What I learned: 4 hard-won lessons from skin cancer survivor John Garner
March 11, 2016 | by By Denise Heady
“You may think I’m odd for saying this,” said John Garner, reflecting on the past five years of his life, “but cancer just might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.”
John, 66, knows that cancer isn’t something people are typically grateful for, but he credits the disease for pushing him to be fearless and focused enough to return to his first loves: writing, running and coaching high school football.
“I don’t know why I’m still alive,” he said. “I am simply so excited by how my life has changed and by what I learned about myself since being diagnosed. I did a lot of crying these past five years — not because I was sad, but because I was so damn grateful for the life I was living. It’s a great life. Better than the 60 years prior. I take nothing for granted.”
Facing the diagnosis
In 2011, John, a former infantry noncommissioned officer (NCO) and teacher, was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer that affects about 1,500 people in the United States each year. It grows quickly and often metastasizes at early stages of the disease, spreading to nearby lymph nodes and then distant parts of the body such as the lungs, brain and bones.
Since John’s disease was so advanced, he was told that his chances of beating it were grim: “I gathered that the part about being ‘incurable’ meant I was going to die, but no one could say when,” said John. “But I knew I wanted to live. I wasn’t worried about anything else anymore.”
Getting back on the field
John immediately began treatment at City of Hope under the care of surgical oncologist Vijay Trisal, M.D., associate clinical professor in the Department of Surgery. John underwent radiation and surgery, during which Trisal was able to remove the tumor successfully.
Though there was still a good chance the cancer could return, John didn’t sit around waiting for it. He decided to get back to running and writing — both of which helped him get through treatment — and coaching football.
After an eight-year hiatus from coaching, John took on the freshman football team at Barstow High School in California. He remembers this time as “The Comeback Season,” which is also the title of a book he is writing about the ups and downs of 2012, the year his cancer was supposed to come back.
One of the ways John connects with the kids he coaches is by writing letters, which he often hands out on game day. In these letters, he provides his players with words of encouragement, and reminds them that football is about much more than just winning.
John developed his letter-writing practice during his five-year journey with cancer. Along with his players, he writes to family, friends and even his deceased parents about the battle he has fought to get to where he is now. John is compiling these letters for a second book titled “Letters from Coach.” The book, which will be published soon, has been one of his goals since being diagnosed with cancer.
Embracing a fresh future
Now cancer-free after five clean scans, John has many more years to do what he loves most. Today, he is an offensive-line coach for the Adelanto High School football team; he is also training to become a long distance runner and planning to publish two books.
“I’m alive today because of Dr. Trisal,” said John. “He cared for me as a person, not just as another cancer patient. He gave me hope. Everyone at City of Hope did. They are great people there, amazing human beings.”
Here, John shares his advice for patients who have recently been diagnosed.
1. Write. Try writing letters daily that encourage others, or that simply let family and friends know how much you love them and what you're thinking.
2. If you can, move. Jog, run or walk. Whatever. Get outside and move every day. Take in nature. Sit outside with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Take in the sunrise and the sunset.
3. Kick ass! Kicking ass is simply a never-give-up attitude. It’s a kind of a defiance, in that you dare to be more than the obstacles you face. You dare to have a happy life. It’s the determination that drives you to be your best, in spite of your circumstances.
4. Do not fear what lies ahead. Do not withdraw from the challenges that await you. Embrace them, for it is from failure that we gain wisdom, from overcoming adversity that we gain confidence, and from trying again after every mistake and loss, however small or large, that we grow stronger, and realize our gifts.
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