Hard times lead Islander to new life view

Chris Look and one of the major players in his support system — Izzy. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Sitting at Chris Look’s dining room table on a recent Saturday, hearing his story of several dances with physical and spiritual death and his sense of resurrection, the thought of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” came to mind.

Not that Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Look have much in common. Can’t imagine Scrooge hauling a couple hundred pounds of angry swordfish over the gunwales in 20-foot rollers. And back in the day, I’d have much preferred the burly Islander have my back in a bar fight than the thin-souled London bean counter.

But as Mr. Look sees it, at the end of the day, we’re all pretty much the same once we embrace a life perspective based on humility and goodwill. He’s happy to know that today. Certainly it worked for Scrooge, and during a recent interview, Mr. Look wore that same aspect of joy and awe that has endeared us to Scrooge’s delighted rediscovery of his loving humanity on Christmas morning more than 160 years ago.

Unlike the Dickens tale, Mr. Look’s metamorphosis did not occur overnight after a bad dream but through a series of actual nightmares over years.

Mr. Look was 58 years old last month, and he remembers when reaching 55 seemed like a stretch. He’s been battling a couple of kinds of cancer since 2004 and has been in remission from non-Hodkins lymphoma for three years.

“In 2003, my brother Billy fell out of his deer-hunting stand and in treating him, they found the cancer that killed him,” Mr. Look said. “In 2004, I fell out of a deer stand and went to the hospital. Before they diagnosed the cancer masses in my stomach — and I know this sounds strange — but I told my wife, Leslie, that I felt Billy in that hospital room with me. He told me I had cancer and that I would be okay.”

Three operations later, the stomach cancer was treated, but in early 2005 Mr. Look was diagnosed with lymphoma and began a three-year cycle of chemotherapy, cancer remission and its return, leading to a decision to do a stem cell transplant, harvesting Mr. Look’s own cells.

Mr. Look is familiar with the details of treatment, medications, protocols, and side effects. ” I feel like a professional patient,” he says with a smile. “The procedure for harvesting my cells involved staying alone in a room for 28 days while the protocols essentially killed the immune system, then replaced it with a new one. I was like a one-day old infant, you could say, with a new immune system. But it didn’t work.

“I was in tough shape mentally and physically at that point three years ago. I was ready to quit. But we had a family sit-down, and the doctor explained I could probably live for one to three years without another stem cell transplant. My family encouraged me to try and they volunteered to be tested as stem cell donors. My sister Joyce was a perfect match, which doesn’t happen that often. She suffered a lot, but she went through it.

“It was a 25 percent chance of success but when you’re in that place you’re desperate. It’s a scary time. The transplant worked. Recently, they tested my DNA and it is the same as Joyce’s. I have my sister’s DNA. No, I have no desire to wear pink, but it is a source of family jokes,” he laughed.

“My sister’s immune system attacks my body sometimes. It’s confused. It thinks my body is a foreign host,” he said, adding that those responses are treatable.

While Mr. Look was ready to throw in the towel three years ago, last month the Edgartown resident was back at Beth Israel supporting a man he’d met while waiting for his own checkup. “Gene was scared stiff, just like I was,” he said. “We got him on Skype in there and we talk a lot. We have a firm plan to go fishing next April 12. I made him put the date on his calendar. He’s coming to the Island.”

While he talked, Mr. Look held Isabel “Izzy”, a 16-week-old King Charles spaniel puppy, gently in his big hands. Izzy had crawled up his chest, tucked her head into his neck and gone to sleep.

“God, I love this dog. A friend gave her to me. I call her my depression dog. What a difference she’s made in all of our lives here,” he nods toward the kitchen where daughter Cassidy, 28, is preparing to go to work. In addition to Cassidy, Mr. Look and his wife, Island photographer Leslie Look, have a son, Christopher, now 25 and Cody, a 14-year old beagle. “Izzy’s even livened up Cody. He jumps around like a puppy himself these days.”

Mr. Look has been a commercial fisherman, a builder, and many other things Islanders do for a living. Now he counts himself lucky to work 10 hours a week on sales and bookwork at the invisible dog fencing company he used to run, now operated by his wife. He spends a lot of time treating a cascade of side effects from seven years of cancer treatments, including the surges of back pain that reflected on his face that Saturday from back pain in bones made brittle by steroids and chemotherapy.

He is focused on gratitude, however. “All these people who have helped me — Leslie, the kids, and my family. You know, we lived in an apartment in Boston for about a year. My parents were there constantly. I worried about that, but my dad said, ‘Son, there is no other way we’d rather spend our lives than being here.’

“I think it took a toll on them, and I think it shortened his life,” Mr. Look said. His dad, Christopher “Huck” Look III, a former businessman and Dukes County sheriff, died in February, 2011 at age 82.

In our conversation, Mr. Look repeatedly said that he hopes the telling of his story will help someone else. He does not believe in coincidence much these days but he does believe in the healing power of service and helping others. “Izzy here came from a friend whose husband had non-Hodgkins and she just presented her to me one day,” he said, stopping briefly to collect himself. “My family — my parents, Leslie, the kids, my sisters, Joyce and DeeDee and her husband, Jack Butynski. All they’ve done for me.

“And the unexpected good things, like Izzy, that keep happening in my life. Hey, cancer is scary, but it changes you in a good way, and I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened. This disease has been a gift: it’s made me grateful.

“Before this happened, I was a man who felt entitled, I had a false sense that this was my Island and I was very much in your face about it. God, I wish hadn’t pissed off so many people over the years. I was protecting myself, I guess.

“Now I know I’m just a splash in the pond and my little bit of the soup needs to be positive. I remember one day this year sitting with my dad in the hospital, and I thought, ‘now I’m a guy who wants world peace.’ This disease has changed my whole thought process. I want to help people. And, yeah, that’s why I’m doing this story.”