Joe Paterno Died From More Than Lung Cancer

Joe PaternoThe official word is lung cancer killed former Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. It took 65 days for metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung to work its way through his body. And yet, it's another organ that is dominating the news of the fallen coach's demise. The heart

How could it not? You can love JoePa or you can hate him. But for 62 years -- right up until November -- he was a member of the coaching staff at Penn State. That's a bona fide record in college football, but it's also an incredible accomplishment. How many people do you know who have risen each morning and gone to work at the same place, to do the same job, for 62 years? At some point, it ceases to be a job and becomes one's lifeblood.


Yes, technically it was the lung cancer that killed JoePa. But it's no surprise that his colleagues today are saying he died of a broken heart. As Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said, “The emotional turmoil of the last few weeks might have played into it.” Former Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden went even further about his one-time adversary. “You can die of heartbreak. I’m sure Joe had some heartbreak, too,” said Bowden.

When access to the supply of lifeblood is cut off, what do you expect to happen? Parts of you begin to die.

I may be speaking metaphorically, but there's real scientific evidence to support the theory. Scientists studying folks widowed after age 55 found the risk of dying in the first six months after bereavement was 40 percent higher than expected. Even for people as young as 35, studies have shown there is a 20 to 35 percent increase in the risk you'll die of a heart attack in the six months after burying your spouse.

My apologies to Sue Paterno, this is not meant to be a knock on her. She is alive and well. But for some people, work becomes like another spouse. Growing up in a small town filled with farmers and small business owners whose work defines them, I see it happen all the time. When a doctor tells a geriatric he or she can no longer get up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows or walk to the shop, a little piece of them dies.

Where some people look to their kids or spouse as that thing that make us get out of bed even on the coldest, dreariest mornings, for others, it's the job. And it seems for Paterno, it was being a football coach. Why else would he have been doing it at 85? It wasn't for the money -- that's for sure.

Is it any wonder that when something that takes up such a big chunk of your life disappears, so does that will to get up, to get moving, to fight? Lung cancer may have taken Joe Paterno, but it's not hard to believe his lack of fight hurried it along.

Do you have something in your life so important that if you lost it, it would seriously compromise your health?


Image via jkahnpsu/Flickr

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