Randy Parker, Nelson Makua, Jim Kauahikaua, Gary Safarik. A musician, an artist, a geophysicist and a former politician – four very different Big Islanders had never heard of head and neck cancer until they were afflicted. “I can only taste food on one side of my mouth,” Makua laughs. “I can hardly swallow and most food tastes like metal,” Parker adds. Both, along with Safarik, were diagnosed and completed treatment within the last year. Kauahikaua, ten years out from treatment , recalls “everything tasted like paper,” even ice cream which he said “tasted like cold paper.”
“Any cancer diagnosis is life-changing,” Kauahikaua’s wife, singer/musician Jeri Gertz explains. “We were strangers in a strange land – having to learn a language we didn’t understand, but had to learn fast.” Currently Scientist in Charge at the HawaiianVolcano Observatory, her husband’s “new normal” health picture features “fatigue, hearing loss, altered sense of taste, an inability to eat any spiced or dry foods due to saliva reduction, and scar tissue in his throat.”
“Head and neck cancer can range from tumors in the mouth, nose, neck, base of the brain, larynx, throat, and or esophagus. It can strike cigarette smokers, as well as those who never had a puff – because unfortunately, it is an ‘equal opportunity’ disease,” Jeri learned.
Randy, Nelson, Jim and Gary all ran the gauntlet of head and neck cancer treatment – aggressive chemotherapy and radiation protocols with harsh side effects. Like many other cancer patients, they had to cope with nausea, extreme fatigue, the loss of hair. Radiation to the head and neck, along with chemo drugs left them with mouth sores, loss of hearing, taste buds and the option of a stomach feeding tube, due to raw, painful throat tissue burned by radiation. Makua (who opted for no feeding tube) and Safarik (who did) both lost about 30 pounds or more.
They also endured depression, huge medical bills, and a very direct confrontation with their mortality. “Only another cancer patient understands,” Makua said, referring to the ever present awareness that the cancer may come back.
“I still cannot believe I have cancer,” Parker says and admits that when he first noticed a lump on his neck, he made a mistake. “I waited a few months before I told my doctor, thinking it was just an infection. Don’t wait,” he advises In April 2013, physicians at Queens diagnosed Randy with a stage IVa hypopharangeal cancer — cancer near his larynx. Grim news for Randy who had a weekly gig at Cafe Pesto. “It was a tough decision to stay in Honolulu with my sister Brook, but she and her husband were terrific.”
The link between this group included planning a benefit to help Parker cover extraordinary medical expenses for his treatment.. Jeri lined up musicians who donated their talent for a day long concert. Makua designed a limited edition Na Makua T-shirt that features lyrics from one of Randy’s songs available at the event. Parker’s former KHBC radio coworker, Stephanie Salazar, and retired businessman Daryl Smith, got a team of volunteers to present a silent auction and chili and other food sales as part of the August 24th event at Sangha Hall.
Recuperating at his Puna home, Parker is on a three month break as he waits for the residue chemotherapy drugs to leave his body. Still dependent on a stomach feeding tube for most of his caloric intake, he is confident that his next scan in September will show no cancer. And he is humbled by the generosity of the community. “I have so many people to thank. Friends I did not even know I had, new friends and good people. I have to get better so I can play at lots of their parties and events.”
On Saturday, August 24th, 2013, from 10am to 7pm at Sangha Hall in Hilo, friends, volunteers, and extended family joined together to kokua Randy Parker, and had a good time for a good cause. The stellar musical lineup included Mark Yamanaka, Lloyd Longakit, Ben Kaili & hula dancers, John Keawe, Randy Lorenzo & Friends, Lito Arkangel, Darryl Castillo, El Leo, Sherry Fox & Yisa Var, Rupert Tripp, Bruddah Waltah, Tina Garber, and Ira and Dru Kekaualua (Kolea).
Guest emcees included entertainer Jeri Gertz, (who filled in for Skylark, of KAPA radio, who had a last minute emergency), DC (B97), and Yisa Var (The Wave). The all day event featured a Silent Auction, ono food, chili contest [KGMB TV reporter Ramsay Wharton will judge the best chili of the day] and T-shirt sale. The silent auction closes at 4pm, and includes donated gift baskets and gift certificates from island merchants, restaurants, and others, along with artwork, Hawaiian crafts, sports memorabilia, guitars and even a Kawai piano. TV reporter Ramsay Wharton judging the best chili of the day.