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One Man's Fight to Keep His Wanderlust Alive : JOURNEY: Comfort of Last Travels

May 26, 1991|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

Soon after he learned he had cancer and just two weeks after a colostomy operation, Ed McNeilly flew to London on a two-week getaway. His wife, Jean Craig, had doubts about the trip, reminding him of his chemotherapy treatments. "So what?" McNeilly replied. "It's just a shot."

And so they went to London, and then to the Caribbean and Hawaii. They made at least a dozen trips together in the 18 months between McNeilly's diagnosis and death, and Craig is convinced they brought him not only pleasure but a positive mental outlook that enabled him to fight back as hard as he could.

Today, Craig, who lives in Malibu, carries a snapshot of her grinning husband, taken on their snorkeling vacation on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman. He's dressed in a flowered shirt, baggy swimming shorts and a wide-brim straw hat. Looking tanned and fit, except for a pudgy belly, he seems to all appearances to be a typical middle-aged American tourist having a good time.

Indeed, McNeilly was enjoying himself, as Craig recalls, although six months earlier he had been diagnosed with both lung and colon cancer--which ultimately would take his life at age 59--and he was still undergoing rigorous chemotherapy. Despite the extreme nature of his illness, of which he was fully aware, McNeilly insisted on maintaining a rigorous travel schedule while he battled for life.

"Travel is the most life-affirming thing you can do," says the 53-year-old Craig, who is president of a Los Angeles-based advertising firm, Kresser/Craig. "You're seeing something new. You're feeling good. You are telling your body you are not ill. You are fighting back."

Certainly there were obstacles to overcome, not the least of which, says Craig, was the fear that something might go wrong while they were an ocean away from the doctor. As the cancer progressed, McNeilly underwent a colostomy operation, and the couple also had to cope with wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, tubes and other medical apparatus.

Nevertheless, they continued to travel, and Craig credits McNeilly's willpower as much as all the medical treatments for keeping him physically active almost until the day he died.

Since she lost her husband in 1988, Craig has pondered the impact of their travels on both his and her mental well-being during the very difficult months after he was diagnosed. And she offers two interesting insights that could come only from someone who has shared the life of a terminally ill loved one.

"Our trips," she says, "gave Ed something to talk about with his friends. He didn't want to talk about his cancer, and he could go have lunch with his cronies and tell them, 'We're going to the Caribbean.' And when we came back, he could show them photos and tell them about the trip. It helped him keep his life-affirming attitude."

At the same time, "I felt that when we were traveling Ed thought he was treating me," she says. "When you're sick, you can feel guilty--that you are being a burden, a disappointment, that you are not doing your share." Because he made an effort to keep traveling, "Ed felt he was bringing something terrific into my life. It is a very positive aspect.

"Travel, for us, was a way for Ed to feel that everything was OK. It was a way to fight off the downward spiral which people who are ill often fall into because their lives are those of 'sick' people. Travel was the way Ed found to get his mind off of his illness and onto activities he loved."

Craig is the author of "Between Hello & Goodbye" (Tarcher, $18.95), a just-published book that chronicles her husband's determined but losing fight against cancer. Partly it is a story of courage. McNeilly was a vigorously independent man who was determined to attack his cancer, rather than simply treat it as some doctors advised. In one impressive tactic, he quickly made a personal study of the country's major cancer research programs to find those that offered him the most hope.

And partly the book is a criticism of some aspects of the medical profession, which Craig says often can be unfeeling. "I've learned . . . that doctors never tell you much," she writes. "They precisely answer the precise questions you ask, and that's all. They never offer information. They never explain anything, unless you press. And you have to learn how to press, which puts the taste of steel in my mouth every time I walk into a doctor's office." Throughout the book, however, a third theme unfolds: travel as medicine.

"The terminally ill aren't dead," says Craig. "Ed looked forward to travel. My only regret is that we didn't do more of it." As it was, they journeyed to London, Grand Cayman Island, the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Santa Fe, Florida, Boston, Cape Cod, Connecticut, Dallas and Santa Barbara.

Craig urges people who are terminally ill to keep traveling, if they can manage it, for the mental boost. Among her suggestions to ease the way:

--Pick a place where you can settle in. "This is not the time to do a whirlwind tour. Go someplace and squat."

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