Johnson: Good attitude helps

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 21, 2017

Rhett Johnson’s doctors told him he was the only person they’ve ever seen laugh his way through cancer.

He was told at the beginning of his journey that throat cancer patients have a 50 percent five-year survival rate.

Rhett Johnson

“I told them that back when I tended bar, I had a 50 percent chance of making it to the next morning. Five years sounded like an eternity in comparison.”

It was an unrelated health issue that led to Johnson’s diagnosis and quite possibly saved his life.

“I’d been having problems with my neck,” he explained, the result of an old injury.

“A tree fell on me,” the director emeritus of Auburn University’s Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center and co-founder of the Longleaf Alliance, said. “They didn’t X-ray my neck then, just my skull.”

An orthopedist ordered an MRI.

“The technician said, ‘I see your neck problem, but did you know you have five or six tumors in your throat?’

“I had no idea,” Johnson said. “There were no symptoms.”

He went immediately to see an ENT. It took two biopsies for conclusive results: Stage 3 cancer, that also was in his lymph nodes.

Most of the cancer could be removed, but the removal of the primary tumor would have done irreparable damage to his soft palate. He was referred to the local cancer center, where Dr. Mark Boatright and Dr. Hejal

Patel outlined a course of treatment. At the urging for friends, Johnson went to UAB for a second opinion. The Birmingham oncologist had been in touch with all three local doctors, and felt confident in their proposed plan of treatment.

“I opted to stay at home,” Johnson said. “I had to wait for the surgery to heal before we could get the radiation and chemo started.”

He described the side effects of his treatment like having a sunburn in his throat. Swallowing was difficult, which presented other challenges. Despite a feeding tube and intense effort – “I was feeding myself 10 or 12 Ensure and Boost nutritional supplements through my stomach tube each day” – he lost 40 pounds.

“I told my doctors they had all of these flavors like rich chocolate and creamy vanilla. My goal when I got well was to develop something like a pork chop flavored drink.”

Now cancer free, Johnson has high praise for his doctors and other staff members at the local cancer center. In his visit to Birmingham, he said it appeared all the patients were a number. Here, he came to know his doctors and other caregivers like family, and has even influenced one to plant 1,000 acres in longleaf pines, his passion.

“It never even occurred to me, I might not be OK,” Johnson said. “I thought of it like having a broken bone – it was something I was going to the doctor to get fixed.”

Cancer can change your outlook on life, he said.

“You can decide to be happy,” he said. “And I prefer to be happy.”

He focuses more now on living in a small sphere – while he is interested in world events, he doesn’t worry about them because he can’t change them.

“I do what I can to make the people around me happy,” he said. “I can affect that.”

Cancer, he says, makes you identify what’s important in your life.

A good attitude helps you heal, he said. It also makes it easier for caregivers.

“If I stayed happy, they stayed happy,” he said.

And he can’t say enough about the local medical staff.

“The medical staff was pulling for me,” he said. “It was like I was a relative and they were so happy I was healed.”