Long Life Gives Back: The Night We Stood Against Cancer
“Everyone has a plan until they get a punch in the mouth.” –Mike Tyson
One morning in December 1989, I was driving over the Second Narrows Bridge to our small shared office space and listening to CKNW on my radio. Bill Good was broadcasting live from the Bayshore Hotel with many special guests and entertainers, raising money for the annual CKNW Orphan’s Fund Drive. In the time it took to cross the bridge, I had formulated a plan to make a significant (at least for our little business) donation of $720.00 to this cause.
Peter Nugent was my business partner at the time—a very special man who passed much too soon. Peter was in our 80 square foot office doing some paperwork when I came through the door and told him what I had been listening to and what we needed to do. I was well aware that Long Life was only a few months old, and we really didn’t have extra money to spend, especially for a totally unexpected reason.
In order to keep control of each renovation project, we used a system of “job numbers”, starting with Job #101. We didn’t want to tell our first customer that their job number was 1, feeling this didn’t instill much confidence! That day, the work order that Peter was writing up when I burst in was for Job #172, so I knew we had 72 customers. My rationalization to justify a meaningful gift had popped into my head at the crest of the bridge: if we donated a mere $10 for each customer’s project, it would add up to $720.00. We also decided that we would not spend money sending out Christmas cards to all our clients as was the custom in those days, but would send them a charitable receipt for their share of our gift to the Orphan’s Fund.
Peter was on board without much convincing, plus he knew Bill Good, so we grabbed our cheque book and jumped in his car, full of enthusiasm, and headed to the Bayshore while the event was still in high gear. It was a party atmosphere with everyone in high spirits. The joy of giving and helping those in need is powerful, a feeling that one only gets by giving to others. I was somewhat intimidated by the well-healed crowd, but Peter marched right up to where Bill was sitting, at the microphone, and announced that we wanted to donate, plus raise an on-air challenge to all the other companies in our industry to match or exceed our gift. He also explained to Bill that there was a catch to our gift: CKNW had to make out 72 different $10.00 tax receipts to 72 different people and give them all to us to mail to our clients.
Bill said he could make this happen, gave his mic over to Peter to make his live challenge, and took our cheque while shouting to the crowd that he had just received another $720.00. I don’t know about anyone else in that room at that time, but I felt damn good about what we had just done. Only a few short hours had passed since I was driving over the bridge with the usual stuff cluttering my thoughts, then an idea to do something for others popped into my head, and here I was, glowing. Talk about instant karma!
We continued to get this feeling, starting a couple of months later, when our clients received their unexpected tax receipts with a letter of explanation. Many called or wrote us to personally tell us that we were a special company. Long Life has continued this tradition over the years, and although CKNW has changed, we now support an organization that works to improve the lives of people living in poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This organization is Mission Possible, and they do amazing work providing employment for those that need a helping hand.
Giving back and sharing the pie is an important part of our culture, and I’d like to tell you about another cause that we have gotten behind in a big way, a cause that is personal for me.
To follow through on the Mike Tyson quote, my punch in the mouth came just before Christmas in 2010 when a nice young doctor at VGH told me that I had a rare type of blood cancer. This meeting was the culmination of several months of all sorts of tests trying to determine why my heart and kidneys weren’t working very well. The idea that cancer might be the cause hadn’t crossed my mind, and I assumed I had some sort of heart issue that would probably require treatment, but certainly nothing as scary as a cancer diagnosis.
Apparently, my cancer was quite advanced, and the specialists wanted to start aggressive treatment right away, which meant I was back at VGH on Boxing Day morning, just 4 days later. The oncologist started a regimen of chemotherapy that was quite intense and after a few weeks, I realized that I didn’t have the strength or mind-power to continue to run Long Life. I’m very grateful that my son Kris was helping me in the office at the time and was able to step into my role while I spent my days in bed or in the bathroom. When I dragged myself off the couch or out of bed, I always knew which room I was needing to get to; I just never knew whether I’d be sitting or kneeling.
My chemo routine continued through the months and gradually beat the cancer cells into submission by August of 2011. My oncologist is a brilliant woman who mixed and matched the available chemo drugs to come up with a combination that was stronger than cancer, so by August, she informed me that my cancer was in remission, and I was free to go rebuild my strength and my life. She would monitor my monthly bloodwork because she also knew that the cancer would almost certainly return and when it did, she’d be ready to smack it again. I went back to a somewhat normal life, but with a different attitude about what matters the most and what my priorities should be. I had no idea if I’d be back in treatment in a few months or a few years, but believed the day would come.
Kris was doing a great job running the business, and I didn’t want to get back fully in the saddle anyway, so I spent the next couple of years working part-time and focusing on making the most of each day. I also began in earnest to learn all I could about my cancer and was soon a regular at information sessions put together by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). I learned a great deal from the doctors and scientists who presented at these functions, as well as the other cancer survivors who attended. In October of 2011, my family and a few friends joined me for my first Light the Night Walk on the seawall at Stanley Park. What a moving event this was, with thousands of people carrying different coloured lanterns against the night sky. There are 3 colours: red for those walking in support, gold for those walking in memory of someone lost to blood cancer, and white for someone like me who is a survivor. This annual walk is a major fundraiser for research and has become a family tradition. Every year is powerful.
