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He was diagnosed with colon cancer 7 years ago. He's barely taken a day off since

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Oncologists often advise patients to stick to their usual routines when going through cancer treatment. A plumber named Frank Marchand knows this instinctually. He has barely taken a day off since he was diagnosed with colon cancer seven years ago. One of his customers, Karen Brown from New England Public Media, wanted to understand why.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: So I don't know how - I don't even know how old this thing is.

FRANK MARCHAND: It's not that old because it's 1.6 gallons.

BROWN: Frank Marchand is sitting on the floor of my bathroom, tightening the bolts on my toilet's water tank.

MARCHAND: Let's see what happens here.

BROWN: I had noticed a hospital bracelet still hanging off his wrist from his treatment that morning, and he agreed to let me bring out my tape recorder.

MARCHAND: This was my 94th chemo treatment.

BROWN: That's over seven years since a colonoscopy at age 60 found stage 4 cancer. He goes to the hospital every other week and often recognizes other patients from growing up here in western Massachusetts.

MARCHAND: I call them hellmates (ph) in the chemotherapy room. One of them was my chemistry teacher from seventh grade. And I looked at him and said, what the hell are you doing here? Are you visiting someone? He goes, no, I got leukemia.

BROWN: His former teacher didn't live long after.

MARCHAND: I've known him and his wife for years, doing their plumbing work and getting in that nasty crawl space under their house. I was in the line to express my condolences at the wake. And his wife, Janet, was first in line. She said, oh, my God. He was liked enough that even his plumber showed up?

BROWN: Frank Marchand has been a plumber for 47 years. He's loved water, all kinds of water, since he was a child living across the street from a narrow brook.

MARCHAND: And I would go over there after school each day, ripping sod out of the side banking and damming that brook up. So I think planted in my brain was the concept that whenever water misbehaves, you're responsible for making it behave.

BROWN: So about my toilet - what do you think?

MARCHAND: I'm going to see if I can find another handle for that.

BROWN: Sometimes, on his plumbing rounds, Frank meets clients facing the same cancer ordeal that he is.

MARCHAND: A man was on his sofa, down to 85 pounds. They called 'cause he didn't have any hot water, but he hadn't eaten in about a week, and he was destined for hospice.

BROWN: After Frank fixed their water heater, he went upstairs to sit with a dying man and ask a question.

MARCHAND: Have you ever thought about what you're going to think about on your deathbed? I mean, you don't want to lay there bouncing around wondering, why me, why me, and concentrate on that. He goes, no, I haven't thought about it.

BROWN: Well, Frank had, and he said he wasn't planning to dwell on his regrets.

MARCHAND: But what I'm going to spend my time thinking about while I'm on my deathbed is the best corned beef hash I ever had in my life. They almost incinerated the potatoes. They were burned on the outside and really soft inside. Caramelized onions - oh, my God. I loved it so much, I sat there and ordered another plate of it.

BROWN: Those transcendent moments, Frank told the man - that's what he wants to think about at the end.

MARCHAND: His wife called me after he died to say that he took to heart what you were saying, and he was peaceful.

BROWN: As Frank tells me this story, his hands submerged in my water tank, I notice him coughing a lot.

MARCHAND: (Coughing) These masks are so full of dust.

BROWN: Do you want some water? Can I give you some water?

MARCHAND: I think so.

BROWN: I had to wonder. Wouldn't it be easier to take a medical leave? At 67, he could certainly justify retirement.

MARCHAND: I told myself from the very beginning, my immune system is going to have to work really hard to fight this disease that I can't control. So do I want to sit on the sofa and worry about what's growing inside of me because now it's going to deal with bile and anxiety and angst about what's going on that you can't control?

BROWN: Plumbing, on the other hand, is one of the few things he can control.

MARCHAND: We're still tightening it.

BROWN: But how does he cope with what he knows is coming, with mortality itself? For a time, he had help from an unlikely comfort, a childhood imaginary friend who long ago kept him company in the sandbox. His mom used to wonder...

MARCHAND: Who are you talking to? My friend. But there's nobody there. Yes, there is. My friend is here.

BROWN: Over the decades, Frank stopped hearing from the friend, through marriage, children, divorce, second marriage, until shortly after his surgeon told him in a recovery room the cancer was terminal.

MARCHAND: And I'm lying on the bed completely alone, scared out of my wits, and who shows up but the imaginary friend? He was like, hey, what's going on? Why are you shaking? I don't know. I mean, the news that I just got - I have no idea how much time I have left. I know I'm never going to get to finish the projects that I started, all the things I'd hoped for in my life. And he says, you know, you don't know this, but I've been with you all your life, watching every move you make. And I can understand how you're anxious about having to do this, but I'm not going to let you do this alone. I'm going to go with you.

BROWN: Of course, Frank tells me, he knows that's his own voice, his own conscience. And yet...

MARCHAND: That experience took the weight of 20 tons off my shoulders, to come to the realization that I'm not immortal and to prioritize the time that I have left.

BROWN: By the time Frank is done talking, I almost forget he came over to work on my toilet.

MARCHAND: Yeah, it's all fixed now.

BROWN: So I'm planning to call you when I need to replace it. So you're going to answer the phone then, right?

MARCHAND: That'll be the plan. If it rings to heaven, you got the wrong number.

BROWN: A few weeks later, my radiator started to leak, and Frank came back, hospital bracelet on his wrist, stories to tell and no plans to stop.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Brown