Yesterday, I got the chance, along with a few other reporters, to sit down and speak with Duquesne assistant John Rhodes about his experience battling cancer and coming back to basketball. More than anything else, John wanted to share his story in the hopes that it inspires others who may be facing a similar, life-altering obstacle.
I had a story about it in today's Post-Gazette, but there's so much more to John and what he endured. As many of you know -- or at least I hope you know -- space in the newspaper is limited and shrinking, so being given only 15-16 inches (or about 550 words) to tell such a compelling, inspirational tale can be a little bit difficult.
I typically only do this kind of follow-up for longer stories, but I've got some notes and quotes from people who we spoke with Thursday about John and his road to where he is now, cancer-free and back with the team.
How do you feel to be in the position where you are now?
“More than fortunate, I feel blessed. To deal with the number of things I dealt with over the past few months, to be where I am now, in front of everyone and able to share my story, it’s beyond an honor and a privilege.”
On receiving the news
“I’ve dealt with a lot with my family and I’ve lost friends, but for me, it was one of those things when Dr. Anish and Victor Bauer, the athletic trainer, sat me down and said this is what it is, it’s hard to process. It was very difficult.”
“Being in Pittsburgh and having UPMC, I feel like I’m a part of one of those commercials, those happy stories they tell. Every time I see one of those, I get goosebumps.”
On what he believes he can do now that he has recovered
“I believe that’s my purpose in life, is to help others. That’s the best attribute I have to share with people. That’s the way I am. That’s the way my DNA works.”
“This is all bigger than basketball. This is about life. If my challenge helps you deal with an obstacle or hurdle down the road, that’s part of my purpose for being here.”
On being hit by a car days after receiving his cancer diagnosis
“That worried me. The sooner we could get it treated, the better chance we have to stop it. I was like ‘Damn, man, why does that happen?’ I guess it’s timing. It wasn’t time for me to start my treatment.”
On the importance of having a team and community to support him throughout
“That’s the beauty of this environment. Everybody put their hands around me and helped me get through it.”
“I felt like every day it was going to be tough, but I wasn’t going to let the physical strain of losing my ability to swallow and losing my ability to eat bother me.”
On what it will be like to return to the bench for the team's first game of the season
“Coming to practice, I just sat back and took it all in. When I had to step away, that took a lot out of me. The number of people that have been there to support me I’m sure are going to come out and be there like they have been. I hope I can keep it together.”
On what was happening right before the diagnosis
“Once the test results came back that it wasn’t the mumps, you could sense that John had a little concern. We both looked at each other and were like ‘It’s great that it’s not the mumps, but what could it be?’”
On how difficult it was to watch John knowing there was little he could do
“It was horrible seeing John go through that day by day without being able to take it for him. I remember there were days when I called and said ‘I wish I could take today for you.’ People who know John know what I’m talking about, it’s really unfortunate because he’s one of the most positive people in the world. Even through his battle, he would be positive with us. If I would say ‘Hey, man, how are you doing?’ he’d say ‘C’mon, man, I’m fine.’ He would just have this positive approach to it. I’d go sit with him at his house and just sit there. Some days we’d talk. On others, he would take a nap. We’d just sit there and be by his side, just to let him know we’re there for him.”
On a scare John received near the end of his chemo and radiation treatments
“He had hit rock bottom. That was the first time I really got scared. All of those other times, he was so positive and independent and wanted to do everything himself. That first time I walked in was the first time I looked like ‘Oh my god, is this it?’ But then he went from that point to recovery. It was scary. It put a lot of things in perspective as a father, a friend and a coach. It put everything in perspective, to see what he had to go through with the dignity, strength and courage that he fought it with every day. There’s nothing worse than seeing a family member go through that stuff. And he is a family member. My mom was cooking him meals to make sure he had enough protein and nutrition. Everybody was checking in on him, whether it was family members or friends. I still have a memento on my desk that I keep. It’s the patron saint of cancer, Saint Peregrine. A booster gave us these for our staff and for John and his family. I keep one on my desk and I keep one in my bag I travel with every day. Little things like that, to see people come out and help, was really something. He’s a special guy.”
On what he learned about John
“He’s one of the strongest and mentally toughest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. The way he approached this, he was so positive. He was still looking and caring for other people, making sure everyone was alright. His approach to doing it was he was going to beat it.”
“He kept his positive approach to life and everybody else. He never stopped caring about everybody else. That’s just the type of person John is. Believe me, it’s scary seeing him go through that, but when you got to see him, you were like ‘Wow, he’s going to beat this.’”
“I’m proud to call him a friend and I’m proud he calls me a friend. I’d do anything for that guy.”