Sid Salter, left, Mississippi State University's chief communications officer, talks with his wife, Leilani, in his office at George Hall on Tuesday. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Leilani and Sid Salter are shown with three of their grandchildren, Morgan, Nix and Baylor Pope. Sid has been declared cancer free after a six-month bout with Burkitt lymphoma.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
Sid Salter doesn't believe he could have survived his battle with cancer without his wife Leilani, right.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
November 22, 2017 10:07:40 PM
Last Saturday, Sid Salter placed flowers on his parents' graves at a cemetery in his native Neshoba County.
Beside their plots is his own, one that remains empty since Salter is still "on the right side of the grass." He reflected on that fact a bit longer this time than in past visits, he said, and for good reason. After the last six months, being alive is something he's unlikely to ever take for granted again.
Salter, 58, talks a little softer than he once did. He walks a little slower, too, using a cane when he's changing elevations because he still has trouble with balance.
He's 65 pounds lighter than he was in May, though he's starting to regain both weight and strength. His hair is gone.
But Salter, as he learned last week, is cancer free -- news that effectively ended a six-month battle where he kept telling himself losing "wasn't on the agenda."
"Cancer can come to dominate your thoughts," he said. "For the last week, I've enjoyed cancer not being the first thing I think of when I open my eyes in the morning. ... Every day feels more normal. I'm thankful for that."
The battle begins
Salter, once one of Mississippi's best-known journalists, has served as Mississippi State University's chief communications officer since 2012. Up until this year, he's been one of the state's most prolific political voices for nearly three decades, with his weekly syndicated column publishing in newspapers across Mississippi.
In early May, he committed to delivering commencement addresses to the spring graduates of Jones County Community College in Ellisville when he started feeling under the weather.
He and his wife, Leilani, noticed knots forming on the side of his head, and though he felt increasingly worse, he white-knuckled through the speeches and drove home on a Friday to Starkville where he tried to sleep it off. By then, his jaw was swollen.
A nurse practitioner at an Urgent Care he visited the following day thought it might be mumps. His regular doctor, whom Salter saw two days later, referred him to a hematologist at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo because his white blood cell count was three times the normal amount and constantly rising.
By the end of that week, Dr. Jiahuai Tan had diagnosed Salter with Stage 4 Burkitt lymphoma -- an aggressive non-Hodgkins lymphoma that had already involved 57 percent of his cells. Tan gave him a 65 percent chance of survival.
Between Sid and Leilani, they have four grown children and five grandchildren -- with hopes of more grandchildren in the future. Thinking of them, Sid said, gave him much-needed motivation.
"You can say 'Woe is me' or you can bow up and fight," Sid said. "I have a lot to live for, and it's not in my nature not to fight."
Chemotherapy began immediately, including around the clock treatment for 14 days. He gave up his column, which he started writing in 1978, after his treatment began.
When he felt strong enough, he walked down the hospital hallways pushing an IV pole.
After that first round of chemo, a PET scan showed the cancer still inhabited 50 percent of his cells.
"That was kind of a 'Come to Jesus' moment with the fight we were in," Sid said. "But it was headed in the right direction."
A soldier by his side
Leilani, who has been married to Sid since November 2005, knows every date of the cancer battle by heart.
She knows the name of every chemical used for Sid's treatments and the detailed results of every scan. Her husband never spent a night at NMMC where she wasn't sleeping on the couch in the room beside his bed.
It was a role reversal for Sid, whose first wife Paula died from muscular sclerosis in spring 2005. Paula battled the disease for 22 years, spending the last 10 mostly bed-ridden, and Sid served as primary caretaker for her and their daughter, Kate.
When Sid's cancer treatment began, though, he had to watch Leilani play his old position.
"I never wanted her to have to do that," he said. "But she did it with an incredible amount of love and compassion. When the indignities of chemo came, she was there and went through it with me. ... I can't emphasize enough that I couldn't have survived this without her."
Leilani said she did whatever she could -- things like helping nurses put ice packs around his neck and shoulders when he got too hot. Sometimes being there was all she could do, as she watched the disease and the treatment ravage her husband's body.
