Lights Camera Action
A father-son team uses filmmaking as a creative outlet during cancer care
William C. McCallum, 74, plays the lead role in the film Buffalo, which chronicles the journey of a taxi driver diagnosed with a terminal illness. He steals his cab and drives off with his beloved dog to find the long-lost son he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Much of the movie centers on regret for time lost and springing into action so there are no more regrets.
In his real life, McCallum doesn’t drive (or steal) a taxi and his son, Michael, is the filmmaker. They work together, hang out together and these days are even roommates. When McCallum received a diagnosis of stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer involving his liver in 2016, he came to value his close relationship with Michael even more.
Unlike his character in the movie, McCallum’s son was at the ready to help his father transition to his new role as a cancer patient with a loving caregiver by his side.
Quality Care Illuminated
In 2015, McCallum’s Lansing-area physician ordered a chest X-ray to investigate a cough, but noticed a large mass on the bottom of the image. After many frustrating months of tests and waiting, McCallum went to the Rogel Cancer Center for evaluation and treatment. He had a few friends who received excellent care there and was looking for the same.
“I felt like I came home when I got to the University of Michigan. It seemed very organized. Everyone was very friendly. I felt like a burden had been taken off me, worrying about having cancer,” McCallum says.
His medical oncologist, Mark Zalupski, M.D., prescribed oral chemotherapy, but after five months of treatment, a CT scan revealed the cancer was not responding. Zalupski adjusted the treatment plan so McCallum now receives octreotide LAR, a monthly injection that targets cancer cells by docking with receptors for this synthetic protein medication.
While this therapy might be anticipated to control the growth of the cancer, somewhat surprisingly, CT scans in June and again in December 2017 showed decreasing size of the tumors within McCallum’s liver.
“Having cancer is a scary thing, but Dr. Z. is very open and put us at ease,” McCallum says. “I have an active, changeable plan. Dr. Z. informs us of the details.”
Because his side effects have been limited to some fatigue, McCallum moves about his regular routine. He works part time picking up and delivering auto parts. He also continues to act in films for Michael, who owns the Lansing-based Rebel Pictures. The two have also partnered in treating his cancer.
As McCallum’s main caregiver, Michael approaches his father’s treatment much like he approaches directing a film.
“My job, in addition to being his best friend and son, is to build his confidence up, much like a coach would with an athlete. Even though he’s going through treatment, I’ll still give him the business and vice versa,” Michael says. “His illness made me realize he’s not going to be here forever. It has motivated me even more so because we’re not promised tomorrow.”
Michael accompanies McCallum to appointments at the Rogel Cancer Center, helps his father with paperwork and keeps track of medications. He asks questions during appointments, especially during moments he senses his father is reluctant or fearful.
“My pop is so sharp and witty, but when we get there, it can be overwhelming. I’ll take the lead. I know it has meant a lot to him that I’ve been able to be there and help him get through this. It would be difficult to do this alone.”
Father and son often make a day of their trips to Ann Arbor, trying new restaurants and seeing films that aren't showing in Lansing.
Acting as an Outlet
McCallum feels well enough most days not to think much about having cancer. Having put his faith in his doctors, he aims not to worry. Acting in films for Rebel Pictures has been both a welcome distraction and a creative outlet.
“I like the escapism. I play a great gangster. I was a wisecracking guy. The characters can be so funny,” he says.
Up next is a role playing the lead character in Polar, a post-apocalyptic story about a man holed up in a remote cabin who fights for survival and sanity. At home, he and Michael are considering adopting a rescue dog to help stay active.
McCallum plans to stay busy until his next scan this spring to determine whether his cancer continues responding to treatment.
Zalupski enjoys his interactions with father and son.
“While advanced cancer remains a difficult and challenging illness, improved understanding of the various malignancies involving the liver has led to an increasing number of treatment options for patients like Mr. McCallum. In addition to better disease control, these treatments often contribute to an improved quality of life, permitting patients to continue with activities that bring satisfaction, like making movies.”