In 1981, Hank Williams Jr wrote “A Country Boy Can Survive,” a song about how when things in the world got tough, the country folks would be the ones toughing it out. He had to be picturing people like JJ Singleton.
JJ had all the signs of early age onset colorectal cancer and then some. When he was 27, he was having abdominal pain, found blood in his stool, was losing weight and had difficulty using the bathroom. Like any immortal guy in their late twenties, he put off going to the doctor for a while. By the time he went to the doctor, he could see a tumor pulsating through his skin.
Things moved fast after that. He had a CT scan and scheduled surgery for the next week. That was the day he was confirmed as a stage 4 colorectal cancer patient, and his first day as a cancer survivor.
The surgery would remove 80% of his colon and about 3 feet of his small intestine. Twelve rounds of FOLFOX chemotherapy would follow.
His team believed he had beaten it.
Six weeks passed. JJ woke up to abdominal pain and would return to his doctor. His cancer was back and aggressive. It had spread to lymph nodes and entered his abdominal wall. That was the day he was told his cancer was incurable. He would also find out that he carried the gene for Lynch Syndrome, a genetic mutation that creates a predisposition to various cancers including colorectal.
Over the next few months, several different chemotherapies would prove ineffective. Avenues for treatment narrowed to a clinical trial.
Though he was approved to go on the clinical trial, he had other hurdles to go over first. His cancer had grown around his stomach and had closed it off. He would spend the next 14 months on the trial being fed from TPN (total parenteral nutrition) infusions.
This put JJ into a spiral and led him to a dark place. The former college football player and graduate of Brevard College was completely leveled. A lot of people who get to this place don’t make it out.
He dove into his love of science fiction, fantasy and comic books as an escape from his reality. This self-proclaimed nerd/geek proudly proclaims, “Star Wars saved my life.” A steady diet of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, DC and Marvel provided an escape hatch from the daily drudgery and physical toll of cancer treatment. His cancer fighter ethos can be summed up with a quote from Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.” And there is an irony here because JJ’s tumors seem like something out of a science fiction movie. While most colorectal cancers consist of solid tumors, JJ’s tumors seem more like a living malevolent liquid, like something out of a Venom comic book or movie. This makes the treatment and surgery that much more complicated.
The clinical trial would work to control the cancer (it is now an FDA approved treatment named Keytruda) and he remains on it to this day.
That was over seven years ago.
JJ is still in the fight. Still dealing with cancer and treatments. But now he also must also tackle the physical and mental aftermath of eight years fighting cancer. He is still a survivor and still a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Now, however, he is also an advocate.
JJ details his fight on social media to an audience of thousands. He speaks on podcasts, does interviews and even meets with pharmaceutical groups to provide patient feedback. He does not pull any punches. Whether he is talking about his 127th (literally) round of chemo, his struggles with depression or his ongoing body and dental issues as a result of years of chemo, he is clear and upfront about what he is going through. Like a medical John McClane from Die Hard, he details the beating he is taking but lets you know in no uncertain terms, that he is not giving up. He provides an ongoing document of the fight from someone who has experienced just about everything cancer can throw at you; a hand reaching out to someone, anyone who finds themselves in the cancer struggle or the dark place he once inhabited.
He is still a survivor today. Old Hank would be proud.