News & Politics

Never Give Up

She Persevered in Her Dream to Become a Doctor, Then Had the Heart to Convince Him to Keep Fighting,

Steve Canton seems shocked by his tears.

Tough men are not supposed to cry, certainly not an Irish Catholic guy who grew up brawling and drinking on the streets of DC, started selling office products and then by luck and pluck scrambled to the top of the telecommunications industry. Not a man who says he trains his sales staff with "a whip, a gun, and a chair."

Yet here's Steve Canton, sitting at the Palm restaurant in the afternoon, dressed in a crisp white shirt and a silk tie, embarrassed by his tears. He's talking about how he went from getting kicked out of high school to making millions. Then it hits him. He would not have made the money or married the woman of his dreams if it hadn't been for a doctor who took it upon herself to see that his bravado didn't kill him.

Michaele Christian and Steve Canton both attended Catholic schools. Both had fathers who were doctors. Beyond that, the two had little in common. He's a fast-talking white salesman from DC. She's an African-American physician who grew up in Indiana.

They came together in a hospital room, where the woman doctor proved tougher than the guy who loved to fight.

Steve canton didn't look for fights; they just seemed to find him. On his first day at a Catholic high school in Hawaii, where he went with his brother after he was bounced out of Gonzaga High and walked out of Western High, he locked eyes with a local kid.

"Hey, haole boy," the boy said. Canton knew that was Hawaiian for "white boy." In a flash they were pounding each other.

Canton finally graduated from high school and tried college for two years. As a freshman, he was social chairman of his fraternity. "Not a good sign," he admits.

He returned to Washington, where he found work selling office products, mainly dictating machines. He cleaned bathrooms on the side, but he found his true calling in cold calls. He joined a company that was selling long-distance service, moved into management, and started to make money at age 28. He took out his aggression on the basketball court, where he traded street brawling for muscling under the hoop.

Canton played every Saturday at Georgetown University's outdoor courts. He was a five-foot-ten power forward, smaller and older than most of the guys.

One day a bigger black player said, "Cover that white boy."

Countered one of his teammates, "That white boy ain't no white boy."

The fall of 1986, after taking more than the usual pounding under the basket, Canton came home with back pains that wouldn't quit. The sore legs got better; the back got worse. He wondered if he had aggravated a football injury from his Gonzaga days.

He slept on the floor. He got a new mattress. His back hurt so badly, he went to the Georgetown University Hospital emergency room.

A doctor said he had probably strained his back moving furniture and sent him home. He called his brother Hank, a doctor.

"My back has been killing me," he said. "I think my hernia is back."

"That doesn't make sense," his brother said. "You need to see a urologist."

They told Michaele Christian she would never become a physician. She grew up in a comfortable home with her parents, brothers, and sisters in South Bend. Every Sunday she would go to the hospital to see her father, then an intern. She would beg to sit in the ER while he finished his shift.

Christian would dream up injuries that required x-rays, which she would imagine putting up on the light screens.

"I adored it," she says.

She didn't adore her schooling at St. Mary's Academy. She was one of three African-Americans in her class. She didn't excel at math and science, and when she told the nuns she wanted to be a doctor, they told her she wasn't good enough. She believed them.

In college she avoided math courses. She majored in political science but wound up working in the arts when she moved to Washington in 1969.

In DC she landed a job raising funds for the Kennedy Center. Then she moved into arts education and became the assistant principal at the newly created Duke Ellington School of the Arts–the Georgetown school that once was the Western High where Canton sought refuge after Gonzaga threw him out.

Michaele Christian's dream continued to gnaw at her.

"If you want to be a doctor," she told herself one spring day, "that's what you should do."

She worked at Ellington during the day and took premed classes at George Washington University at night. She fulfilled the requirements to apply to med school and scored well enough on tests that she was admitted to Georgetown University School of Medicine in the fall of 1976.

Christian says she was so worried about making it through that she overprepared for her classes. She kept her home life intact with her children and her husband, an attorney.

In 1980, she graduated first in her Georgetown class, the first African-American to achieve that distinction.

S teve canton arrived at the urologist's office feeling pretty good about life, despite his back pain.

He had been dating Susie Disbrow, the woman of his dreams, for six years. A week before, he'd asked her to marry him–and she'd accepted. He was living in Georgetown, driving a black BMW, running a sales staff for Cable & Wireless, a new telecommunications firm.

The urologist examined him, did a double take, and got a worried look on his face.

"Stay there," he said. "I want to go get my partner."

The partner examined him, and they told him he had a tumor and would need surgery–immediately.

"I don't have time for surgery," he said. "I have to check my schedule. I have 138 people reporting to me."

Canton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Days after his visit to the urologist, his left testicle was removed. He underwent tests that showed he was suffering from an aggressive cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and through his body.

Canton and his brother went to New York to see a specialist at Sloan-Kettering. Canton remembers lying on the stainless-steel table. The doctor asked him to run his hand over his side, below his chest.

"Feel the bump?" he asked. "That's a tumor. It's growing very fast." *

A fter medical school, michaele Christian contemplated what kind of medicine she would practice. Her family was growing, one daughter at a time until it reached three when she was in her residency.

She tried to love radiology. She knew it would allow her to have a regular schedule and a reasonably predictable home life. She couldn't get into dermatology. Finally, she chose oncology.

"I liked dealing with people who werein life-threatening situations," she says. "There can be the exhilaration of knowing you did make a difference for someone."

