Medicine and Miracles

How Texas’ leading humorist helped cure himself of a deadly serious disease.

October 1988By Comments

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 my nose with a scope. He confirmed that I did indeed have a large and inoperable tumor of the nasopharynx and informed us that radiation was the only treatment.

In order for the doctors to determine the area claimed by the tumor, I had to undergo a series of CT (computerized tomography) scans and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)—tedious, boring, and somewhat uncomfortable procedures, but unequaled in aiding the doctors in their task. The tests took only a week, but that seemed like an eternity.

After we canceled the show opening in Dallas, reporters began to call M.D. Anderson for information about my trouble. The clinic’s public relations people asked if they could put out a release, and I told them to go ahead. As a result, the wire services spread it all across the land.

My first session of radiation therapy was on October 13. I was scheduled to be treated on the six mv (million volts) photon machine, two sessions a day for six weeks. I had to go into the radiation room and lie on a table that could be raised, lowered, and turned by a lever. The technicians would adjust my head to the precise position, then place in my mouth a pad attached to metal a arm, which made it impossible for me to move my head. Then they would wheel the big radiation machine over to my right and throw a switch. A greenish light would flash before my closed eyes. Then the machine would swing to my left, and I would get another shot of radiation. There was no pain, just boredom with going through this ritual every morning and afternoon—oh, yes, and the devout hope that each shot was on target.

My radiotherapist, Kiam Ang, a young Chinese-American doctor, is a caring, able, and altogether serious doctor. When he examined me, he put his hand behind my head and held it gently as a baby’s. In an attempt at humor, I commented to him that I assumed M.D. Anderson would give me a guarantee of 100 percent cure or my money back.

His eyes got real wide. “Oh, no,” he said. “We can’t do that! You misunderstand. There is a twenty, maybe a fifty percent chance of recovery. You have a very big cancer—about the size of a small lemon. And it may have already invaded the bone.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“After radiation, the bone will be dead,” he answered.

“And if I don’t take the radiation?”

He responded matter-of-factly that then all of me would be dead. “Your cancer is nearly a four. Between a three and a four. They go from stages one through four,” he explained. “When they are fours, there is not much hope. Usually fatal.”

I embraced the notion of radiation without further ado.

That session with Dr. Ang got to me. As Liz and I walked out of his office his words—“size of a lemon…the bone will be dead”—throbbed through my head. Suddenly I burst into tears. Liz squeezed my arm and said, “Go ahead and cry. It’s good for you, darling.” It was my first realization that, my God, I could die.

Those clinic corridors were full of people in worse shape than I was. We saw wives pushing wheelchairs with their badly disfigured husbands, relatives and friends helping patients with throat and head wounds, and other signs of agony and suffering. Hell, they were the ones who should have been shedding tears. I realized that I was really much better off than many of them; I had a wonderful support system—a large family, numerous friends, and the caring of many people I hardly knew.

Julia Bowman, a warm-spirited speech pathologist, had her office next to Dr. Ballantyne’s at the clinic. We were longtime friends. As we left Dr. Ang on our way to see Dr. Ballantyne, I impulsively went in to see Julia. “You’ve had some experience in this thing,” I said, sitting down in her office. “I keep bursting into tears. It’s embarrassing as hell. Is this par for the course?”

“Yes, it is,” she said. “Look, you’re scared. If I had what you have, I’d be scared too. This cancer is trying to kill you. Your body knows it. It is calling up all its resources to defeat the cancer, and tears are one of its weapons—a way of washing it out. Go ahead and cry. Lots. When patients come in to see me, I’m never worried about those who cry. I worry about the ones who don’t.”

Other friends came forward around that time to give me spiritual and material aid. Annette Jones, a Methodist minister in Houston, spent many days helping me with my meditation and visualization. A fellow I knew only by reputation, attorney Dick DeGuerin, insisted we take over his high-rise apartment in Houston as his guests and flatly refused to let us pay for anything. We moved in, and the next day former governor Mark White called to offer us an apartment gratis. State treasurer Ann Richards called to say that she had asked M.D. Anderson to give her a weekly report on my progress, just to let them know I had friends in high places!

