–Jack Stanford


Cancer survivor finds his “second” calling

Jack is founder of the Makana Foundation, Honolulu, Hawaii; one of the first transplant organ banks to be formed in the US. He is also one of the original founders and first CEO and National Chairman of the Make A Wish Foundation of America. Here is his story.

It’s the morning of September 21st 2007 and I am sitting on my deck overlooking the Lake having a mid morning cup of coffee thinking what a beautiful day it is and wishing I didn’t have to go into Charlotte for a doctors appointment to get the results of the
biopsy I had taken a few days before of what was diagnosed as an ulcerated esophagus.

And then a strange thing happened that I had never experienced before. A butterfly landed right here on my shoulder and just sat there as I turned my head to look at it. We looked at each other for several seconds and then it flew away. I was immediately reminded of a scene from an old movie entitled “Love is a many splendored thing: in which Wm Holden is madly in love with Debra Kerr and they always meet on the top of a hill. She passes away while he is gone and when he returns he finds her gone forever.

So he goes to the top of the hill alone to try and communicate with her and while there a butterfly suddenly lands on his shoulder and he knows it is her. Anyway, it was very strange and I was taken aback …………What a coincidence??

Later that day my wife Pam and I went in to see the doctors and find out what kind of diet they would have to put me on or what the scoop was from my endoscope. The doctor came in and said “we have all of the pathology reports back and…….. I am sorry to tell you that you have a cancerous tumor in your esophagus. It is malignant and too big to be removed. You have stage 4 cancer and it is inoperable. I heard nothing after that. I just sat there with tears streaming down my face. Pam said well then what is next. They said take him home and make him as comfortable as possible. He has six months max.

When I had regained my composure we left and Pam said she thought she ought to drive. Here is the interesting part, I didn’t say too much during the first part of the ride home and then I said “well I think that went pretty well, don’t you?” I think we should still be  able to keep our plans for Hawaii in January..” She looked at me and knew I was totally out of it. My mind had gone into complete denial that quickly. At that point I had no idea there wasn’t anything wrong with me that a few treatments couldn’t cure over the next few weeks.

We went for a second opinion to the best place we could find for what I had wrong with me and they confirmed the first diagnosis. However, they said that because I was in very good physical condition for my age that if I was up to it, they could try and treat me in the few months ahead but that it wouldn’t be easy.

They said they would normally give me 8 weeks of radiation every day followed by 4 weeks off for recuperation and then followed by 12 weeks of intensive chemotherapy followed by 6 weeks of recuperation. However, they said you don’t have that much time, so what we would have to do is give it all to you at once. Radiation in the early morning followed by days in chemotherapy .They said this would be very hard on my body and that by the end of the treatments I would probably be in a wheel chair. I said “bring it on”–what choice did I have?

All right, that was in September. Let’s back track a few months to the early part of 2007.

Most of my business career I had always gotten a great deal of satisfaction being directly involved with the operations of non profits in one form or the other. After retiring I began to miss that involvement but really had nothing I was interested in.

I began to pray that the good lord would show me a way to become involved once more in something that would satisfy that need. Then one Sunday in church they spoke about the Stephen Ministers Program. It hit me right between the eyes……What a coincidence??

After the service I went to the table they had set up in this hall and spoke to a Stephen Minister and she gave me some literature that described the program. I was a little taken aback in that it involved 50 hours of class room training one night a week for several months. That did not appeal to me at all. And then I started talking to my self saying “OK, you wanted something and here it is –are you not now going to sacrifice something to get it. Get off your dead ass and go do it.” So I signed up. That was in the spring of 07 and classes didn’t start until September of 07.

So now I had just started the classes when this other little medical problem surfaced. Well, we will just have to see which one wins out.

As I began my cancer treatments I slowly came out of denial and realized I was pretty sick. I began to read everything I could about what was going with me, and again, by coincidence, a person I really don’t know very well sent me this book entitled, The Journey Through Cancer. It is written by an oncologist in Florida that heads up a huge oncology clinic and his whole premise is that physicians must began to treat the whole
person. They must treat the soul — not just the body — the whole person.

There must be a faith based treatment program along with a program of science. He points out that to-do this it is absolutely necessary that the patient have a total commitment to a positive mental attitude. They have conducted lab research in
treatment groups that worked hard at a positive attitude and those that did not.

It has been proven that those cancer patients with a solid positive mental attitude had a 42% better chance of survival than those that did not. Wow… that was enough for me.

He goes on to say that not all of that 42% were able to maintain that positive attitude until it was combined with a faith based attitude.

Another thing that’s recommended in this book is to keep a Journal. It is therapeutic help to the physiological system. The Journal helps you not to feel as isolated as we men tend to shut others when we have problems. We don’t want others to seen our weaknesses. The journal helps to relieve some of that loneliness.

Therefore, I kept a Journal that I shared weekly with my grown Kids, Grandkids, and my wife. It let everyone in on what we were going through and what was going on in my head as I went through this journey.