Dr. Christian became a fellow at Georgetown Hospital's Lombardi Cancer Center, where she was treating patients in the fall of 1986.

Steve Canton was presented with two choices. At Sloan-Kettering, doctors told him the cancer had gone through his body so quickly that the only way to cure it would be to take out his lymph nodes. The upside was that he might survive; the downside was he would never have children.

Canton went back to the Lombardi Center for a second opinion. He was once again in a hospital bed, surrounded by specialists. They examined him, read his chart, and walked out of the room. Michaele Christian returned. She was assigned to Canton's care, and she knew that many patients were embarrassed to admit they did not understand their condition or their treatment.

"Do you know what's going on?" asked Dr. Christian.

"Not really," Canton said.

She told him there was a relatively new chemotherapy treatment pioneered by Larry Einhorn, a physician at Indiana University. He'd started administering cisplatin, a toxic chemical, to treat testicular cancer. Patients were responding, but at a physical cost. Now it is a standard treatment, used on cycling star Lance Armstrong, whose testicular cancer had spread to his brain. But in 1986, doctors were still refining the treatment. And the cancer had to be at an early stage. Canton's was borderline late.

"You are in a bad situation," she told Canton. "Your cancer has spread quickly. If you had waited another week or two, we couldn't have treated this with chemotherapy."

She asked if he hoped to have children. Canton told her he had just gotten engaged, and having a family was the most important thing to him.

"If this works," she said, "you should be able to have children."

For the next six months, Canton would have to come into the hospital for five days of treatment, go home for five days, and return again.

"This treatment will kill you or cure you," she said.

The cisplatin first killed Canton's appetite. His weight dropped from 165 to 107. His hair started to fall out.

After a month of nausea, Canton started to lose faith. Christian told him the tumors were responding to the treatment, but all Canton knew was that a strapping young man who had been full of life was now a stick figure full of toxic chemicals. At one point, he was so sick he was afraid the cancer would kill him; then he got even sicker and was afraid it would not kill him.

In fact, Canton's chances of beating the cancer were improving. The tumors were beginning to shrink. One threat was a low blood-cell count that would leave him vulnerable to infections. He had to take his temperature three times a day. Fevers forced Canton into the hospital for more stays.

Fighting one bout, he was sharing a room with an airplane pilot. Canton was dozing when he heard the voice of Adrienne Kelly, a doctor at Lombardi who had grown up in his neighborhood. He knew her as Pee Wee.

"I'm sorry. We can't treat your cancer anymore," Canton heard her say. "The best we can do is try and keep you comfortable."

Canton thought she was talking to him. He came to and realized she was delivering the bad news to the pilot in the next bed.

S ix months into his treatment, Canton's doctors were beginning to declare victory.

The tumors had gone down by 80 percent. Canton had to return less often for the cisplatin. He was recovering his strength. One day in the spring of 1987 he came in for his treatment, sat down in the chair, and a doctor tried to hook up the intravenous drug. Canton's arms were still thin. The doctor couldn't find a vein big enough to insert the needle. He poked and poked.

"That's it," Canton said. "I'm out of here."

He got off the chair, stalked down the hall, and pushed the button. The doors opened, and he saw Dr. Christian. She asked how he was doing.

"I can't do this anymore," he said. "I'm not coming back."

The elevator reached the first floor. He got off and walked out of the hospital.

C hristian checked canton's charts. She knew he had been having trouble with nausea, she knew he had come down with several infections, and she knew the tumors were responding to treatment.

"In Steve's case," she says, "we had an adult with a very high probability of a cure. To risk losing him was unthinkable."

Canton went home to his apartment in Georgetown. Christian tracked him down. She remembers calling him. He remembers her driving to his place and asking him to take a ride. Once they were together, their conversation, pieced together from their recollections, went something like this:

CANTON: "I just can't handle the chemo anymore. I have no veins left. I'm pretty much better, and I am tired of being sick. I will come back only for radiation. That's all I need."

CHRISTIAN: "What medical school did you go to?"

CANTON: "What happens if I don't come back?"

CHRISTIAN: "You have to kill the tumor. You can't mostly get rid of it. The tumor can start growing again, and what grows back may or may not be responsive to the treatment."

Both remember what happened next.

Christian took Canton into the Lombardi Center's pediatric unit. He saw children who looked like him. They were thin. They had no hair. They looked much older than their years.

Canton felt as if he had visited a concentration camp. The two didn't speak until they walked outside into the afternoon sun.

Christian said, "For many of those kids, treatment isn't working. For you, it is."

Canton went back into the cancer center, took the elevator up, and asked to continue his chemotherapy treatments.

B y the summer of 1987, cantonwas cured. On his last day at the hospital, he found Dr. Christian. They talked for a while. There was a moment of silence.

"What do I do now?" Canton asked.

"Go on with your life," the doctor said.

Canton sent her a pair of earrings. He also wrote her a letter:

"I really appreciate what you have done. I guarantee you I will not waste my life."

Canton married Susie Disbrow. They have three daughters. He resumed his work in telecommunications, took equity shares of two companies that were sold, and became rich. He recently chaired a fund drive for Operation Smile, which provides reconstructive surgery to children in developing countries and the United States.

Dr. Christian went to work at the National Cancer Institute. She is now director of the cancer-therapy evaluation program, which funds research and sponsors clinical trials.

They came away with different lessons.

Dr. Christian: "Don't let other people define your aspirations. Do what you want to do."

Steve Canton: "Don't do what I did. Get a good education. You might wind up saving someone's life."