EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part story.
MERCER — It’s late August and the Greaney family – Scott Greaney and his children, Emily, Ben and Adam – are doing chores around the barn after work (Scott) and school (the kids).
Today’s job is installing 800-gallon grain feeders for the 1,000 turkeys they are raising on their 55-acre farm. The birds are about 3 weeks old and are starting to lose their soft yellow feathers, replacing them with coarser white and brown ones. Their chirps are turning to gobbles, and visitors are beginning to feel less guilty about the idea that one day they’ll be Thanksgiving dinner.
“Come on, Em! Put your hands on it,” Scott Greaney says to his daughter as he coaches her on how to place the feeder in the turkey pen.
Everyone pitches in to raise the turkeys, something the family refers to as a “hobby that got out of control.” But this year more than ever, Emily, 17, Ben, 15, and Adam, 11, are doing their share – and more – of the work. At Greaney’s Turkey Farm, the family raises about 1,000 turkeys (and chickens) every year. Meat markets in Freeport, Damariscotta, Farmington, Waldoboro and Bath are just some of the places the all-natural birds are sold, fresh and packed on ice, ultimately landing on Thanksgiving dinner tables across Maine.
In October 2013, nearing the height of the Thanksgiving frenzy, Scott Greaney, 50, found himself feeling unusually tired. The family was in the
midst of slaughtering 800 pounds of chickens, a task that would normally be manageable – a lot of work but manageable.
“I felt like I was being really lazy,” Greaney said. “And then I thought maybe I was anemic. It just knocked me out.”
Soon after, he came down with shingles. His wife, Tracy, who happens to be a nurse, was worried that her husband was also feeling tired frequently; she had him get blood work. The doctor made an ominous discovery: Greaney’s platelet levels were way below normal. On Nov. 12 last year, he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that attacks white blood cells. His doctor allowed him to postpone treatment until after the Thanksgiving turkey slaughter, the culmination of a season’s work and a task that Greaney looks forward to every year.
With their parents consumed most days by hospital visits, paperwork and an uncertain prognosis, the kids, especially Emily, had to take over in the barn, skipping school dances and extracurricular activities in order to care for the 1,000 teenage turkeys.
When this reporter and a photographer visited Greaney’s Turkey Farm a year ago to write a Thanksgiving story, they found Emily handling all the birds and answering all their questions. It was puzzling, she was just 16 and there were no adults to be found. But at the time, she shared nothing about her father’s recently diagnosed illness.
Thanksgiving came and went. The turkeys were gone. Scott Greaney took stock. He thought about shutting down the farm for a year. He was about to start a long course of chemotherapy, which inevitably weakens a patient’s immune system. His doctor told him the dandruff from the birds posed a big risk and ordered him to stay away from the barn.
But shutting down is not the Greaney way.
“At work, I tell everyone there are no excuses,” said Greaney, who is also the director of suicide prevention at the veterans hospital at Togus in Augusta. “Unless you’re in the hospital in the (intensive care unit) on a ventilator, you don’t have an excuse. When my oncologist told me I had to cut my working hours in half, because my job is too stressful, I just tried to put that in perspective. It’s not stressful, because it’s a process I’m used to dealing with. It’s what I’m trained to do.”
Greaney ignored his doctor’s advice and has been working at the veterans hospital ever since his diagnosis and all through his treatment – as much as he is able. As it turned out, the tougher challenge would be coping with the disease while running the family turkey business.
DECIDING TO KEEP GOING
In December, Greaney started receiving chemotherapy at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta. The very first time, he suffered a severe allergic reaction.
“It felt like I had a handful of Doritos stuck in my throat, poking and prodding,” he said. “It was the same feeling in my chest. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
The nurses immediately put him on a life-supporting oxygen system and his doctor transferred his treatment to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Since then, Greaney has traveled with his wife every six weeks from the quiet turkey farm on a dirt road in rural Maine to the city, where he receives diluted versions of his chemotherapy drugs, administered over 10 hours at the very, very low doses his body can handle. He is paired one-on-one with a nurse, who watches for any signs of anaphylaxis. The couple usually spend three days in Boston. The kids stay home and look after the farm.
By February, it was time for the family to place their annual order with the Ridgeway, Ohio, hatchery where they get their chicks. Greaney was taking two chemotherapy drugs and often felt exhausted and weak. Nonetheless, the family had made a decision to keep the farm going. This year, Emily was the one who did the ordering.