"I didn't let him see me cry," she said. "But I cried a lot when he was asleep. Sometimes, my thoughts when I laid down were so overwhelming that I couldn't even find the words to pray.
"... But we were both in battle mode," she later added, tears welling up in her eyes as she remembered. "We were just bound and determined to beat it."
Finding hope, normalcy
After the initial two-week round of chemo, the Salters lived their lives in three-week loops until the last chemo treatment on Oct. 23.
There was a week of treatment, a week of Sid being at home ill from the treatment and a week where he started bouncing back just in time to do it all again.
If he could stand, he went to work, even though it wasn't particularly in line with his doctor's or wife's recommendations.
He even continued to take media requests during his treatments, though he took special note to mention all the reporters he spoke with expressed concern and empathy.
His bosses -- namely MSU President Mark Keenum -- and Sid's staff at the Office of Public Affairs were also very supportive, he said. When he couldn't make it to his office, he often attended staff meetings via video conference.
"The only time I felt normal was when I was working," he said. "I could've gotten annoyed by the media calls in the hospital, but I didn't. When I was talking to reporters and editors, I wasn't thinking about cancer."
Sid, an MSU graduate who "bleeds Maroon and White," also found an unlikely confidant while he was battling Burkitt lymphoma -- a "Rebel" who shared friendly words and sometimes frank advice.
"The only person I knew who had this type of cancer and survived it was (former Ole Miss Chancellor) Dan Jones," Sid said. "He kind of became my spirit guide and was instrumental in helping me navigate the minefield."
A different kind of strength
Sid's daughter, Kate Gregory, was a freshman in college when her mother died.
Her mother didn't see her graduate college or marry her husband, Nathan.
When Gregory's father became sick, she said it brought back all the fears and anxieties of her past.
"Coming down to the brass tacks, I was afraid my dad would never meet my kids I hope to have one day," she said. "I'm very grateful (Sid survived)."
Sid's change in appearance didn't bother her as much as she thought it might. If anything really got to her, she said, it was seeing how weak the chemo made him.
"This is a man who used to pick my mother up and put her in the car," she said. "... I think this experience has changed all of us. I've been stunned by how brave he has been, and I have so much more respect for his strength than I ever have. That's saying something because I've always believed he was strong."
Rediscovering his faith
A month before Sid's first wife died of MS, his mother died of Alzheimer's. By January 2006, his twin sister, Sheila, died from a brain tumor.
He said after Sheila's death, he became angry at God. He still attended church, but he "didn't feel it."
"It hardened my heart," he said.
Sid doesn't have that problem anymore, especially when he recalls the outpouring of support he received from friends, fellow church members, colleagues and even strangers.
"Going through this restored my faith more than I think anything else could," he said. "I felt people's prayers. I felt their support.
"If surviving this doesn't make me a better person, I think I'm pretty foolish," he added.
Another thing he noticed at NMMC was people on his floor fighting cancer -- sometimes alone and with fewer resources -- with even worse prognoses.
"I was never the sickest one on that floor any day I was there," he said.
The experience, he said, has made him more aware that people all around him are dealing with cancer every day.
"I hope I can be as good to them as everybody was to me," he said.
Sid and Leilani had Thanksgiving with their kids and grandkids two weeks ago. Today, they both will work at the Egg Bowl -- the annual football rivalry between MSU and Ole Miss hosted this year at Davis Wade Stadium.
Leilani, also a former journalist, works as an event planner for Keenum's office and will host guests in the president's box during the game.
Sid will keep his eye on media requests and also support Keenum and his staff.
This is about as normal as it's been in a while for the pair, and they are plenty happy about it. Sid has even begun thinking seriously about resuming his weekly column.
He can feel his strength return a little more each day. His hair, though, specifically his ever-recognizable salt-and-pepper goatee, is another story.
"I don't know if my hair will come back, where it will come back or what color it will be," Sid said. "And I don't care."
He does, however, care about making every day count.
"Once you get cancer, I feel like you are 'you plus cancer,'" he said. "It's not a matter of if it comes back so much as it's a matter of when. ... If I have two years or 42 years left, I intend to live with as much joy as I can. If the cancer comes back, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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