A cancer patient finds joy

Ronald Calbert’s small home in West Oakland is filled with toy cars, tiny helicopters, colorful balls and various scooters. His walls are papered with a child’s hand-drawn pictures of rainbows, wobbly printed notes of greeting and Raiders stickers.

This is not the home of a man who has given up hope.

“This young man’s presence in my life keeps me positive,” Calbert said, looking over at his energetic 8-year-old

godson, Marvell Marshall, who was driving a car across the floor.

Marvell nodded with a wisdom beyond a third-grader’s.

“He’s a lot of fun,” Marvell said of his godfather.

Calbert, 69, has spent the past two years battling stage four metastatic prostate cancer. When he went to the hospital two years ago he told Marvell — who often stays with him on weekends — that he’d be back soon.

He wasn’t. He had surgeries to remove tumors from his back, was partially paralyzed for a time, was transferred to a skilled nursing facility, and finally made it home six weeks later.

“They told me I have between two and five years, so I believe I have at least three years left,” Calbert said with a smile.

For months, Calbert traveled to the Alta Bates Comprehensive Cancer Center in Berkeley for chemotherapy and radiation. But the treatment he received

eventually stopped working. Last summer, his doctors told him they wanted to put him on Zytiga, an oral chemotherapy drug that has proved effective in treating prostate cancer.

But the co-pay was going to be $2,000 for a single prescription. Calbert was prepared to do without. Finally, his social worker at the cancer center got his co-pay down to $497.

“I had to do this to try to prolong my life,” Calbert said.

Still, the decision came with the kind of choice that too many people have to make in 21st century America. Health or home? The cost of the medicine would eat

into his ability to pay rent on the home where he has lived for 21 years.


“I knew I could be evicted,” he said. “But trying to save my life was the first priority.”

He began his medication in August, predictably falling behind on rent. That’s when Season of Sharing helped out, paying Calbert’s month of delinquent rent.

“I’m very grateful about that,” he said, his voice cracking. “It gave me some breathing room. Allowed me to take care of myself.”

Calbert was born in Louisville, Ky., but grew up in Cincinnati. A friend moved to California and said it was nice, so Calbert decided to give it a try. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Oakland and quickly got a job at Kaiser, working in medical records. He worked there until his job was eliminated in 2009.

At first, he didn’t much like California. But he soon had a close group of friends, who became like family.

One friend, who lived in his complex, asked him to come over and meet his new grandnephew. Calbert, who never married and has no children of his own, picked up tiny Marvell and was instantly smitten. A few months later, the friend asked Calbert to watch the baby for an hour. Calbert sat carefully in his chair holding the infant.

“He smiled at me for an entire hour,” Calbert said.

The great-uncle has passed away. But the bond between Marvell and Calbert remains strong. Marvell and his mother lived in Oakland until moving to Vallejo before the start of this school year, but Marvell remains a regular visitor at Calbert’s, with his own bed in the living room and his vast array of toys on the floor.

When Calbert’s health would allow it, the two went everywhere together on the bus or by BART. To San Francisco’s Pier 39, Jack London Square, Lake Merritt, the Oakland Library.

Now Marvell helps Calbert hail the bus or find his vouchers to use for a taxi ride when he has to pick up medicine. Calbert doesn’t want to take medication for his pain and has learned to live with it. But the week before Thanksgiving, the pain was too intense and he had to go to the emergency room. Doctors found an infection in the lesions on his bones. They sent him home with a prescription for antibiotics.

Calbert has his own prescription: staying sanguine.

“He is always so positive and upbeat,” said Lauren Wasteney, the Alameda caseworker who helped connect him with Season of Sharing. “We wanted to keep him

housed while he was having to pay out of pocket for his chemotherapy.”

“I’ve never thought that things would not work out,” Calbert said. “Maybe that attitude comes from the love and support I had as a child.”

Calbert is paying that love and support forward in his relationship with Marvell.

“God has give me this last task,” he said, his eyes misting over. “A chance to do something good in my life.”

Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: akillion@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @annkillion

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