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Life after Cancer Treatment: Incorrigible Optimism

Looking back 40 years, one survivor explains how cancer shaped his life.

By Clay Johnson


Danny Thomas and Clay Johnson

Clay Johnson with St. Jude founder Danny Thomas in 1978.


Clay Johnson with his family

Clay today, with his wife and family.

I was 8 years old in 1978, when I arrived at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Back then, all kids with leukemia received cranial irradiation to eliminate cancer cells in the brain and spinal fluid. This treatment often caused severe learning problems. During my therapy, I received 2,400 rads of radiation.

The future was uncertain, but my family are incorrigible optimists. We focused on the present and didn’t look too far down the line, trusting God to get us through each day.

I grew up and earned advanced degrees in law and divinity. I even learned to read Greek and Hebrew. Thankfully, the therapy I’d received hadn’t impaired my ability to learn, work or have a family. Today, my wife and I have five children, ranging in age from 9 to 19.

In 2009, St. Jude invited me to join a long-term follow-up study for cancer survivors.

One of my motivations for joining the St. Jude LIFE study was that I was one of the earlier survivors of ALL. I used to ask doctors, “Hey, I had all this treatment as a child. What happens now?” and they’d say, “We don’t know. You tell us.” They didn’t have enough people who had survived long enough to know what would happen.

I want patients to be able to know. So it wasn’t a question of why I would join the study. It was more the question, “Why wouldn’t I?”

On my first return visit for St. Jude LIFE, I also got a glimpse of what my parents had gone through. I realized parents at St. Jude have to live in two worlds—one is the world of encouragement and realistic optimism for their kid. The other is the reality that they might lose one of the most precious people in their lives.

My parents offered me constant encouragement. Their support, and the support of St. Jude, was steady enough that although I knew I was seriously ill, I wasn’t constantly thinking about the risks. I was just a kid. And that’s a great gift.

The experiences I had at St. Jude made me who I am today: an incorrigible optimist. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

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