THE MAN WHO LICKED CANCER

By A. E. Hotchner
Published in "Readers Digest" November 1951

The Navy perhaps means more to Lt. Commander Edwin Miller Rosenberg than to any other seafaring man now in service. He talked about it in a tone of unconcealed devotion when I visited him aboard the destroyer Vogelgesang, of which he is skipper. As I listened to his incredible and inspiring story I studied him: handsome head, trim body, resolute eyes. No one would suspect that here was a man who at 32 had fought off four attacks of cancer. A man who was told five years ago that he had but two weeks to live. Miracle? Not in Rosenberg's estimation.

Even as a small boy in Idaho, Rosenberg wanted to go to Annapolis and become an officer in the Navy. All through school in Rock Island, Ill. he prepared himself for the Academy. He had no pull, but he stalked every important person in town. He sat in outer offices, wrote letters, managed to get introduced to bosses and Congressmen. After several years of his zealous campaigning the town became convinced that it would be unpatriotic not to send young Rosenberg to Annapolis. His Congressman recommended him for appointment.

Rosenberg was graduated from the Academy a few days after pearl Harbor, undersigned to the USS Omaha as the most junior of ensigns. In three years of combat he learned his job well; everything about the ship fascinated him. "All I've ever wanted out of life," he says, "is to be a good naval officer, and I knew that that meant learning everything about the Navy, including air."

Lieutenant Rosenberg left the Omaha and went to Dallas to start flight training. His wife, whom he had married in 1942, went with him. Rosenberg was in his final course at Pensacola when one Sunday morning he was stricken with a violent stomach-ache. He ran a fever of 104 degrees, his right side was red and swollen and he was in acute pain. The tentative verdict at the naval dispensary was undulant fever. But at the end of ten days the fever subsided, the swelling disappeared and he went back to flight training.

In January 1945 he got his Navy wings. However, while running an obstacle course, he hit his groin and the ensuing attack was even more serious than the first one. High fever, backache, nausea - now he knew he as a sick man, but he was determined not to be put out of action.

He was aboard the aircraft carrier Rudyerd Bay when the war ended. In constant and severe pain, he could not stand straight and was losing weight and energy. The ship's doctor was worried, but Rosenberg was bent of staying with his ship until it was decommissioned.

The Rudyerd Bay was moth-balled in 1946, and Rosenberg entered Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston. Two days later surgeons removed a tumor from his right side. Then they told him the grim truth. The groin tumor was malignant, and they had found another tumor inside a kidney. They were going to perform a cystoscopy, to determine its nature.

"Mention the word 'pain' to me," Rosenberg says, " and immediately I think of the cyctoscope. They certainly separate the men from the boys with that one."

After the cyctoscopy, a naval doctor came into Rosenbergs room. " when I am going to tell you is not easy," he said. "But I think you'd prefer it right from the shoulder. That kidney tumor is cancerous. I'd say you have about two weeks to live. In cases like yours, radiation is used. We're going to send you to Brooklyn Naval Hospital where they specialize in cancer.

Later the doctor came back to ask Rosenberg if he would like legal help in drawing up a will.

That afternoon Rosenberg was wheeled into a medical class as an exhibit of " cancer that will in all probability be fatal." The lecturer said, " Young men like this can't have much more than two, three week life expectancy.

"By the time I got back to my room I was boiling mad," Rosenberg says. "I sent for the doctor. 'Listen,' I said. "All day people have been saying, "Poor Rosenberg, no hope for him." The way I see it, hope is a thing for me to determine, not medicine. You just do your best for me and let me do the hoping. You say radiation is the one change -- well, let's get down to the X-ray machine, so I can get back to active duty. What the hell's this fear that gets every body the minute they hear the work cancer?"

"I know how you feel," the doctor had replied, " and you're right about not wasting time-- we'll give you an X-ray treatment before you leave tonight for Brooklyn Naval. But you better be set straight about one thing -- even if you should overcome the cancer, you'll never be able to stay in the Navy. No cancer patient ever has. "

"Let's worry about that when we come to it," Rosenberg had said.

When the doctor left the room, Rosenberg bowed his head and prayed, silently and intensely. For in prayer Rosenberg, a devout Lutheran, has always found strength. "No man should try to assess another's hope," he says, "until he has heard his prayers."

