Last year, a few weeks before I was supposed to open my one-man show in Dallas, I went to my doctor in Austin to have a lifelong problem with my nose fixed. I figured I had better have my health in top shape, because after a three-week run in Dallas, we were scheduled to take the show to New York. I had been rehearsing my show all summer, but I had been polishing it for years. I was 74 years old, and this was to be my show business swan song.
I had been experiencing breathing difficulties for some two years and had been to a number of doctors—ear-nose-and-throat specialists and allergists—all of whom maintained that the condition was something I would have to learn to live with. My latest doctor, and ENT specialist named James Eskew, knew that some sinus blockage was aggravated by a deviated septum, a common condition that causes narrowed nasal passages. He suggested that having the septum straightened would temporarily take care of the problem and that the blockage could be dealt with later. It was a minor operation, but I had to have general anesthesia.
When I regained consciousness my wife, Liz, was waiting to greet me. My whole nasal area was numb, so I felt no pain, just a pleasant euphoria from the sodium pentothal. Dr. Eskew came in, and I asked, “Did you get it straightened up, Doctor?”
“No,” he replied soberly. “When I got in there I discovered a large tumor. I hate to tell you, but it’s malignant.”
“You mean I’ve got a cancer?”
He nodded yes.
“Does that mean I won’t be able to open on October sixth in Dallas?”
“I’m afraid it means you’ll have to cancel the show for this year, John Henry. You’re going to have to go for treatment. It’s in a very difficult area to reach—the nasopharynx. No way it can be operated on. It’s a rare tumor and a job for someone who has seen a lot of these cases.”
As Liz and I drove home, we agreed it would important for me not to wallow in self-pity. We began to discuss our plan of action. First, we had to cancel the show, then we had to select a specialist.
I called a close friend of mine, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic. His specialty is breast cancer, but he knows the whole field; I figured he would know the most reputable man for my brand of cancer. He promised to start a search right away. Meanwhile, my director and his wife had friends at the Sloan Kettering cancer center in New York. They said they too would ask about the best man for my case.
A few hours after Liz and I got home from the hospital, a friend, Meredith Dreiss Ferguson, came over. We are walking partners. Her husband is Tom Ferguson, a doctor who also edits Medical Self-Care magazine. He is an authority on self-care approaches to cancer and other illnesses and she would consult him at once. She informed us that her uncle A.J. Ballantyne, at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was a specialist in cancers of the head and neck. “In fact,” she said, “he’s probably the best in the world.” She said she would be glad to make an appointment for me. She did, and we scheduled our visit for early the next week. Then my friends in Cleveland and New York called to say that the queries had turned up the name of Dr. A.J. Ballantyne. It was comforting to learn that the medical world shared Meredith’s estimation of her Uncle Jay.
The next day or so, while Meredith and I were walking around Town Lake, she told me about a book that Tom thought would be great to help me, Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie Siegel, a Yale professor and a cancer specialist who was one of Tom’s teachers. Just then, two University of Texas professors I knew came jogging by. They circled around us and, in true jogger fashion, continued jogging in place as one asked, “Hey there, John Henry, how are you coming?”
“Fine,” I replied. “Couldn’t feel better—except that I have a deadly cancer in my nose.”
That stopped their jogging flat. They stared at me, stammered a confused “Sorry, old boy,” and went stepping away, shaking their heads, obviously disturbed by my cavalier reply.
Meredith gave me a reproachful stare and said, “I never want to hear you say that again! You cut that ‘deadly’ cancer stuff out right now. That is too negative.”
In retrospect, I understand my need for that rather awkward attempt at black humor. Although I had been told that I had cancer, the realization and acceptance of that dreaded and frightening fact was something that I had not yet learned to cope with—and would not for some time.
Siegel’s book introduced me to the concept of self-healing. He believes that many cancer patients can help cure themselves through meditation and positive thoughts, and he cites dozens of cases of seemingly miraculous cures. He is firm in his central theme: I don’t care how you do it, if you say you are determined to survive, then you have a chance. And if you feel your case is hopeless, there’s a good chance you’ll die.
That attitude, happily, is part of Liz’s philosophy. I mention Liz’s attitude because it was crucial to my recovery. She was positive, reassuring, and firm, but altogether realistic—a solid anchor of sympathy and support. She confided weeks later that she had cried herself to sleep that first week. But in my presence there was never a hint of the alarm she felt, not a hint of self-pity. I launched into absorbing Siegel’s ideas and trying to put them to use.
We arrived at M.D. Anderson early on a Monday morning. Dr. Ballantyne was a soft-spoken man with an enigmatic smile. He talked with Liz and me at length, then gave me a painkiller to allow him to look up