And, in May, when the last of the winter snow had thawed, Emily also was the one who went out to the barn to clean out the turkey pen, shoveling out remnants of manure and wood shavings from the previous season, a task that took a full day of hard, physical work.
The Greaney kids have always had jobs around the farm – whether it was rinsing down the walls in the slaughterhouse, counting the birds or filling their feeders. Saturdays are designated slaughter days, with farmers from around the state – Gardiner, Richmond, Winslow, New Sharon – lining up at 7 a.m. with plump broiler chickens and young turkeys. The atmosphere is more that of a coffee shop than a turkey farm. As they wait for their birds to be processed, farmers stand around drinking coffee provided by the Greaneys.
“We try and make everyone part of the process,” Greaney said about his children. “They’ve always grown up with it, and we try to make it fun. It’s good family time.”
If they’re not at school or work, there’s a good chance the kids are fighting over who gets to ride the lawnmower – the only job that offers some solitude and a break from the phone, which rings nonstop in the months before Thanksgiving with orders for birds. There’s also time spent jumping from the second tier of the barn into a pile of fresh sawdust, chopping pumpkins instead of firewood and chasing loose cows.
What was unusual, this year, was for the kids to take the lead.
PLENTY OF PLUCK
On a hot July afternoon, before this year’s turkey chicks arrive, Emily washes and sanitizes feeders and farm equipment, her long strawberry blonde hair sticking to her face. Her dad is at the hospital. He’s just gone into remission and is scheduled to receive a stem cell transplant at Dana Farber, which would replace his red and white blood cells and platelets with new healthy, cancer-free cells.
“He tells us all the time how jealous he is that we get to be out here doing this stuff,” Emily says.
But before the transplant, the doctors discover that the cancer has done too much damage to his bone marrow. They cancel the operation, and instead prescribe two more years of chemotherapy. It’s a tough moment in a rough year. “I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m going to be tired for the next two years?’ Greaney said.
A few weeks later, Emily and her mother, Tracy, wake up before the sun and drive their signature green pickup truck, decorated with orange turkey feet and the slogan, “You truck ’em, we’ll pluck ’em,” to the nearby Norridgewock post office. They’re there to pick up the day-old chicks they ordered back in February. The chicks are shipped overnight. They’ve enough nutrients in their system to live up to 72 hours without food. Any longer and they can die. They’re cold, too. They need food and they need heat lamps in order to survive.
The minute they get back to the barn, Emily is on the phone with her dad. He’s at work (his chemo dosage has been reduced, so he’s less tired than before), but he wants to know what the birds look like and whether they are healthy. Before long, Tracy Greaney must leave for Waterville, where she works. The kids are left to finish unpacking and counting the chicks – 40 boxes, each holding 40 birds. They tally their count in a school notebook and set the chicks up with water, heat, medicated grain, and just the right amount of light. Too much stresses the birds. Too little, and they won’t eat. The set-up takes the better part of the morning. The afternoon and next day, too, are spent in the barn waiting for farmers who have ordered chicks through the Greaney farm to pick up their birds.
Over the next few weeks, someone – usually Emily – must check on the birds every few hours, including in the middle of the night, when the temperature outside can drop into the low 50s even in August, but the vulnerable youngsters must be kept at 90 degrees. School starts back up for the year. After classes, Emily, a senior at Skowhegan Area High School, takes “breaks” by doing her schoolwork in the barn so she can keep an eye on the young birds.
It’s all part of a plan that Emily, who spends her spare time volunteering at the veterans hospital where her dad works, and her brothers have in place to make sure the turkey farm stays afloat.
“Knowing he wouldn’t be able to do as much made me motivated,” she said. “It was much different this year knowing I was responsible.”
Once a month, Scott Greaney gets his blood checked in Augusta. In the quiet waiting room filled with other cancer patients and their families, he doesn’t stop talking about his kids and the farm. “How are you feeling?” a nurse asks as she draws a vial of blood from a port installed in Greaney’s chest, launching him into a description of the eggplant Parmesan and cannolis he treats himself to on his trips to Boston.
Finally, in late August, Greaney gets the word he has been waiting for. His white blood cell count is up. It’s high enough that the doctors give him the OK to return to the barn. He doesn’t need to hear that twice.
