John Smallwood: A cancer survivor feels Jim Johnson's pain

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Andy Reid and Jim Johnson in a sideline discussion during a game this season at Lincoln Financial Field.

YOU NEVER FORGET things about cancer.

You don't forget the pain associated with the treatment.

You don't forget the thrill of the victories that come from knowing you've won the battle for 1 more day.

I was 20 years old and a semester from graduating from the University of Maryland when I passed out while running at Cole Field House during a fraternity pledge.

Soon after, I discovered a tumor under my right armpit. After it was removed, I was told I had Hodgkin's disease, a type of lymphoma.

I spent much of the summer of 1986 in the U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Meade, Md., where I had my tumor removed, and at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, where I went through "staging," testing to find out where the disease has spread.

Today, with advances in technology, staging is mostly a series of painless and nonevasive procedures.

But 22 years ago, it involved something called a lymphangiogram - a procedure involving a hammer, four long spikelike things, and the spaces between the toes of my right foot.

For reasons I still don't fully understand, the doctor said they could not administer local anesthesia until the spikes had been driven between my toes.

Needless to say, it didn't matter by then.

It was without question the most painful experience of my life, until the doctors finished and then started prepping my left foot.

I also had another procedure that is no longer performed, called a laporatomy.

Advances in imaging technology have made this surgery obsolete, but I have a footlong scar from my chest to pelvis, a removed spleen, and nicks in virtually every soft-tissue organ to remind me of when it was the norm.

A week after I started my senior year of college, I had the first of 12 radiation therapy treatments spread out over 6 weeks.

Given what the doctors told me I'd be going through, my parents wanted me to take the semester off. I compromised by moving back home and dropping my school load to 12 credits.

Every Monday and Thursday for 6 weeks, I would drive to Walter Reed for radiation therapy, then go to classes at Maryland before coming home and crashing from exhaustion.

Some days were fine. Others were highlighted by fatigue and vomiting spells.

Oh, yeah, the hair in the back and on the sides of my head began to fall out. So my sister, who was an aspiring hairstylist, gave me a "frohawk" - which might be cool now but elicited a lot of stares from the African-American community back in the '80s.

I bring this up not to say that I know what Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is going through as he starts radiation treatment for a cancerous tumor near his spine, but just to empathize a bit.

I'm sure some people might be surprised that Johnson, who will turn 68 in May, has already told Eagles head coach Andy Reid that he wants to continue to work.

All I can say is, "Life goes on."

Being told I had cancer was terrifying. I had to come to the terms with the fact that I might actually die when I was 20 years old.

But I made the decision that if I was going to die from cancer, it wasn't going to kill me before my time.

So I wanted to - no, I needed to - live my life as if the "Big C" was just a case of the hiccups or a cold. I went to school because to not do so meant I had already lost half the battle.

I wanted to live my life, not live my death.

That meant doing what I would normally do. That meant taking enough credits so that I could retain my scholarships, stay on course for graduation, and set the stage for the rest of my life.

I needed to lead my normal life to keep my spirits up, to fight the invader that was trying to destroy me from the inside out.

I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to claim that I know what Johnson is thinking, but I can only assume that he feels something similar. He doesn't need to work, but he loves to coach football.

My sister has just started 8 weeks of chemotherapy treatments. She insists she will continue to go to work teaching cosmetology to students at her high school.

Yes, it will be hard and exhausting. But it beats the alternative of sitting at home scared and worried that having cancer has taken over your life.

To do that is to surrender your life.

Cancer might kill you. There is no getting around that.

But it only becomes a death sentence when you let it, and that's the same for a college student, a high school teacher, or an NFL defensive coordinator.

That's why we are called Cancer Survivors. *

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smallwj@phillynews.com.

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