Another friend, a Houston socialite who had seen my one-man show when it opened there, is Carolyn Farb. I’ve become very fond of Carolyn because she’s so determined I’m going to make it to Broadway. She thinks I’m one of the greatest artists she’s ever met and so informs everybody she meets.

One day she told me, “You know, I was talking to somebody last night, and they said you ought to name your tumor for somebody you don’t like very much. That’s the way to show your cancer that you resent its intrusion into your life.”

That was at the height of the debate over Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to name it Judge Bork.”

Carolyn is a dedicated Republican, but I guess friendship comes before party loyalty because she thought that was an absolute riot. So Carolyn went around telling all her Republican friends that my slogan had become that of a lot of Democrats: “Judge Bork must go!”

Bernie Siegel and others encouraged the use of visualizing to cope with cancer. Through meditation, one visualizes the cancer disappearing during radiation or chemotherapy. I did that each day and before I went to sleep at night, imagining that my cancer was a block of ice, melting a little each day.

So I visualized, I prayed, and I meditated. There came over me a great sense of well-being. I found that I could reach outside my personal boundaries and get in touch with a larger force that could cure me—the so-called life force, I suppose. I had as much support as a man could ask for. Of course, I had a goal too. I wanted to do my show before I got much older, but first I needed to get cured.

I finished my six weeks of radiation just before Thanksgiving. The intense radiation had permanently destroyed the saliva glands in my mouth and made my throat so sore I could scarcely swallow. It had also reduced my energy level to near zero. But in spite of all that, I was as high-spirited as a colt on a spring morning.

My doctors had told me to return in mid-December for a checkup. At that time they would test me to see whether the cancer had been reduced in size and what further therapy I would need.

One morning, about ten days before we were to return to M.D. Anderson for the checkup, Liz announced quite calmly, “Your cancer is gone.” She said it with such conviction that I thought maybe Dr. Ballantyne had called from Houston.

“Who told you that?” I asked. By the way, although Liz was raised in the Church of England and I as a Methodist, neither of us had gone to church since childhood.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but whoever it was told me that in the car yesterday afternoon when I was driving home alone from the grocery store. Then this morning, just before I woke up, the voice told me again that it was gone. Completely disappeared.” She was so matter-of fact about it that I could only murmur, “That’s a right gratifying piece of information for you to pass along, my love.”

Later, when we returned to Houston for my checkup, Liz sat in the corner of the examination room while the radiotherapists examined me. Dr. Ballantyne had been on a vacation but was expected soon. This time a tiny television camera on the end of a very thin, flexible tube was used to probe my nasal passages. Dr. Lester Peters, the head radiotherapist, took the first look. After a moment of probing, he exclaimed, “Absolutely astonishing! There is not a trace of the tumor!” Dr. Ang was eagerly having a look when Dr. Ballantyne arrived. They invited him to have a gander at it, which he did. Then with a face wreathed in a smile, he went over to Liz and ceremoniously announced, “Good news, Mrs. Faulk. It’s gone. Completely disappeared.” Liz smiled, a bit smugly I must say, and said, “I know. It’s been gone nearly two weeks now.”

A rather emotional scene followed. The doctors all had another look, nodding and making pleasant comments. They were obviously pleased with what they regarded as their handiwork. Liz sat smiling graciously and thanking each of the doctors. I burst into tears.

Since then, I have been back for checkups several times with the same results. The tumor has apparently disappeared for good. I have also had a chance to reflect on my experience. Of course, the skill of my doctors was important, but I do not attribute my recovery wholly to those scientific skills. A very important element in my recovery was the expressions of love and concern that flowed my way from Liz, my family, a multitude of friends, and strangers who called or wrote with the same spirit-lifting message: “We love you, and we are pulling for you to come through.”

I believe that science and medicine are entering a phase in which they will not only recognize but vigorously support the role of self-healing recovery. As Bernie Siegel says, we can aid the therapy we receive and contribute to our own recovery.

What have I got my mind on these days? Well, I just passed my seventy-fifth birthday, and I plan to open my show October 3 at the Live Oka Theater in Austin for four performances. Further productions will have to wait because I have accepted the John Seigenthaler Chair, Professor for First Amendment Studies, at Middle Tennessee State University for the fall semester.

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