Earl Piper spends much of the morning on the phone, fielding questions about burial plot locations, pathology reports and causes of death.
Later, he will go downstairs to prepare a man’s body for his funeral service. He’ll stand by as the man’s loved ones file in to celebrate and to mourn, and he’ll escort him to the place where they’ll say their final goodbyes.
“I enjoy helping people, and I think I do help people in a time that’s —” he trails off.
“You don’t have a (worse) time in your life than when you’re facing the death of a loved one.”
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Piper is as close as it comes to an expert on that subject.
He’s been the funeral director assistant at Bond-Mitchell for 25 years. He’s served as the county coroner for 11 years. He’s an associate pastor at The Bridge of Brown County church. And five years ago this week, he completed his first surgery on a cancer that’s now considered inoperable.
“I’m living with cancer. I’m not dying,” he says, before slipping into one of his signature quips.
“Well, I am dying, but who isn’t? One out of every one of us is going to die someday, but you just can’t spend your life thinking about it.
“And really, unless somebody asks me how I’m doing, or I wake up on one of those days when I literally feel like somebody ran me over with a truck, I don’t even think about it.”
About a dozen years ago, he was mowing the lawn outside his office when he realized something might be wrong. “I could not cut this small green section without stopping. It was like I had spent every ounce of energy I had,” he said.
He went to his doctor, who took a blood sample. Within a few days, Piper was pulling up to a building in Greenwood with a sign that read “oncology.”
“I thought, ‘I don’t have cancer. Why are they sending me here?’” he said.
At first, he saw a hematologist who was working in that building. Piper insisted that he had an iron deficiency and all he needed was a supplement. “Finally, I convinced her,” he said.
He went about his business for three or four years until he began getting severe pains in his abdomen a couple of times a year, so bad that they’d leave him curled up in the fetal position for 12 to 24 hours. “And then it would go away,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘It’s just a bellyache. No big deal.’”
But in 2012, the pain intensified and became more frequent. A gastroenterologist suggested he had irritable bowel syndrome and gave him medication, but “it didn’t even touch it,” he said about the pain level.
“One night, around midnight, one of these sessions hit me and there is probably no description for it,” he said. “I literally prayed for someone to break into my house and hit me over the head. That’s how bad it hurt.
“The next morning, my wife got on the phone with the gastroenterologist and said, ‘You do something, now.’”
After more intense testing, he was sent to another doctor, “a young fella,” who “hem-hawed around” before finally making eye contact with Piper and his wife, Anna.
“When he finally looked up at me, he had a tear rolling down his cheek, and he said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this.’”
“‘Where’s the cancer and what do I do about it?’” Piper asked.
Piper was an magnetic engineer before he got into funeral home work, and for a while, he did both jobs. He credits his aptitude for logic with guiding him through tough situations he encounters as coroner.
A surgeon took some 3-D scans of his insides — which Piper, the science guy, called “neat” — and adjusted the screen for the couple to view.
Piper knew immediately what he was seeing: Tumors, a lot of them.
The place they appeared to originate was near the ilium, where the small and large intestine come together. They’d come through the wall of the intestine and gotten into the lymph nodes. Plans were made to remove the affected sections and nodes.
But something looked odd in his liver, too, and the surgeon wasn’t sure if it was an equipment glare or another problem, because it didn’t resonate the same as the other cancer spots. He would take a biopsy.
The surgeon told him that when he went under, there was a chance he might not come back. Piper was nonchalant.
“I said, ‘OK. Think of the alternative. I win if I come back; I win if I don’t. ‘Cause the sad side is the ones you’re leaving behind, not that fact of what’s happening with you.”
The biopsy confirmed that the cancer had spread to his liver.
“I went, literally, ‘OK,’” he said. “It’s like, it’s alright. I’m not upset.”
He was prescribed 10 weeks of recovery time from the surgery. He was out for three and bored out of his mind, so he returned to work.
“They babied me like crazy over here,” he said of his Bond-Mitchell co-workers. “When I tried to do anything, someone would almost knock me out of the way trying to get me not to do that.”
On a follow-up visit with his oncologist, he had a final diagnosis: Stage 4 carcinoid cancer.
He was told that his case is not considered operable past this stage.
He could apply for a liver transplant, but even if he got one, it would be diseased within 6 months. Chemo and radiation weren’t options because of this cancer’s extremely slow growth; it could do more harm to the good cells than to the cancer cells, the doctor told him.
At the rate this cancer was growing, he could have had it for 10 years already, the doctor said.
“’The unfortunate thing about carcinoids is that there are no symptoms until you’re already at Stage 4,” he said.
Piper also was diagnosed with carcinoid syndrome — a range of side effects that about 10 percent of carcinoid cancer patients experience, but not all of them are the same for everybody.
He gets hot flashes as if he was going through menopause. His skin flushes frequently; he has intestinal problems; he could develop heart problems at some point.
He received a few extremely painful injections of a drug called Octreotide in an attempt to stem the side effects, but he quit when they seemed to have no effect besides slamming his insurance company.
“That’s money that could possibly help keep costs down for everybody else. I told my oncologist that I’m not taking them anymore. … She told me it could add to my lifespan.”
“I told her — because most people want to hear how much time they’ve got — I (couldn’t) have cared less. I’m going to keep ticking until I don’t tick anymore. She said with this Ocreotide, and based on several stage levels, there’s some people that live 10 to 15 years, but Stage 4 normally has a three- to five-year lifespan. I said, ‘OK, I can live with that. ‘But,’ I said, ‘I need to tell you one thing.’
“‘I shower frequently, even more than just Saturdays. And I have yet, when I washed the bottom of my feet, to see a date stamped on either one of them.’
“‘I know who brought me into this world, and I know who has it in his mind when it is that I get out of this world. And there’s nothing in between that I can do that will change that.’ So, we go along as we are.”
Piper hasn’t been to his oncologist or had any scans for almost two years. He figures things are probably the same as they had been — changing slowly — and he doesn’t need to be told that.
“I show up here every day. I’m still doing all my coroner cases all the time, so I’m doing good. Because on the 12th of this month, it’ll be five years since I’ve had my surgery. Do I look like I’m ready to fall out of my chair?
“It amazes me how people’s attitudes change when something happens to you. I’ve had tons of people in the community that’s acknowledged that I’m sick. … I get the biggest kick out of, never before did anyone come in and say, ‘You look good!’ Everybody tells me that now. Man, I should have gotten sick quicker. I must’ve been uglier than a duck before.”
His co-workers are encouraging him to slow down. His wife is, too. Piper has no plans to make any major changes.
“I don’t think about what I should be doing to limit myself; I figure my body will tell me what my limitations are, and until it tells me something, I really believe that’s what’s kept me up and going,” he said.
“I don’t take it as a death sentence. Could I drop over this afternoon? Sure, but so could you. You know, that little joke about the date stamp is true. We all have one, obviously, but it’s not given to us to see or understand. It’s just there, and when it happens, well, maybe that day it sucks to be you.”
His third term as coroner will be up next year, and he does plan to run again for another four-year term. But after that, “I’ll be almost 70, so that may be a good time to say, ‘That’s enough’ — given that I’m even here then.”
He smiles. “But as ornery as I am, I would not put it past me. Don’t underestimate a little varmint.”
Age: “63 going on 12”
Family: Wife of 44 years, Anna
Cancer type: Carcinoid, Stage 4