodbye. He spoke with her briefly, and assured her that he was okay and would call from Boston to let her know what was happening. After he hung up, we heaved a sigh and agreed it was one of the hardest things we’d ever had to do. 

     It was my turn. Dan dialed my parent’s home in Fayetteville then stared out the window again. When my father answered I said, “Hi, Dad.” As usual, he replied with a cheery, “Hey there! Wait a minute, let me give the other phone to your mother.” I could hear him walking through the house, and the click of the second handset. Usually, he would hold the phone out to Mom and when she asked, “Who is it?” he’d say something like, “There’s a strange woman on the phone, asking to talk to you.” Or, “I don’t know, I think it’s a crank caller.” Sometimes I’d play along, breathing noisily into the mouthpiece and then, in a raspy voice, asking, What are you wearing? My mother was a good sport, she laughed every time.

     Maybe Dad had sensed some tension in my voice today, because this time, when she asked, “Who is it?” he said, “JeanBean,” using an old nickname. “Oh!” she said, delighted, and then, “Hi honey!” They were not making this easy for me and I could feel my eyes stinging. 

     “Hi,” I said, and then, wanting to get it over with, “I...have some bad news.” Silence. Then, hesitantly, Mom said, “Oh?” 

     I forced the words out: “Dan has cancer.”


     Dan has cancer. 


     The phrase continued to hover in the air between us, like a ghost summoned with a Ouija board. I wanted to punch the ghost; to send the words smashing against the walls. This couldn’t be real. I felt like I was stuck in that place between dreaming and waking, where both sides feel equally tenuous. Punching the ghost would be futile; it had no substance. The enemy was somewhere inside Dan’s body, and as hard as that was for me to grasp, it had to be terrifying for him.

     I could hear Mom talking from far away, but my throat clamped down on a sob and I couldn’t talk. Dan turned to look at me and the empathy in his eyes broke my resolve. As tears began streaming down my face, he reached out his hand and I gave him the phone. In a calm and steady voice, he told my parents about the diagnosis, and our plans for the immediate future. The phone cord coiled in his lap like a viper, unpredictable and deadly.


Posted February 20th, 2021  Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2021