You don't get a Stage-4 cancer diagnosis and go on your merry way. You just don't. Stage 4 means the cancer has metastasized. Stage 4 means it's spread. It means your body has surrendered and the question of giving up your personal ghost is likely not an "if" but a "when."
Dan Rogan's cancer entrenched itself in his esophagus and got comfortable. By the time he hauled ass to the emergency room four months ago at the insistence of his co-workers—he showed up to Lola for a night shift yellow in the face—his lymph nodes might as well have been cantaloupes.
He got shuffled around the Clinic for the requisite tests, and when a doctor finally touched base, he led with this potent nugget: if Rogan hadn't come in that day, he would've been dead by the end of the week.
Good news thus disbursed, the doctor went on to use the words "cancer," "incurable" and "inoperable" in the same sentence.
"Some people live three months, some less," the doc told Rogan. "But we think you'll live 12."
Rogan says he stopped listening after he heard the word 'cancer.' His friend Sue was there, asking the hard questions and gathering intel.
"Can he smoke?" she asked. "Can he still drink?"
"I didn't care what he said," Rogan admits. "All I thought was: I can do heroin now if I want to. Right? I mean, who cares? Why stop doing all the bad stuff? So I can die healthy?"
Four months ago, this Cleveland bartending legend started doing just exactly what he pleased. And here's what he did: he lived.
Dan Rogan was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago.
It's a Thursday evening in June, and Cleveland's heat has arrived with the force of a high-watt bulb. On the Fairmount Wine Bar's patio out back, patrons' forearms imprint themselves on the countertop as oblong diagonals of sweat. This is how they peel off: audibly.
But it's pleasantness that pervades, despite the humidity. Cleveland Heights could almost be the French Riviera as dusk descends: these tangled vines, this ambient music, these elegant shirts.
Rogan arrives in jeans and a short-sleeved button-up. He's attached via tube to a fanny pack with his chemo gear. He sits down gingerly at the bar and orders a vodka lemonade.
"I used to just drink vodka on the rocks," Rogan says," but I thought I ought to at least make some concessions to this disease."
He's been at chemo all day—one of those eight-hour marathon sessions—but remains astonishingly upbeat. He managed to get some shuteye after the clinic.
Rogan's as playful as a man in his twenties and as worldly wise as a man in his eighties, so 50—he reports his age without camouflage or remorse—makes a certain sort of mathematical sense. He wears a not-quite-ginger goatee with pizzazz.
When the drink arrives, tall and fragrant, Rogan regards it as one might a terrible infant—a thing both volatile and precious.
"It's gonna hurt going down," he admits, fingering his throat where the chemo's been pumping.
Rogan says the cancer's still there—"I don't think they ever really get rid of it"—but his doctor has been bewildered by the turnaround.
"Am I gonna be dead at the end of the year after all?" Rogan asked his doctor two weeks ago, when his lymph nodes had returned to normal size and he seemed, all theories to the contrary, sort of cured.
"I don't think so," the doctor replied. "You should be celebrating."
Rogan's more candid than most when talking about his illness, but he didn't tell his doctor that he'd been celebrating since he got the diagnosis.
Dan Rogan was supposed to get worse quickly.
"For me it started out terrible and then got better," Rogan says.
From the moment he received the bad news, Rogan entered a period of black days. He felt like hell and looked even worse. His friend Kathy Blackman—the revered owner of the Grog Shop and B-Side—took him in and presided over his descent.
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