Fred Forster is a man who wears the adjective “commanding” well. He has a presence when he enters a room that is felt by all there. He carries the rank of general with a mix of pride and humility. He is a studied man, fielding controversial questions as the head of the Blount County Chamber Partnership with preparedness that has been filtered through his dedication to the mission of the organization. Forster, 61, is a man with a fortified faith, tempered through a busy life as a military man, husband, father and community leader and steeled through his recent battle with cancer.
“The Lord is in control,” said Forster, “and He’s good all the time.”
East Tennessee roots
Frederick Harwood Forster was born in Knoxville and moved to Blount County in 1979. He married Carolyn DeLozier in 1981.
He served as commander of the 134th Air Refueling Wing while at the rank of colonel, was promoted to General and moved up to Nashville as assistant adjutant general for the Air Guard for the Tennessee National Guard.
The promotion took Forster from full-time to weekends only.
“When I got promoted to brigadier general my job was chief of staff of the Tennessee Air Guard. A couple years later, I was appointed assistant adjutant general for Air and got two stars,” Forster said. “When I had the job at the air base, it was a full-time job. When I was promoted to general officer, I was promoted to a traditional guard slot which was weekends only, so I didn’t have a full-time job during the week.”
Forster started as president and CEO of the Blount County Partnership in January of 1999. “I’ve always been community-oriented. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I retired, and it worked out perfectly,” he said of the Blount Partnership position.
Forster’s military career ended in May of 2003 when he fully retired from the Tennessee National Guard.
While Forster grew up in Knoxville and moved to Blount County in 1979, the DeLozier family has deep Blount County roots. Fred Forster and Carolyn DeLozier married in 1981 and have raised their family in Blount County. The Forsters have two daughters, Joy Carver, 30, and Rebecca Forster, 25. Joy Carver and husband, Will, have one son, Andrew Sevier Carver.
“He’s a cute little guy,” Forster said of his 15-month-old grandson. “I hope he’ll call me Granddaddy.”
Drew was 6-months old when his granddaddy was diagnosed with cancer. Forster said he regretted he didn’t feel better during the early part of Drew’s life.
“It’s good to establish a relationship now. I never knew either of my grandfathers. Both died before I was born. I didn’t have grandfather-grandson relationships. Hopefully, I’ll be as good a grandparent to Drew as my grandmother was to me,” Forster said.
Community service has always been important for Forster and his wife. Throughout the years he has helped with United Way, was involved with various other agencies, including in 2005 when he and Carolyn led the Relay for Life campaign in Blount County. The Relay is a nationwide fundraiser for cancer research.
“Cancer had touched our families though Carolyn’s parents, both of whom are survivors, and on my side with my two aunts who had breast cancer,” he said. “We realized how important it was to do cancer research. We decided Relay would be something good to do.”
“Something good to do” translated into exceeding the goal of $205,000 by raising $215,000 with 93 teams involved. “That was really something. We were real proud of the people and committees for making that happen,” Forster said. “An awful lot of people worked together to make that happen.”
On May 15, 2007, life changed.
In the Spring of 2007, Forster noticed he was having trouble swallowing. He complained about it during his annual physical in March of that year, but his doctor discovered an arterial fibrillation and was more concerned with correcting that first.
“He said let’s take care of the heart and then get down to the swallowing thing,” Forster remembered. “It took from March until the middle of May to get my heart back in rhythm and get the medication squared away. That’s why it took so long to look down the throat.”
A “look down the throat” by Dr. Craig Jarvis with Blount Gastroenterology brought the news that Forster had a tumor wrapped around his esophagus where it goes into his stomach. The tumor was cancerous.
“When you first hear the words, ‘You’ve got cancer,’ you sort of go numb,” Forster said. “The doctor, Craig Jarvis, had looked down my throat, and as soon as I came out of sedation, he told me. He had already told Carolyn. He and Carolyn were together when they told me what was going on.”
One day at a time
After all tests were done, there was a mixture of good news and bad. Doctors told Forster the tumor would have to be dealt with quickly and aggressively. The good news was the cancer appeared to be localized.
“There was no evidence it had gotten anywhere else in my body at that point,” he said. “The protocol developed involved radiation to shrink the tumor and help kill it, as well as chemotherapy to kill it.”
Dealing with cancer involves not only medical treatment, but attitude and the will to fight. From the day of the diagnosis, the Forsters embraced a “day at a time” approach. When he heard the diagnosis, his thoughts were to the battle, a battle with an outcome he already had a peace about. Underlying it all, Forster says, was an assurance he can’t really explain, but simply knew.
“When I heard the news I had cancer, I can’t explain it, I had a sense of peace,” Forster said. “So I’ve got cancer. We’re just going to go ahead and address this and take care of it. I didn’t really know at the time how severe it was or what lay ahead. Thank goodness I didn’t know what lay ahead. So I just decided I was going to take it a day at a time.”