“I love being back in the barn,” he says one afternoon not long after, as the turkeys flocked around his feet. He has lost weight. His jeans sag.
He had smiled so broadly when his oncologist gave him the OK, the doctor had added a mock warning to his patient – no sleeping in the barn.
Greaney, who grew up in Virginia, purchased the farm with his wife in 1983 from his parents, who had moved to Maine. At first, the couple kept turkeys as a hobby, slaughtering just 25 birds in year one by hand in their two-car garage. In 1995, they built a separate building for the slaughterhouse.
“I wanted to keep it small enough that just the family would be needed to run it,” Greaney said.
Now, though, Emily is making plans to nearly double turkey production to almost 2,000 birds in 2015. She plans to move into a trailer on her parents’ farm while taking classes at the University of Maine at Farmington. She wants to be an engineer but has a hard time imagining a future for herself without farming.
For now, she and her siblings spend time doing chores in the barn or the slaughterhouse. If they’ve spent the weekend slaughtering, there’s a good chance some birds remain early in the week that still need to be cut up and packaged.
Ben runs the “kill room,” calmly picking the birds up by their legs and flipping them (they calm down when they’re hanging upside down), then shocking them with a stun gun before their throats are cut. The birds go into a scalder and then a plucking machine. Emily, who is also straight-faced through the slaughter, runs the processing and the business side of things; she cuts up the dead birds and handles customers.
The pair have learned a lot in this last year, Emily explains while sorting chicken quarters, packing them into bags and placing them in the vacuum sealer one afternoon. “Mostly a lot of smaller things we watched my parents do, things we never considered as part of the work that went into it,” she says. Things like learning not to slaughter birds the week before Christmas when the pipes are frozen and there isn’t enough hot water to sanitize the machinery, and who to call for repairs and electrical work on the farm.
“It’s definitely nice to have him around again,” Emily says of her father. “Especially when we’re packing birds like this. In July, Ben and I had to do it on our own, and it took us a really long time.”
October and November, as Thanksgiving nears, is crunch time. Scott Gearney watches his kids work and helps out where he can, being careful to avoid dust from the grain and dandruff from the birds. On a damp October evening, almost a year after his diagnosis, the family is re-filling the grain feeders.
“Why don’t you get those buckets and I’ll do what I do best, which is give orders,” Greaney jokes with his daughter. “I do have cancer, and you wouldn’t want to make the guy with cancer do all the work.”
The father and daughter start on the chores while the two boys wander in and out, Ben eventually taking over on the rumbling old tractor for his dad and Adam using a broom to keep the birds from escaping through the open barn doors.
Emily stands behind the silo, filling buckets with grain and pushing them onto the tractor for her brother to move. Greaney is starting to regain strength, and he helps his daughter lift the 80-pound buckets and dump them into the feeders. As it starts to get dark, he tells the kids they can finish the work tomorrow. “But I thought we were going to fill the rest of the feeders tonight,” Emily protests.
She is always the first one in the barn and the last one back in the house.
DINNER AND JUST DESSERTS
The first snow of the year falls in early November. Wind whips across the farm. The Greaneys pile on their sweatshirts and coats and head into the barn to change the sawdust bed for the birds. Slaughter time approaches, and the birds are now close to their maximum weight – between 16 and 22 pounds.
It will take four long days of waking at dawn to slaughter their own and other farmers’ birds (and two days of missed school for the kids) before the Greaneys sit down, like others all across Maine and America, to enjoy their own Thanksgiving dinner. Tracy Greaney will hand-pick their turkey during the slaughter, and there will be lots of vegetables from their own garden, including corn, carrots and squash (“My dad kind of went crazy with the squash this year,” Emily says). Dessert is homemade pumpkin pie.
As they gather around the dinner table on Thursday, the Greaneys expect to talk about next year’s birds, what worked this year and what they would do differently.
Scott Greaney has been feeling better lately, though he still suffers from muscle and joint soreness from the treatments. He hopes that next year he’ll be doing more than making coffee and getting lunch. His doctors have warned him that it’s common for mantle cell lymphoma to come back, usually within three to five years. He’s a little nervous, naturally, but has faith in his doctors and in his treatments. There’s one thing he is not nervous about – the family farm.
