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Dean George is the Marketing Specialist and Content Creator for Dental Insurance
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A Famous Race against Oral Cancer

Jul 30, 2015

By Dean George

America has had 44 presidents, but only one that died of cancer. Coincidentally, this president died from oral cancer 130 years ago last week, on July 23, 1885.

Hiram began his lifetime habit of smoking cigars at an early age, once admitting to smoking as many as 12 a day. This habit eventually cost him his life when cancer was diagnosed at the base of his tongue and tonsils in 1884.

A popular figure due to a distinguished military career serving one of our country’s most beloved presidents, his celebrity status grew even brighter followed by two presidential terms of his own. 


But for all his military and political success, Hiram’s private life was far from successful. As a young man, he failed at the family tanning business, preferring day-to-day chores on the family farm and working with horses.

After his father earned him a commission to West Point, he soon became bored with military studies and shared a passion only for equestrian competition, mathematics, writing and drawing. In his leisure time he enjoyed reading classic literature. 

Oddly, the congressman that got Hiram his commission got his name wrong when nominating him, swapping his middle name for his first name and his mother’s maiden name for his middle name. After several attempts to correct it, Hiram gave up and began going by his middle name. In 1843 he graduated 21st from his 39-member West Point class before being assigned as a second lieutenant to the 4th infantry near St. Louis, Missouri.

It was at West Point where he fell in love with his roommate’s sister, Julia Boggs Dent. Julia later accepted Hiram’s proposal of marriage, but it would be years before they married due to his long distance military postings. After distinguishing himself in the Mexican War, he returned to St. Louis to marry the woman that would be his wife for 37 years.

Initially, Hiram’s wife accompanied him to military postings in Detroit and New York, but when the Army sent him to The Oregon Territory and later California, he was forced to leave her and his growing family behind. The separation took its toll on him as he battled depression and reportedly developed a drinking problem.

Heading Home Hiram, in 1854, decided he had all he could take of being separated from his family. At this time, he resigned from the military, returned to his wife and children and took up farming after his father-in-law gifted the family some land in Missouri. Hiram struggled with farming but even when faced with losing the farm, rather than selling the one slave his father-in-law had given him, he chose to free him instead.

After moving his growing family to St. Louis, Hiram tried and failed at several businesses over the next six years. Eventually, Hiram decided to relocate to Galena, Illinois where he worked as a clerk for his younger brother in his leather shop. Soon after the Civil War broke out, and because the Union needed officers with experience, the Illinois governor pressed him into service where he quickly distinguished himself, first in organizing a volunteer regiment and later in battle after battle.

Eventually Hiram rose to the rank of brigadier general for the victorious Union Army. He and wife Julia were actually scheduled to accompany President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary to the theater on the night Lincoln was assassinated, but Julia persuaded her husband to decline the invitation because of her personal dislike for the First Lady.

Fast forward 19 years to early June, 1884. The retired brigadier general and now ex-president was diagnosed with a malignant cancer at the base of his tongue, or carcinoma of the right tonsillar pillar. At the time, there was no radiotherapy, tracheotomy surgery or other medical cures to remove the cancer or stem its invasive growth.

As previously noted in this blog space, even today oral cancer has a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent due to late detection. That rate is higher than breast, cervical or skin cancers.

The devastating news about his cancer was made worse by the public knowledge that a Wall Street investment firm co-owned by Hiram’s son Buck went bankrupt the same year. Buck had convinced his father to invest in the venture that later imploded into a major Wall Street scandal. Buck and Hiram lost everything, including his integrity, when Buck’s partner Ferdinand Ward was imprisoned for running what amounted to a Ponzi scheme.

For years, Hiram had been asked repeatedly to write his memoirs, and for years he had brushed aside the requests. But now that he was bankrupt and facing a slow and painful death at the hands of oral cancer, the thought of leaving his family penniless convinced him to write his life’s story.

Of the many offers he had received to publish his book, none matched that of famous American author Mark Twain who offered Hiram $50,000 and 75 percent of total book sales. For the man known to millions as “Unconditional Surrender,” that meant he had one more battle to win, but time was short.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

Hiram pledged to writing 10,000 words a day in long hand, a feat made more challenging by the cancer’s progression. As it spread throughout his mouth and jaw, he found it impossible to lie down when resting for fear of choking. Hiram soon lost the ability to speak and had to communicate by writing notes.

Meanwhile, the New York City summer was a scorcher, so Hiram moved with Julia to a small cottage in upstate New York in a valiant effort to finish his memoirs. As reported last year in a post about another president who survived oral cancer, the nation was transfixed by the respected Civil War hero’s personal health battle through highly publicized coverage in several New York City newspapers.

The big question of the summer: would the admired ex-president battling against time have enough of it left to finish his life’s story – before cancer wrote his epilogue?

Ignoring the public’s morbid fascination with his predicament, reportedly the former president would write up to 50 pages a day with his legs propped up, sipping “cocaine water,” a beverage prescribed by his personal physician, John H. Douglas, to soothe Hiram’s inflamed throat and tongue.

In the end, he finished his autobiography one week before the cancer claimed him, and while he may have lost the battle, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant won the war by providing for his family and branding his legacy in America’s history books.

At more than 600 pages, his memoir sold as a two-book set and was an instant best seller. Grant’s biography sold over 300,000 copies and earned his wife Julia $500,000. Today, the biography is viewed as America’s first celebrity memoir, and critics still consider it one of the best literary achievements of any U.S. president.

Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk. Did you know that many dentists today offer oral cancer screenings as part of a routine checkup? If you’ve been delaying routine dental visits because you don’t have coverage, click here to see the plans available in your area.

Source: entnet.org, millercenter.org, granthomepage.com, pbs.org, cbsnews.com
Photo sources: beniciheraldonline.com,alternatehistory.com


Copyright 2015, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC

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