The ‘day at a time’ philosophy, Forster points out, is rooted in scripture.
“One of the things I learned a long time ago was to live day to day. Don’t live in the past, and don’t live in the future, but live each day for what it is. So that was the way I approached this disease. I was going to live it a day at a time and not worry about what’s coming down the road next week or next month.
“Overall, I knew that everything was going to be alright, not matter what happened, so that really gave me a sense of assurance that it was going to be okay. And Carolyn feels the same way. Obviously, I could die, but we’re all going to die sometime. And we’re prepared and have prepared over the years for whatever comes down the road. I know the Lord is going to take care of her and my family no matter what happens to me.”
His wife, said Forster, shared his assurance and faith. As for worrying about Carolyn’s march into the battle, Forster said their faith kept worry from the door.
“I knew I was going to beat this, so I didn’t really worry about Carolyn at the time, and again, thank goodness, I didn’t know what lay ahead as far as the treatments. She has been my rock through all of this, and the burden of this disease has really fallen on her shoulders. I’ve been weak and sick, and she has really stepped up and taken care of me and taken care of her folks at the same time.”
Carolyn Forster stepped into full speed to battle the disease with her husband.
“She has endured everything I have except the physiological part,” said Fred Forster. “When I was in the hospital in Nashville, she slept in the same room with me in a reclining chair that was like a rock. She was there every night and day, she’s been by my side. When I get discouraged, she’s an encourager. She says, ‘Fred, this is not going to last forever. We’ll get through it.’ She’s been a constant helpmate.”
Although the Forster family was no stranger to cancer in their relatives and through their work with Relay for Life, when it came to the road that lay ahead, Forster said he was “fat, dumb and happy.”
“The doctors were careful about how they relayed information to me,” Forster said. “I got just enough information at the right times to deal with it.”
The process: ‘Killing the good and the bad’
Forster said chemotherapy is designed to kill rapidly growing cells, both good and bad. His first round of chemotherapy lasted six weeks and a port was installed to facilitate the treatment.
“We started all that on the fifth of June. It was pretty quick, and we started chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously. That initial round was pretty rough, but I was in great shape. I walked a lot and kept my body in shape and so that really helped me in the long run,” he said.
Forster took his treatment at Blount Memorial Hospital. “We are blessed to have Blount Memorial Hospital and the new cancer wing. That’s a wonderful facility, and the staff is awesome,” he said.
His chemotherapy treatments usually took half a day and lasted from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. “When you get a chemotherapy treatment, you sit in an easy chair and have the drip bags,” he said.
In battling cancer, the side effects are often devastating. “It makes you feel really tired and run down, and it takes your strength away. Then my nerves have also been damaged by this chemotherapy. I have a tingling in my feet and hands. I get a tremor,” he said.
On Aug. 22, he went to Nashville where doctors removed the tumor. A second round of chemo that Forster described as an “insurance” round began shortly thereafter.
Set backs: ‘Taking the starch out’
Filling your body with strong drugs that kill good and bad cells indiscriminately can often lead to setbacks. The heart condition that doctors originally looked at following Forster’s March physical came back into play as he was undergoing his cancer treatments.
“During the course of treatment, my heart did fine. Then, during the operation in Nashville, it flipped out of rhythm. Then this fall, it flipped back out during chemo,” he said.
Forster said one of the medications he takes controls the heart arrhythmia. He laughed when he said that this is the first time he’s had to regularly take a large amount of medication. “I didn’t take any pills at all until I got into this thing, and now I’ve got a whole battery of pills,” he said.
In the Fall of 2007, Forster developed pneumonia after surgeons had removed the tumor, and he was undergoing the second round of chemotherapy.
“The thing that knocked me flat after that was the pneumonia. When I contracted pneumonia, that took the starch out of me,” he said.
At this point the chemotherapy had rendered him much weaker than he was during his first round. “It’s amazing how quickly your muscles atrophy when you’re not using them. I found I was extremely weak. I couldn’t get down in the floor and get back up by myself. Those muscles had wasted away,” he said. “Had I not been in good shape, I would have experienced it way earlier.”
While the battle to beat the disease is the focus for cancer patients and their families, life around them continues. There are career, family and community obligations and duties that still begin with every day and can’t just be ignored. For Forster, his job as CEO and president of the Blount County Chamber Partnership is one that not only involves staff and program management, but requires him to be visible in the community and be on top of new opportunities and trends in the business and economic world. It’s not a 9-to-5 job, and not one with duties that can simply be put on hold.
Dealing with the time away from the office for Forster was a combination of great staff and fortunate timing. For the first part of the battle, Forster was still strong enough to come into the office and carry on with most of his duties.
“The staff stepped up when I was taken out,” Forster said. “The staff is fantastic. They can operate this place just fine without me. I stayed in touch to let everyone know what was going on and tried to keep my head in the game. They took my duties and responsibilities and took them upon themselves and have fulfilled everything the Chamber needed while I was out.”