“I’ve been very upfront with Emily and Ben about this. I told them, ‘This is why I want you guys to learn this operation,’ and I put a lot of pressure on them to learn. I feel like I’m under pressure to make sure they know this stuff in case I get sick and can’t go out there, or if I die. I’ve even said that to them, ‘What are you going to do if I get cancer and die?’
“So it’s a very realistic life lesson for them out there running the farm. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the next couple of years will bring, but my god, let’s have fun doing it, whatever it brings. Let’s at least have fun.”
Looking back on this year’s turkey season, he says there isn’t a lot he would change.
“The kids just picked it up and ran with it,” he said, “and honestly, this is the best crop of turkeys we’ve had in years.”
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Talking, listening, and just being there are some of the most important things you can do. During this time, the natural r esponse of most caregivers is to put their own feelings and needs aside. They try to focus on the person with cancer and the many tasks of caregiving. This may be fine for a little while.What do you say to someone whose family member has cancer? ›
Try to make your response honest and heartfelt. Here are some ideas: "I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care". "I'm sorry to hear that you are going through this".What do you say to family battling cancer? ›
“Let me help you with…”
This is one of the most helpful things you can say. Instead of asking your loved one how you can help, tell them specifically what you're able to help with. Treatment, doctor's appointments and physical symptoms make it difficult to keep up with day-to-day life.
Maintain honest, two-way communication with your loved ones, doctors and others after your cancer diagnosis. You may feel particularly isolated if people try to protect you from bad news or if you try to put up a strong front. If you and others express emotions honestly, you can all gain strength from each other.How does cancer affect family life? ›
After a cancer diagnosis, both people may experience sadness, anxiety, anger, or even hopelessness. Both partners may need extra reassurance that they are still loved. Couples need to be sensitive to the changing emotional needs that come with a cancer diagnosis.What should you not say to a cancer patient? ›
Don't say “I know how you feel” because you can't possibly know. Better to ask, “Do you want to talk about how you feel, how having cancer is affecting you?” Don't offer information about unproven treatments or referrals to doctors with questionable credentials.What are the emotional stages of cancer? ›
- State 1: Denial. ...
- Stage 2: Anger. ...
- Stage 3: Bargaining. ...
- Stage 4: Sadness and depression. ...
- Stage 5: Acceptance.
- “This must be hard and I'm sorry that you've got to go through this. How can I help you get through it?”
- “I don't know how you feel but understand that this must be difficult. ...
- “I don't know what to say other than I'm here for you.”
- You are stronger than you think. Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. ...
- World Cancer Day – Together, it's possible. “20% of something is better than 100% of nothing.” Live the life you love. ...
- What cancer cannot do – cancer is so limited. It cannot cripple love.
- Be in the know about symptoms. ...
- Take steps to minimize scanxiety. ...
- Do your best to accept uncertainty. ...
- Focus on wellness. ...
- Take charge of what you can. ...
- Write down your worries. ...
- Create a worry time. ...
- Get support.
- Be informed. ...
- Express feelings of fear, anger, or sadness. ...
- Work toward having a positive attitude, which can help you feel better about life now. ...
- Find ways to help yourself relax.
- Be as active as you can. ...
- Control what you can.
Finally, keep these things in mind:
- Respect the patient's need for privacy, especially if you see the person in public. ...
- Avoid commenting on the patient's appearance.
Cancer patients simply want to be their old selves, Spiegel says, so they often can fail to make their new needs clear to their loved ones and caregivers, which can lead to frustration and anger.Can emotional trauma cause cancer? ›
No, being stressed doesn't directly increase the risk of cancer. The best quality studies have followed up many people for several years. They have found no evidence that those who are more stressed are more likely to get cancer. Some people wonder whether stress causes breast cancer.What are the emotional stages of cancer? ›
- State 1: Denial. ...
- Stage 2: Anger. ...
- Stage 3: Bargaining. ...
- Stage 4: Sadness and depression. ...
- Stage 5: Acceptance.
Don't say “I know how you feel” because you can't possibly know. Better to ask, “Do you want to talk about how you feel, how having cancer is affecting you?” Don't offer information about unproven treatments or referrals to doctors with questionable credentials.Why are cancer patients so mean? ›
Cancer patients simply want to be their old selves, Spiegel says, so they often can fail to make their new needs clear to their loved ones and caregivers, which can lead to frustration and anger.