Couple's Fight Against Cancer Turns Personal

Back at Millikan Junior High, Randi Maydeck was the girl with the peacock feather in her hair. This was the late '60s, the Age of Aquarius and all that, and Randi wore her hair long. The peacock feather, she recalls, "was my thing."

Alan Kaye was a shy boy who'd seen Randi around for years. Their families had worshiped at the same temple. And after Millikan, they attended Grant High together.

It wasn't until their 10th high school reunion, in 1981, that Alan, no longer so shy, approached Randi.

They danced that night and, says Alan, "we've been dancing ever since."

Randi smiles: "Yes, we have."

We are sitting in their comfortable Woodland Hills home, in a living room made smaller by Joshua's drums and Andrew's keyboards. The boys, ages 12 and 9, are supposed to be doing their homework, but we assume they are in the next room, eavesdropping. This is the day before their parents will depart for Washington to participate in the keynote event of a national cancer-awareness demonstration called "The March."

The Kayes are founders of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition and owners of a cytopathology lab that provides free Pap smear testing for the Venice Family Clinic.

Only recently, however, has the cause taken a sudden and unexpected urgency. In June, Randi was found to have cancer--lung cancer, unusual for a nonsmoker like her. Now the girl who wore a feather in her hair is a woman who wears barely any hair at all.

Just a few wisps remain, and the Kayes tell their boys this is a good sign--a sign that the chemotherapy is working.

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The Kayes wanted to share their story for the same reason they wanted to participate in The March--simply to make people think about a disease that is understandably regarded with fear and dread. The causes of many forms of cancer remain unknown, and treatments are dicey.

Randi Kaye has joined an unfortunately large peer group: The National Cancer Institute estimates that about 8 million Americans have a history of cancer. Since 1990, according to the institute, more than 11 million new cases of cancer have been diagnosed nationwide; this year alone, more than 1.2 million new cases are expected to be diagnosed.

More than 564,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer this year--more than 1,500 per day. About 490,000 patients--or four out of 10--who are found to have cancer this year are expected to be alive five years after diagnosis.

Cancer is such a grim reaper--the second leading cause of death, after heart disease--that the Kayes see themselves as soldiers in a war. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a prostate cancer survivor, is leading The March. "Imagine," Alan says, "if the 500,000 troops in Desert Storm did not come home? How would this country react?" Yet cancer research funding totals about $2.1 billion--a minuscule figure compared with the defense budget.

The Kayes' own awareness of cancer first came about professionally. As a teenager, Alan got a janitorial job in a medical laboratory and worked his way up. When he was in his early 20s, Alan says, a friend named Eileen told him that she had bladder cancer, but he was too naive to fully comprehend the threat. Eileen's subsequent death, he says, stunned him and impressed upon him that every slide examined under a microscope may be critical to an individual's fate. He learned that cervical cancer, when found early, is 95% treatable.

Alan specialized in laboratory sales and marketing. In spring 1996, the Kayes cashed in their 401K plans, borrowed money from family, acquired a Small Business Administration loan and opened their own business, PathNet Esoteric Laboratory Institute in Van Nuys. To help launch the enterprise, Randi, who worked as a kindergarten assistant, pitched in on nights and weekends, handling billings and other chores. The Kayes established the National Cervical Cancer Coalition to educate the public, promote early detection and serve as an information resource for patients and families.

Randi's own ordeal, they say, has given them a deeper understanding of how the medical system works--and doesn't work.

An X-ray first detected a small spot on Randi's lungs years ago after a bout with pneumonia. In 1995, she says, she went to a surgical oncologist "who sort of patted me on the head, told me to go away and have a chest X-ray every year."

Then, when she felt a pain in her shoulder, another doctor told her she had suffered a rotator cuff injury and prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication and, at Randi's insistence, a painkiller.

Some months passed, pain persisted and another doctor ordered a chest X-ray that revealed a buildup of fluid around her right lung. This prompted doctors to perform a needle biopsy that revealed the cancer. In retrospect, the Kayes say, the biopsy would have been appropriate in 1995.

The diagnosis, now at this more advanced stage, "was quite a shock," Randi says. She neither smokes nor drinks, and her family has no history of cancer.

Randi enrolled in a clinical trial and the Kayes learned something else: Not all expenses are covered by insurance or the pharmaceutical firm testing a new drug--another reason, they suggest, to increase the funds for research.

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Alan Kaye sometimes tries to cope by writing.

Yesterday Randi noticed for the first time her hair was beginning to fall out. Her scalp had begun to ache. She said, "It feels similar to when you have your hair in a pony tail, real tight, and then you let your hair loose." She asked me to gently take one of the hairs on her head and give it a gentle tug. I did so, and the hair came out with no resistance. I saw a tear roll out of my wife's eye and down her face. This was the first time I have seen her cry since she was diagnosed . . . three months ago.

It was a few days later that Alan came home, Randi took a shower and hair came out in clumps. It was, she said, a "humbling experience."

Joshua didn't want to look because he said it was scary. His father became angry, but Randi said it was OK--it was scary to her too. Alan later apologized to his son. When Randi unwrapped the towel to show Andrew her bald head, the boy couldn't suppress a laugh and told her she looked cool. His reaction made his mother laugh too.

The Kayes had planned to have friends over that night for a Labor Day barbecue, but Randi was no longer in the mood. They canceled the party. Then Randi shook off her blues, wrapped a bright scarf around her head and the Kayes called their friends. Everyone came over and had a great time, Alan says. The boys saw that life with a mom with no hair was pretty much the same.

There may be harder times ahead, but on this day the Kayes were looking forward to The March. They had an early morning flight, and so they planned to stay the night before at a hotel near the airport--perhaps the LAX Marriott, which happens to be where Grant High's Class of '71 held its 10th reunion.

"We'll have to go check out that ballroom," Randi said.

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Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times' Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com. Please include a phone number.

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