Tiger Tough: A Bend in the Road
By Russell Rawlings
The rules never applied to Allan Head. The longtime executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association did not look his age and he certainly didn’t act it.
At 70, the man with the big laugh and an even bigger heart was looking forward to whatever came his way during his final two years at the NCBA – his retirement date has been announced as Jan. 1, 2017.
Life was good.
Then came the unexplained weight loss. His workout routine at the YMCA was still getting done but it was taking longer. There was a little numbness under one arm. He found himself pausing to catch his breath at the top of the steps at the N.C. Bar Center, yet he refused to take the elevator.
“We have an elevator?” he asks.
His doctor ordered a number of tests. Unbeknown to Allan and Patti, his wife of 47 years, the results were not good. The doctor scheduled an appointment with an oncologist.
“On Tuesday, Oct. 14, we met with the oncologist,” Allan recalls vividly. “We sat down at a table and he said, ‘Do you know your diagnosis?’
“And I said no, but we know it’s not good because we’re sitting here. The doctor was a little surprised that at that point we had not been told.”
The oncologist paused. Then Allan and Patti Head heard those fateful words that they will never forget: stage IV metastatic renal cell cancer.
“My first reaction,” Allan said, “was this is not me. I looked around the room. He surely wasn’t talking to me.”
But he was.
“Immediately, Patti and I knew we were facing a life-changing experience that we had never anticipated. I had been a college athlete, I had worked out regularly since then, and I am in relatively good physical condition.”
The doctor said that was good, because people who are physically fit fight cancer far better than those who are not. Still, the news was not good.
“Stage IV is bad,” Allan said. “Stage IV means the cancer has metastasized to other parts your body.”
What happened next, and what continues to happen to this day, is the point of this story, and why it is being told.
Families who have not dealt with cancer in some form or fashion are few and far between. The Heads are not the first family to go through something like this, nor, sadly, will they be the last.
They have been encouraged to share their story for many reasons, in part because their family, which stretches far beyond the boundaries of their three children and eight grandchildren to encompass the membership and staff of the NCBA, needs and wants hear it.
By far the most commonly asked question among leadership and the membership in recent months has been, “How’s Allan doing?”
This is also a story of faith. The Heads are a devout, faith-based couple who speak lovingly of their relationship with God and Jesus Christ. They belong to two churches – one in Raleigh and one near their second home at Lake Gaston.
“We felt like people would want to know,” Allan said, “because if the shoe was on the other foot, I would want to know what you were going through so I could be there for you, to pray for you, and to let you know that I care for you.
“Why wouldn’t I want you to know? I didn’t want people we care about finding out from somebody else. That is why we decided to be open about it.”
Upon hearing the bad news, the Heads undertook the difficult task of informing their children. They were encouraged to seek a second opinion and, after considering their options, placed Allan’s care in the hands of the highly regarded medical team at the Duke University Cancer Center. He was scheduled for surgery on Oct. 23.
“That was to remove the kidney where the cancer mass was living,” Allan said. “That was the cancer cell that had sent the bad cells through the rest of the body. The doctors wanted to get to the mother ship and get it out of there before it did more damage.
“The tumor on my spine was one of the places where the renal cells had metastasized; it was the place that was pinching the nerve which was causing the numbness under my arm. Symptoms, diagnosis, and now we’re headed into surgery.
“This was a big deal for somebody who has never been sick in their life.”
Between the diagnosis and the surgery, Allan composed an email that was distributed to the NCBA Board of Governors, past presidents of the organization, staff members, fellow bar executives across the country and many others.
In closing, he borrowed from a phrase often used by his grandchildren: “It’s time to be tiger tough.” The saying originates from one of the grandchildren’s Cub Scout pack, the Tigers.
The night before his surgery, the Heads joined their children for a family dinner at the Angus Barn, “where we go on any special occasion,” Allan said. “(Proprietor) Van Eure knew what we were going through. She came up to our table with a white box in her hand and I thought to myself, ‘that’s nice, she’s bringing me a pie.’
“Immediately when she got to the table, she said, ‘This is not for you. What’s your doctor’s name?’ Then she wrote his name on the box and added, ‘Please do a good job on my friend Allan. There’s plenty more pies where this one came from.’
“Then she told me to give the pie to him.”
On the morning of Oct. 23, family and friends gathered at the hospital and said prayers before and after Allan went into surgery.
“There I am going into surgery with a pie in my hand,” Allan said. “The surgeon comes in and I said, ‘This pie is for you,’ I don’t know if that had ever happened to him.