As the years went by, my cancer stayed at bay, and I became more involved in volunteering with the LLS to support others who had been recently diagnosed. This is very rewarding work and I feel blessed to be able to share my experience with others. In 2015, I was asked by the LLS to be the “Honoured Hero” for their Team in Training fundraising effort at the Nike Half Marathon in San Francisco. My daughter Katie took up the challenge and the team had a memorable time at the event. Although my cancer has impacted my ability to run, I was certainly able to share in the enthusiasm of thousands of LLS participants from around North America. That feeling of giving and being of service overwhelmed me again, and it has many times since that morning at the Bayshore in 1989.
By 2016, the way I spent my days and my attitude about what is important in my life had changed quite a bit since my wake-up cancer punch in December 2010. I began to let myself believe that I was unique and that my cancer would not make an encore, but by the fall of 2016, my bloodwork showed that was not the case. I began 8 months of chemo treatment again, although not as aggressive because this time, the cancer was caught early. I wasn’t as sick either because of the lower need for drugs and I was in better physical shape going in. By the spring of 2017, the cancer was once more in remission, and I was back to monthly monitoring. However, by fall of that year, it turned aggressive and my health began to deteriorate rapidly; so, I began new cycles of treatment with some different drugs. This had some positive results, but no homerun. My oncologist told me about a new drug that looked to be perfect for someone like me, but it wasn’t available in Canada. Although it had been approved for use, it was not being funded by any of our provinces and is very costly ($8,500 per treatment).
The more I learned about this new drug called Darzalex, the more I believed it was the answer for me, and I didn’t have any other options. I reached out to my friends and the LLS who I had gotten to know well over my years of volunteering and asked them what I could do to get this drug in my body. They are experts and used to lobbying the Government on behalf of people with blood cancer. They put me in touch with the manufacturer of Darzalex and the local representative, who was also actively making a case for BC to consider making this drug available. The LLS told me to write letters to people with impact in these decisions, and to write my MLA. I became a burr under the saddle of those who make these tough decisions, and at the same time, decided to go ahead and self-fund some treatments to try and stay alive. This wasn’t how I planned to spend my retirement savings, but if I wasn’t around, I wouldn’t need the money anyway.
I began treatment with Darzalex in mid-January of 2019, and after just 2 treatments, my cancer was once again knocked into submission. I couldn’t believe my bloodwork when I saw these results, and even better is the fact that the province began funding Darzalex within a month of me beginning treatment. I still go to VGH every 4 weeks for an infusion, and my cancer is still being held under control. I am a lucky guy!
The reason I tell you this long story is to explain why supporting the LLS in their annual Light the Night fundraising walk is so important to me. Without their assistance, it’s very likely I wouldn’t be here to write this today. They have been with me every step of the way in my cancer journey, and the money we raise goes to research so that other amazing drugs like Darzalex can be brought forward to help people like me.
In 2020, the LLS asked me to be the Honoured Hero for that year’s Light the Night campaign. That title is a bit overwhelming for me, but basically means I’m a spokesman and an example of someone living a great life in spite of blood cancer. Having this prominent role meant our family wanted to step up our fundraising efforts and reach out to our network. Kris and Katie believed we could hit a bold goal of $25,000! We leaned on our friends, families, suppliers, and partners at Long Life, and we did it – we raised over $34,000 towards life-saving research and support for those battling blood cancers. The walk in Vancouver that year raised a record breaking $870,000.
For 2021, LLS reached out to my children Kris Alexander, GM and Co-Owner, and Katie Alexander, Sales & Marketing at Long Life to lead this year’s 2021 Executive Leadership Committee and serve as the co-chairs for Vancouver Light the Night. Again, we felt we could do more for this amazing organization that has been invaluable to my life. We set out as a family and company to raise $50,000 – with a goal in Vancouver to hit $1,000,000 for the first time ever. Katie lead the way in August by running 10 KM a day until she raised $10,000 – to celebrate my 10 years since the remission of my first diagnosis. Kris promised a cold plunge if he hit his $30,000 goal, and other team members did 25 push-ups a day to raise $2,500. Our company came together, asking everyone in their network, no stone unturned. The Vinyltek Windows team also joined the fundraising efforts, raising $6,400! As we creeped in on our goal, Vancouver still had $200,000 to go so we upped our target to $75,000 – can you believe it?! That much money almost totally funds a dedicated scientist for a full year of research.
We wanted to let our customers know about our cause, so we reached out to all our project clients for the past 4 years. The response was astounding, emails flooding in, thanking us for supporting this cause, sharing their stories of blood cancer journeys, and making donations. This once again reminded us of the powerful and special culture we have at Long Life.
We did it! Thanks to you, our employees and our community, we raised over $80,000 and the Vancouver Walk joined the $1,000,000 club!
So if it seems like something is missing in your life and you’re looking for a way to really feel good all over, try doing something for someone who needs a hand. It’s impossible to focus on your own issues when you’re immersed in helping others. It is so nice that today’s generation of Long Life Windows share the same feelings that Peter and I had back in 1989 of wanting to give back and help others.