Forster was doing fine and coming into the office throughout the fall, which is when the majority of the planning for the upcoming year takes place at the Chamber.
“The planning part was well-underway by the time I got sick (with pneumonia). We got the 2008 Plan of Work put into place. I had the second round of chemo, and, after that was when I got pneumonia, and it laid me out flat.”
Givers and Takers
Part of dealing with chemotherapy treatments is coping with a patient’s weakened immune system, which often means staying at home or out of crowds. “Boy that’s been the hardest part - being isolated,” Forster said.
Friends in the community however didn’t forget about Forster. “I didn’t know how many friends I had until I got this. Folks have made a conscious effort to stay in touch through cards, e-mails, phone calls and visits. When folks reached out, they reached out to us and that’s really made a huge difference. It’s energized me. That’s an important thing to do. We’re all givers and takers at different times,” he said.
Forster said being on the receiving side of charity challenged him.
“Up until this particular situation, I had always been a giver. When you become a taker, you realize how important givers are. That’s whole different view point, being a taker, taking people’s offers of company, friendship and communication. For the first time I was able to say, ‘Yes, you can do that. Thank you for doing that,’” he said.
Initially Forster said he thought he could handle the battle on his own, but as friends and the community offered an outpouring of help, Forster found strength and comfort in being a “taker.”
“I realized you can’t handle these things on your own. It really does take a community to help…to let people bring movies or books or come visit or run errands for you. Folks really sincerely want to do that. It is selfish not to let people do that. The Lord has told us it is more blessed to give than receive but you can’t give if there are no receivers. Part of my becoming a receiver was realizing that,” he said.
With a strong personal faith already a part of his life, did finding out he had cancer challenge that faith? “It really hasn’t challenged my faith, it has reaffirmed my faith that the Lord is out there taking care of me and taking care of my family. Whatever comes up, put it in His hands, and it gets taken care of. He’s met every need that I had. Sometimes there were things I didn’t even know I needed, and the need was already met. Someone would walk in with a meal, book or phone call or whatever,” he said.
Forster said the prayers offered up on his behalf were some of the best gifts he received. “You absolutely could feel those prayers as people lifted them up. I’m convinced part of the peace I’ve had is in the prayers. There comes a time you can’t even pray for yourself. You’re trying to use every ounce of strength to survive and get through the day. Those other people’s prayers are extremely important,” Forster said.
Forster said he realized a universal reality while struggling with his cancer. “You learn God really is in control and that He’s good all the time and wants good things to come out of every situation, no matter how bad it seems. There have been a number of good things that came out of this situation with me,” he said.
Forster said he learned how important friends are. “There are lots of friends you don’t know you have until you need them. It’s a small world. There are lots of folks out there who love and care for you. That’s been humbling,” he said. “God made Himself known to me throughout this in no uncertain terms. Live it a day at a time and give Him the glory.”
Prognosis: Rehabilitate, reaffirm, reintegrate
The news came to many watching and praying for Forster in a Jan. 23 e-mail -- he was cancer free.
“The prognosis is good,” Forster said. “Fortunately we caught this tumor before it spread through the body and, through radiation and chemotherapy and surgery, removed it. They also took out several lymph nodes to make sure everything is clear in those lymph nodes. There were footprints in the lymph nodes. The second round of chemotherapy was to make sure there weren’t an Al Qaeda cells in my body trying to set up shop,” he said.
When asked if he’s cured, Forster said his doctor told him this particular cancer is under control, and he is now in the process of rebuilding his strength. Forster is currently in a medical fitness program at Blount Memorial Hospital to rehabilitate his body after chemotherapy weakened it.
Forster said the further you get away from chemotherapy, the better things get. “It takes a while for your body to recover from the poison. It’s designed to kill cells. It doesn’t discriminate. It kills good cells and bad.”
Forster is stepping back into his job and responsibilities in the community. “I want to get back into the game and get fully reintegrated into the community and get where I was before, in terms of my commitment to the community and being involved across the board,” he said.
“I told someone I’ve had enough of Fred. I’m plumb tired of worrying about Fred.”
The Relay for Life events will mean more to him now that he’s a survivor. The first lap of any Relay of Life is reserved to honor cancer survivors. Because he was diagnosed with cancer less than a month before the 2007 Relay for Life, he got to walk the first lap of the relay with other survivors.
“I got a different look at it when I walked around that first lap. It gives you an appreciation of what the Relay is about. I’m a beneficiary of the research that has been done,” he said.
In his own words
“I just want to thank everybody that’s been a part of our lives through this, so many friends and acquaintances who had us in prayer. It’s been fantastic. There’s no way I could repay them or thank them. These folks know who they are. I want to be sure they understand how much that means to us.
“I had tried to do things for others, and they jumped in and did things for us in return. It’s amazing how that works. You just can’t out give the Lord. I want to make sure He gets the glory.”