1 of 87
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Lee Perry tells of an experience with his father as he talks Sunday, May 31, 2015, of the passing of Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints during a sit-down talk in the Relief Society Auxiliary Building in Salt Lake City.
The beauty of having a front-row seat and watching a life like his is that it does build your faith. With my father, it certainly was something that was contagious. You just knew he never questioned what the Lord had in store for him. He was really ready to accept anything and deal with it. —Lee Perry

SALT LAKE CITY — The "wildfire" cancer that took Elder L. Tom Perry's life on Saturday shocked his family, but he met the terminal diagnosis with customary acceptance of the Lord's will, his son said Sunday.

Elder Perry, who was 92, died within 40 days of being diagnosed with rare anaplastic thyroid cancer. The invasive cancer ripped through his body with such speed it also stunned members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who revered Elder Perry as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Elder Perry tried to maintain his duties as a member of the faith's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles until last week, said his son, Lee Perry, who was his biographer and is the dean of BYU's Marriott School of Management.

"It was only on Tuesday that he realized it was too much and that he couldn't do it any more, so he did the appropriate things," Perry said. "Elder (Russell M.) Nelson was traveling, so he talked to Elder (Dallin H.) Oaks and Elder (M. Russell) Ballard and explained the situation. He had a last few instructions, but he said he had the sense his mission was done and that they should move forward without him."

In a one-on-one, 15-minute interview Sunday morning with the Deseret News, Lee Perry provided new details about Elder Perry's cancer, gave insight into the family's feelings and shared personal memories of his father.

"It's not tragic, but it was certainly sudden and sad," he said.

Rare cancer

Elder Perry told his family on April 19 that doctors had identified a mass on his thyroid and that he was going to have a biopsy the next day.

"He wanted us to be aware that it was likely to be malignant," Perry said. "I went home and researched things and found out the odds of it being terminal cancer were pretty small because the kind he had was quite rare. There were four kinds, and the other three were quite treatable. He happened to have the one that wasn't, anaplastic thyroid cancer.

"I was in the hospital room when his pulmonologist let my father know he was a very sick man even though he might not feel that way."

Another of Elder Perry's doctors called the cancer a wildfire.

"It's really hard to fathom how fast it was, but it was like a wildfire," Perry said.

The family joined church members around the world in praying for a miracle.

"We certainly wanted one, either a medical one or a heavenly one, we wouldn't have cared too much which. We found out about three weeks ago that we'd run out of medical options, so we waited for a heavenly miracle. We always know those come according to God's will, and we accept that. My father certainly did.

"He was very reconciled to everything."

Family and faith

The family, Lee Perry said, was "a little slower to adjust."

Elder Perry's ebullience stood out in any group, magnified by the broadness of his smile, his booming voice and that robust 6-foot-4 frame, so those most accustomed to his typical energy were the most surprised by the cancer's speed. That included his wife, Barbara, and his children and grandchildren.

Lee Perry's wife Carolyn said, "I think with the family in general, we were pretty shocked with how fast it happened. I think Barbara, all of us. You're right, he adjusted faster then we have."

Elder Ballard likes to say Elder Perry still thought he was a Marine, which he was in World War II. That training remained evident throughout the past six weeks.

"The family, we certainly shed a lot more tears than he has," Lee Perry said. "Again, the Marine comes out. There were tender moments with him, but he's been pretty stoic and peaceful throughout it."

In fact, he appreciated the direct way his doctor delivered the prognosis, "because he knew what he was dealing with and then he just went about dealing with it," Lee Perry said. "That's the strength of the man. Even though the family had a harder time adjusting, I think we were inspired by his example and I knew we were stronger because of the way he was treating this final challenge in his life."

Elder Perry's faith bolstered his family's.

"The beauty of having a front-row seat and watching a life like his is that it does build your faith," Lee Perry said. "With my father, it certainly was something that was contagious. You just knew he never questioned what the Lord had in store for him. He was really ready to accept anything and deal with it.

"He had some challenges in his life, losing our mother and sister and more recently a niece. Because of how he feels about family, those probably were the hardest events of his life, but he was fond of saying, 'I've never had a bad day in my life.' When you have somebody like that who was so reconciled to what the Lord wants him to do, it does inspire you and build your faith."

Considerable legacy

No funeral plans were scheduled as of Sunday afternoon, a church spokesman said. The Perry family is meeting tonight and will coordinate with the Quorum of the Twelve.

Speaking of schedules, Lee Perry said his father's military discipline made him very uncomfortable being without one. On Friday, the day before he died, Elder Perry said he was "getting kind of bored."

That same day, he had a final, tender meeting with President Boyd K. Packer. The two had been friends and colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve for the past 41 years, since Elder Perry was called as an apostle in April 1974.

"He's just a man who always wanted to give everything he had," Lee Perry said. "That's the way he was raised, and that's how he lived his life. He got the full measure out of everything he did."

The son said one of his favorite memories of his father was a frequent activity they did together that didn't happen as much the last year because Elder Perry's hip surgery had slowed him down a bit.

"I always loved it when we walked together," Lee Perry said through tears. "He'd just take my arm and we'd walk as fast as we could. I learned to keep up with his pace. As much as anything, that represented our relationship, him taking my arm and walking fast, arm in arm. I just liked to be around him.

"He was always so good to me."

Lee Perry said that even last week, Elder Perry remained conscious of the fact that his son, who's had back surgery, was having to lift him frequently. He regularly called someone to help.

"It was just always the little things that represented a consideration on his part for what others were going through," Lee Perry said. "He just wasn't the person who thought of himself. He was much more concerned about others. That's the way he lived his life.

"At the end of the day, that's his legacy, because that lifting was so contagious that I'm sure others will carry it forward, and the church will be better because our leaders will be better having had the same kind of close experience I had with him."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com