John (left) with surgical oncologist Vijay Trisal, M.D., associate clinical professor in the Department of Surgery at City of Hope.
A skin cancer survivor who was given a poor prognosis six years ago has not only astounded his doctors, he has written two books and is working on a third.
In 2011, John Garner, now 67, was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer that affects only about 1,500 people in the United States each year. Presenting as a lump on the skin, it grows quickly and tends to metastasize at early stages of the disease, spreading to nearby lymph nodes and then to distant areas such as the lungs, brain and bones. Risk factors include being older than 50 years, male and white.
At diagnosis, Garner’s disease was already advanced, and he was told it was incurable.
However, surgical oncologist Vijay Trisal, M.D.
, associate clinical professor in the Department of Surgery
at City of Hope, had some good news for Garner, a football coach who lives in Apple Valley, California. “He said it hadn’t spread,” Garner said. Trisal performed surgery right away, which was followed by seven weeks of radiation.
“I was depressed,” Garner recalled. “I didn’t know how to deal with the idea that I had incurable cancer. Every Friday, I met with my radiologist and she’d tell me about the progress they were making with the radiation. Other people at the hospital mentioned that Merkel cell comes back within a year of surgery and attacks the bones or the brain. I didn’t know how to fight it. Do you start running five miles a day? Do you change your diet? What do you do? I was afraid to look it up on the internet because I didn’t want more of the bad news in my head.”
Garner finally confessed his fears to his sister-in-law. “She said, ‘If you think you’re going to die, then you might want to do what you love.’ I thought about that, and I immediately said, ‘Thanks. I have to go. I have to make a phone call.’”
Garner, who had retired from coaching, immediately called up a friend who was the head of the youth football program in Barstow, California, and told him he was looking for a job. He returned to coaching with gusto.
The coach of the Barstow High School team saw Garner working with the team and offered him a choice: to coach the varsity offensive line or to be head coach of the freshman squad. He went with the latter, wanting to put into practice the coaching philosophies he’d developed over a lifetime.
“I didn’t want to sit back and wait for the cancer to do whatever it was going to do. So I went back and I coached my [rear end] off. I coached in a way that I never had before,” he said.
He remembers this time as "That Comeback Season," which is also the title of a book he began writing. It’s a book about more than a football team that just wouldn’t quit. It’s also a story about Garner’s trials and tribulations – how he was resurrected as a coach and as a man.
That year saw the dissolution of his marriage but, to his surprise, not his health. While mourning the end of his marriage, Garner said he “started living at a level that I never had before. I was cooking, decorating, coaching, running, writing.”
“For years I wanted to be a writer, but I never finished because I doubted my ability,” he said. “This time, I didn’t care whether I had the ability or not. The emotions were so close, though, it was hard.”
One of the ways Garner connects with the kids he coaches is by writing letters, which he often hands out on game day. In the letters, he provides his players with words of encouragement, and reminds them that football is about much more than just winning.
Garner developed his letter-writing practice during his six-year journey with cancer. Along with his players, he wrote to family, friends and even his deceased parents about the battle he was fighting. He has compiled these letters into a second book called "Letters From Hope." “I was able to convey my feelings better on paper than in person,” he said.
In January 2016 Garner returned to City of Hope for a checkup with Trisal. After looking at Garner’s latest body scan, Trisal told him, “I’m happy to tell you, you’re cured.” “I started crying,” Garner said. “It was a word I never thought I’d hear used to describe me.”
Trisal tried to pin down why Garner had done so well. He asked his patient if he had changed his diet. “I told him, ‘When you told me it was incurable, I started eating a lot of pizza,” Garner said. "But what I think sustained me wasn’t a positive attitude, it was my passion. I threw myself into everything with great passion, great energy, over those five years. I didn’t hold anything back.”
Now that he’s finished two of his books, Garner plans to start volunteer training at City of Hope next month. He plans to keep coaching high school football. He is working hard to finish "That Comeback Season." Since 2014, he has enjoyed spending time with new wife, Gen. He’s trying to lose weight. “And I run and I pray.”
“I really didn’t have it that rough. The only thing I had to overcome was fear of death,” he said. “I got so tired of waiting to die that I started living.”