“My first question was how long would I be in the hospital. He said two to five days, and I held up two fingers. Right away he can see that I am optimistic and positive about what is happening to me. If there is a message I want to share with people it’s that it helps to be optimistic and positive when you go through something like this.
“He said, ‘We’ll see how this goes.’
“I was out of there in two days.”
While he was in surgery, something special was taking place back at the N.C. Bar Center.
“I did not know about this until after the fact,” Allan said, “that one of our past presidents, Janet Ward Black, was here speaking at the Bar Center. She knew I was going into surgery at 10 a.m., and had a message sent out to our staff inviting anyone to come and pray with her.
“That was a wonderful thing for one of our past presidents to do. It was reported to me by one of our staff members who participated that they circled up and she prayed as only Janet Ward can pray. That was really special.”
He may not have known about the prayer when they rolled him into the operating room, but Allan Head did know that he was not alone.
“God is with you,” Allan said. “You have to be, and I am at peace with whatever happens. However bad it is, Patti and I are so thankful for all the blessings which we have been given in our life, which are many, and we don’t take them for granted.
“This is a bend in the road (see sidebar) which we were not expecting. We had everything planned out, and now it is a little different. What are you going to do? Do you go home and feel sorry for yourself or do you face this positively with good medicine and hugs and love and prayers from good friends and family that you are going to get through this?”
The one aspect of this ordeal which has been overwhelming for Allan and Patti is the outpouring of love and support they have received from across the country. They have boxes full of letters and cards and books that family and friends have provided. Prominent among the collection are drawings of tigers and a stuffed tiger toy that Allan displays proudly.
“The first person who walked in to my office when I got back to work was John Jernigan, another of our past presidents,” Allan said. “He walks in the door with a book, ‘Where the Buffaloes Roam: Building a Team for Life Challenges.’
“Because of our decision to be very, very open, and it was the right decision, we have received hugs and love and prayers from all over the place.”
Following surgery and his release from the hospital, Allan went home to recuperate for two weeks.
“Allan’s testimony for other people is the way that he is so optimistic,” said Patti. “Other than the surgery, and it wasn’t the full two weeks he was supposed to take off because I remember driving him to the office, he has not missed a day of work.
“It is inspirational how he gets energy, satisfaction and comfort from being at work and serving North Carolina lawyers. In my book, the North Carolina lawyers get great service from Allan and he gets great support from them.”
Fueling Allan’s sense of optimism is the fact that in addition to the standard chemotherapy regimen, he was selected to participate in an experimental immunotherapy trial program under the auspices of Argos Therapeutics, Inc., which recently broke ground on a new manufacturing facility in Durham.
Thirty patients at Duke have been selected, 15 who are in a control group and 15 who are actually taking the experimental drug.
“We were lucky,” Allan said in regard to being randomly selected to receive the experimental drug. Now you’ve got two things going for you – the chemo and the trial drug.”
So how’s he doing?
“It’s too early to tell,” Allan said. “I had five spots where the cancer was located that they were hoping to treat with the initial chemotherapy. They successfully treated four of the five. That’s a good report!
To attack the fifth spot, his doctors have switched Allan to a stronger medicine which has some stronger side effects.
“One must learn to be patient on this journey, which is often difficult,” Allan said, “but I am learning.
“Some people have significant side effects. They lose energy, which I have not done. The doctors tell me I’m tolerating it as well as anyone. I think it is really a good thing that I can continue to come to work, come to the office and see the folks I really care about.
“You pass people in the hallway every day at the office and they look at you and they know you are sick, and they may not say anything, but you know that they care about you. This is so helpful. I don’t know how people get through this without having families who support you and without being faith-based.”
Part of what they are hoping to convey by telling their story, Patti said, is the importance of taking care of yourself before you have a problem.
“You never know when you may need to fall back on your good health. I encourage people to look at the whole person – the spiritual part and the physical part. ‘Healthy Spirit, Mind and Body’ is what the YMCA says, and I think that is important.
“It’s a three-legged stool, and I really don’t know how people do it when they’re missing one of those legs.”
Folks who know Allan Head best know that he loves a good saying, so much so that he has collected them through the years and published several versions of a little booklet titled “Head Notes.” Through his battle with cancer, he has received many such words of inspiration from others, including two which stand out as his favorites.
“The capital C in Christ is bigger than the little c in cancer,” Allan says with conviction.
“Do you know what an oak tree is?” he adds. “An oak tree is an acorn that refused to give up.
“I am not going to give up.”