Your emotions and that of your spouse run high. We have heard Jody talk about the longest journey is often those 18 inches from the brain to the heart, well when your emotions are this raw it is only a very few short inches. You cry at the drop of a hat. A news story, a picture, anything can trigger a cry; and that is good. You need to cry as it is relief for the soul.

In the Journal I was able to express in private the fears and tears that come on you without warning. The times when I would look across the room at my wife and as she would look up we would both would drop a tear down our cheek.

The frustration of waking up in the middle of the night which I referred to as the “buggy Bears” hours when you are all lone in your bed staring in to the darkness sobbing because you don’t want to die. Its not that I am afraid of dying, it’s that I couldn’t stand the thought of saying goodbye to my loved ones and the absolutely beautiful life that I now have.

In this book he speaks a great deal about the healing effect of love and as I read back through my Journal I am constantly reminded how often that love was a part of every single day.

As the weeks wore on and I struggled with my positive mental attitude and my faith I realized that a transformation was coming over me. The book also recommended setting some time for meditation which really became a time when I would hike with my dog and talk to God.

Realize here I said “talk” to God; as in a one way conversation. As I got further into this journey that changed somehow and I began “listening” to what he was saying back to me. He was telling me that this cancer was no coincidence. That it was meant to be. He was telling me that I was being trained so that I could someday go out and use this training to help others. That I was going to beat this thing because he had plans for me. Gradually this transformation began taking place and I could see all of the good that was already coming to light.

My kids, who had not always been that close to my wife because our is a second marriage later in life, suddenly realized that she saved my life. She saved my life by insisting on a second opinion, She saved my life by insisting that the Mayo Clinic admit me immediately. She saved my life by being the ultimate care giver by my side for every treatment, every minute of the day. They realized that she is really quite a woman and loves their father more than they could ever imagine. Today, they have nothing but total respect and love for her and she for them. They also became proud of their Father for the positive attitude he kept through all of the treatments and for a strength that neither He nor they, realized was in him. My whole family became much closer together. What a great happening.

Also as part of this transformation my faith in prayer became so much stronger.

Because I had gone from a one way conversation with of talking to God, to “listening” to what he was trying to tell me, I now knew that my prayers were being heard. I used to pray with about 75% hope and 25% faith. I now pray with 75% faith and 25% hope.

So much good has come from this experience, people I have met, prayers from so many, so much love that absolutely surrounds you.

As I completed the final chapters of the Journal I made the statement that in many ways I would not have missed this Journey for the world. I have found that to be true of so many other cancer survivors. It is what cancer survivors call the ……..The Gift of Cancer.

Lance Armstrong had but one obsession in life, to have multiple wins of the Tour de France. He was interrupted several times in his life long dream with his battle with cancer, but he went on to capture those multiple wins. He says that if he now had to choose between having had his cancer and winning the Tour, he would have to put his cancer first. Scott Hamilton, world champion figure skater says it a ……God Scheduled Opportunity

And, the most poignant way I have ever heard this put was from a 13 year old Make A Wish girl whose wish was to skate with Scott Hamilton. When asked by Scott about her cancer experience said: “The worst thing that ever happened to me is cancer. The best thing that ever happened to me is cancer.” I didn’t know what she was talking about then, but Scott did.

I went on to go through the treatments. I did not end up in a wheel chair. I did not miss one class of my Stephen Ministry training because of the treatments. Yes the treatments were successful and in the short time I had they managed to shrink the tumor to half its size and kill off the dangerous little lymph nodes I had swimming around in there.

On April 15 2008 I had an 8 hour operation to remove my esophagus and on April 21st 2008, exactly 7 months to the day from that fateful day in September, my surgeons strolled into my room using those awful, fateful words: well we have the pathology reports back and…………….we are happy to tell you we got it all. You’re outta here…

I’ve been went for my first 6 month check up and I am still cancer free.

Since that time, as a Stephen Minister, I have been talking with cancer patients that are going through the same anxieties that I faced. Uncertainty is the mother of anxiety, and anxiety is the mother of stress. I try and relieve some of that terrible uncertainty and to tell them it’s ok to cry. I find that often those that need the most care are the caregivers that are always by their side.

I have not been assigned these people as is the normal procedure in the Stephen Ministry, they have come to me by word of mouth or by…. coincidence.

I now understand that life is not a series of coincidences. God knows what is going to happen every minute in our lives before he ever brings us into this world.

He knew I would get cancer and that I would survive and he had a purpose in so doing. He just had trouble communicating it to me. He had to teach me, once I started to listen, that Life is no coincidence.

Receiving this book from an unknown friend was no coincidence, having Jody talk about the Stephen Ministry that Sunday when I had been praying for Something to do….. was no coincidence. and yes, that butterfly on that beautiful fall day…. was no coincidence………. nor is my being here with you today. God Bless You All.


Jack Stanford