In the weeks that followed, at Brooklyn, Rosenberg underwent constant radiation. Each day, dye was pumped into the kidney so that the cancer could be studied. After each treatment he was violently sick. Yet not once did he discuss his illness in anything but positive terms with his wife, who was constantly at his side. Nor was any lawyer consulted to put his affairs in order.

In three months the "miracle" was achieved. The doctors marveled at the X-ray plates which showed that the malignant tumor had disappeared. Rosenberg felt fine.

He asked to be returned to active duty. But the policy of the hospital's survey board was to put cancer patients on the permanently retired list. Rosenberg pleaded: "I'm well. Give me a chance to pick up my life where, I left off."

The board compromised: take a 30-day leave, and then they would study the results of a thorough physical examination. At the end of the leave he reported to the hospital, confident of his fitness. But the Navy's medicos found a new cancer - in his neck. When he was back in the hospital for X-ray treatment, Rosenbergs candle of hope with its wick of prayer burned just as brightly. The cancerous tumor was contained, then gradually diminished, finally was obliterated.

This time, however, the survey board was firm. So, in September 1946, Rosenberg appealed to the retirement board in Washington. "I'm to good a naval officer to be retired," he pleaded. "If I live only a year, at least the Navy will have gotten that year's server out of me -- otherwise they'll be paying me retirement money and getting nothing for it.

The board said that it could not operate on so tenuous a possibility. The statistical chart gave Rosenberg an estimated life expectancy of six months. "Enjoy your last days with your family."

"What am I, a statistic or a human being?" Rosenberg demanded.

The board was sympathetic. He should take up the matter with the final authority, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. For the next six weeks Rosenberg practically lived in the M&S offices. He finally got an interview with a captain who advised him to go to Florida and lie on the sand.

"I can't sit around and wait to die," he said. His perseverance paid off. He was sent to Bethesda Hospital for a checkup -- if he passed he would be returned to sea duty.

Rosenberg prayed as never before in his life. At Bethesda he endured another cystoscopy, submitted to a long series of tests. The tests disclosed that -- for the fourth time -- he had cancer, in the same region as the first one.

Still Rosenberg did not lose heart. It was March 1947 by the time he was again declared okay. But he knew the retirement that had been slapped on him was final. It had been a heartbreaking fight. He had lost.

He rented a house in Annapolis and got a job teaching in a private school. Within a year he had angled an assignment teaching seamanship and navigation at the Naval Academy. Each year, on the anniversary of his retirement, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, telling his what good shape he was in and asking to be recalled to active duty.

But the only way this could happen was to have a special law passed.

For weeks Rosenberg haunted the Senate Chamber. One day during a recess met Senator Hickenlooper. When the Iowa Senator heard his story, he promised to introduce the necessary bill.

On July 10, 1950, the unprecedented legislation came up before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Rosenberg was asked if the wanted to make a statement. He talked from his heart.

"Mr. Chairman," he said, in a voice almost overcome with emotion, "the Navy is my heart and soul. There is nothing else in life that I care to do. I do not think it is right for the country to support a healthy man for doing nothing, and I think that by putting me back on the active list it can obtain a competent naval officer. "I am confident that with the Lord's help I have about 30 more years of service that I am willing to contribute."

The bill was eventually passed by the Senate. Painstakingly, Rosenberg repeated the same process of determined persuasion to get the bill passed by the House. The President signed it on August 22, 1950.

After completing refresher courses, Rosenberg was assigned to active duty aboard a destroyer. When I interviewed him, his ship had returned to Norfolk after months in the Mediterranean. "I am a well and happy man," he told me. "I have a nice home here in Norfolk, a lovely wife and a four-year-old son. And I'm aboard one of the best ships afloat.

"When the newspapers carried the story of my recovery, I received mountains of letters from people all over the world. They begged me to give them the cancer cure I had used. I wrote every one of them: believe in yourself, and in the Lord; that is the cure, if you want to call it that. The man who gives up hoping is a victim; the man who hopes can conquer. When I was at Brooklyn Naval Hospital I talked to hundreds who came into the wards ready to die, scarred by a word -- cancer.

"I asked them if they knew how to pray, and if they didn't I prayed with them and helped them to learn.

Pretty soon they had built up their morale, and cancer was just a disease. Some of those men did die, but many of them lived, perhaps because they had grown stronger than their fear. There was that morning at Chelsea when the doctor suggested I send for a lawyer to settle my affairs. If I had sent for a lawyer, I'm sure that I would be dead today."

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