Former MU professor speaks about death, cancer

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:16 a.m. CST, Wednesday, December 4, 2013
David Oliver, left, holds his dog Chewy as Debra Oliver, his wife, rubs lotion on his legs Dec. 10, 2012. David was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September 2011, and Debra became his primary caregiver. Rubbing lotion on his legs has become part of her routine.

COLUMBIA — "M-I-Z," David Oliver shouted.

"Z-O-U," the audience in front of him shouted back.


Debra Oliver, who was a professor at MU's School of Medicine, found herself caught in irony when her research on end of life and caregiving became her own reality as she cared for her husband, David Oliver. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)

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"Like the seniors Saturday night, that was my last visit to Faurot Field," David said, referencing Missouri's 28-21 win over Texas A&M to win the SEC East championship.

"Win or lose, I'm going to love my Tigers to the grave," he added.

David Oliver, a former professor in MU's School of Medicine, was diagnosed in October 2011 with stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a type of throat cancer that had also spread to his bones and lymph nodes.

After learning about his incurable disease, he announced his diagnosis to friends and colleagues through a video, then eventually created a blog about his illness.

On Tuesday, David and his wife, Debra Oliver, gave a speech about cancer and death in the School of Medicine's Bryant Auditorium. About 150 students, friends and family members listened to David's plans for the future.


David decided six months ago to stop cancer treatment so he could spend more time with his loved ones. At the time, his doctor told him that at worst, he would have 186 days to live. Today, he does not know how much time he has left.

After David made the decision to stop treatment, he and Debra had a conversation about what to do in the time ahead.

"I want to die well," David remembered saying at the time.

"I wanted to know what that meant to him," Debra said.

"I chose quality of life, instead of quantity of life," David said.

David wrote a book titled "Exit Strategy: Depriving Death of Its Strangeness," which was published in February. The book, like Tuesday's speech, highlights the steps the Olivers have taken and will continue to take through the rest of David's life.

David sums up his "exit strategy" with HOPE:

(H) I want to die at home

(O) Surrounded by others

(P) Pain-free

(E) Engaged and excited until the end

David said he wants to be as lively as he can until his last day, "even if that means I have to put rollers on my bed," he said.

"I want to be living, even if it's from a bed in our living room, which is clearly a good place to live," he said.

David and Debra have taken several vacations in the past six months, when David was having his "good days." 

They have visited family in Arizona and traveled to Canada, and this weekend they plan to travel to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game if weather permits. The Olivers plan to continue to travel as long as David feels well enough.

'A family disease'

Debra Oliver is an MU professor with a background in hospice work, which she said has been helpful through her husband's illness. 

"I've spent my whole life preparing for this," she said, teary-eyed.  

However, she added that her background with cancer patients didn't give her a sense of how to deal with it personally.

"Cancer is a family disease," Debra said. "It's two patients, and the caregiver experiences different things."

For example, she said that even on David's good days, she is afraid to leave him alone.

"The caregiver suffers the most," David said.

Debra said that courage is what gets her through the rough days, along with making sure she takes care of herself.

Leaving a legacy

At one point toward the beginning of the Olivers' speech, a small boy with a toothless smile laughed in the back of the room.

"That's my grandson," David Oliver said.

The boy, who will be six months old this week, beamed as his grandfather climbed down from the stage to give him a kiss. Oliver, or "Ollie," as his family calls him, is already learning about his grandfather's legacy.

"His nighttime stories are from my parents' travel blog," said Jessica Tappana, David's daughter and Oliver's mother. "We tell him their stories and will continue to as he grows older. They have lots of pictures together."

Tappana said her decision to name her first son Oliver came before David's diagnosis. She wanted a connection to her family, she said.

"There's even more meaning now," Tappana said.

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