CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — Greg Bokor walked around his kitchen searching for something in the pantry while quietly listening to his wife, Maggie, describe the past few tumultuous years of their lives — wrecked by the recession, compounded by terminal illness.
Maggie said they moved to Maine from Maryland in 2006 to start a new life. They found a house in Cape Elizabeth off Mitchell Road, which Bokor, using his skills as a high-end residential contractor, renovated from top to bottom, hoping to use it to showcase his ability.
“When we came here, we had this really intense dream to start our lives and have children, the whole thing,” Maggie said March 15 as she poured agave syrup into freshly brewed tea.
Bokor’s contracting business did well until the housing market crashed in 2009, she said, forcing him out of work. He tried for the next couple years to find new employment in Maine, but the market remained weak.
Greg, now 44, began working out of state, still struggling to make enough to live, while the long days of traveling took a toll on his health. Meanwhile, Maggie was making jewelry in South Portland. They continued to have money trouble, their combined incomes still not quite enough to supplement the life they created around Bokor’s previous salary.
Eventually they filed for bankruptcy and attempted loan modification four times before the bank began foreclosure proceedings.
Last December, three days before they entered into a short-sale mediation for their home, the really bad news came: Doctors diagnosed Greg with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Tumors, including one about the size of a baseball on his liver, bulged from beneath his skin.
“I was like a lumpy dog,” Greg said.
The Bokors could be poster children for the modern-day worst-case scenario. But they also display boundless hope and are part of a growing trend of people turning toward alternative health care to supplement traditional treatments.
From curious to cancer
The first signs of Greg’s illness were mundane symptoms of sluggishness and being tired. He soon began feeling depressed, which the Bokors thought was a side effect of his frequent traveling and financial problems, Maggie said. Then, after reporting stomach pain, doctors told Greg he might have irritable bowel syndrome.
“We went from curious, to, ‘oh, you have depression,’ to, ‘oh, you have pancreatic cancer and three months to live,’” Maggie said. “It’s like being on a roller coaster and you can’t get off — you either grab on and go for the ride or scream the whole way down.
“When we got the diagnosis, I was prepared to find Greg an island with a hospital and enough morphine and go there to live out his days with him.”
But instead they sought treatment.
Bokor has been through seven of what he thought would be 12 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy. Last week, he said news from his oncologist indicated he may have to continue the treatment indefinitely, although in lower doses with fewer side effects.
During chemotherapy, Bokor is connected to a machine that pumps the toxic but effective chemical through his body for five energy-draining hours while he sits in a chair at the hospital. When he leaves he takes home a container of the drug that he can sling over his shoulder. A tube connects the device to a plug in his upper chest, allowing it to circulate through his body for the next couple days.
The treatments often require about week of recovery.
“I was really fortunate with this case of cancer,” he said, noting they caught it before it had blocked any passages. “The side effects [of chemo] have been quite manageable, but now it’s starting to take a noticeable toll. By the end of chemo it’s going to totally deplete me.”
Bokor is about 6 feet tall and weighed a healthy 180 pounds before the treatment began. Now, his muscle has all but disappeared and it’s clear he’s well below his previous weight.
His glasses hide some of the exhaustion in his eyes, while his jaw and throat cling tightly to his neck. The dress shirt he wears is loose, his arms almost lost in the sleeves.
“It’s incredible to see how much it took out of him,” Maggie said.
Still, Bokor said, he “loves” the chemo. And while it’s been challenging, physically and mentally, he remains surprisingly energetic and positive.
“Chemo gets a bad rap,” he said, a smile hiding his slightly sunken cheeks. Although it drains his energy and makes him sick, Bokor said it’s working and it’s one of few things that’s helping him right now.
Using the ‘toolbox’
Despite his measured fondness of chemo, Bokor has a skeptical approach toward traditional medical treatments.
“I view Western medicine [techniques] as a couple of tools out of all these tools in the toolbox,” he said.
In addition to chemotherapy, Bokor has regular acupuncture and energy work. He also maintains a strict diet and practices daily meditation, all of which he said has helped him stay as healthy as possible, allowing him to continue to do administrative work at Red Phoenix Construction, based in Topsfield, Mass.
While neither Greg nor Maggie spend a significant amount of time dwelling on why or how Greg got cancer — they’ve speculated about genetics or working around construction materials over the years — they know there’s more to just treating the cancer.
“Prevention is the best way to deal with it,” Bokor said. “Being a cancer patient has opened my eyes to the incompleteness of cancer care. There’s much more out there that traditional acute cancer treatment doesn’t offer. For people fighting cancer — I guess it’s OK to say that, ‘fighting’ — they need to recognize the other types of treatment that are out there.”
Bokor said everyone could benefit from taking a holistic approach to their lives.
“We’ll all be better off if we start taking responsibility for our own health care,” he said. “We’ve gotten lazy.”
And while personal responsibility can help, Bokor said people’s health problems stem from a systemic problem in not only the “medical industrial complex,” but also the “agricultural industrial complex.”
“Nutrition poses a major problem,” he said, pointing to what he called a general lack of availability of safe, healthy food and the inherent conflict of interest of the big agricultural industry. “The agricultural industrial complex has a bottom line that they’re always trying to improve.”
Still, Bokor said one of the most important aspects of his treatment and his road to recovery lies in the personal steps he has taken. One of those is simply talking with friends about what he’s going through and being honest.
“I’ve learned about being vulnerable and the value therein,” he said.
Along with all the different treatment methods come high medical costs, in addition to the chemotherapy, which alone costs $10,000 per treatment.
Luckily, about two months before his diagnosis, Bokor received health insurance from his job, which has continued to provide coverage even though he has been unable to work.
The Bokors had planned to move to Massachusetts to be closer to Greg’s work before they learned the diagnosis. But the financial impact of losing his job was too great to allow them to keep their home in Cape Elizabeth.
Now, the couple’s home is in a short-sale process, and they will have to find an apartment soon.
“It’s a little tough to be 40 years old and you have to ask your dad to co-sign on a loan for you because your credit has been ruined,” Maggie said.
Throughout Greg’s treatment, people have sent hundreds of letters sharing their thoughts, hopes, art and wishes. The items line two walls in one of their upstairs rooms.
They Bokors are hoping to take that support further, asking people to participate in an auction fundraiser scheduled from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St., Portland. There will be live music and food.
The event, which will feature a collection of art, items and services from around the area, will be both a live and silent auction, with proceeds going to help the Bokors pay for their living expenses and Greg’s therapies.
“The talent in this town is absolutely amazing,” Bokor said of the artists with items up for auction. “We hope to reach out to as many people as possible.”
And while the couple has had a tough few years, Maggie said that the process has been “transformational” for them. Seeing the letters and support lets her know that “everyone is on this journey with us,” she said.
The benefit is a continuance of that journey, she said, adding one of the mantras they’ve adopted: “We invite and expect miracles.”