In 2015, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy was getting ready for another day at the courthouse in Rockville, Maryland.
“Every morning, you put shaving cream on your neck, and all of a sudden I felt a growth on the left side of my neck,” McCarthy said. “I was concerned, because it had never been there before.”
McCarthy, who was elected in 2006 as the top county prosecutor, hoped it was nothing: “Originally, it was misdiagnosed — it was initially thought to be a swollen gland.”
But something didn’t seem right.
“Because cancer is such a scary word, to all of us, you never want to jump to thinking ‘this is cancer,'” McCarthy said.
But it was — McCarthy was diagnosed with neck cancer.
June is National Cancer Survivor Month. And McCarthy hopes his story might provide some awareness of the potentially deadly, but treatable, disease.
“My life was great, I felt healthy. I was an active guy, involved in sports. I couldn’t imagine that at a time of my life when I felt on top of the world that this was going to come. I thought I was too young for this to happen to me,” said McCarthy, who was 59 when his doctors reached their diagnosis.
McCarthy began an arduous series of treatments to stay alive.
First, it took McCarthy some time to become psychologically ready for the fight for his life.
“You’ve got to be proactive, and your own medical advocate, if the answers don’t make sense to you,” McCarthy said. “And, if you’re a person who doesn’t have the capability to be your own medical advocate, find someone — a trusted adult in your life — that can help guide you through this.”
“There were some challenges. I had six surgeries. I went through 36 radiations, and a full round of chemo,” McCarthy said. One surgery involved removing his right lung.
McCarthy recalled some of the most difficult periods of treatment. During radiation, he was outfitted with tightfitting mask.
“They had to literally bolt me down to the table. I was initially pretty claustrophobic. It was kind of frightening,” McCarthy said.
The treatment took a physical toll.
“In about a two-year period, I lost 40 pounds. I got back to weighing less than I did in high school. Pants I put on would fall to my knees if I didn’t tie them up so they didn’t fall down,” McCarthy said.
Still, between treatments, McCarthy kept working — prosecuting cases, while looking and feeling sick.
“I knew I looked different,” recalled McCarthy, regarding his courtroom appearances at the time. “Because of the job I have, people aren’t going to walk up to you and say, ‘By the way, you look terrible,'” McCarthy chuckled. “People didn’t do that.”
McCarthy’s cancer treatments were at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center facilities in Baltimore, and at Sibley Hospital, in Northwest D.C.
Now, feeling and looking healthy, and playing recreational basketball, McCarthy hopes others might gain strength from his survival.
“Exercise, being active, being surrounded by friends, being encouraged by people and having great doctors is what got me through it,” McCarthy said. “There are enormous recuperative abilities of the body.”
McCarthy said to keep his spirits up, he watched videos of Jim Valvano, the North Carolina State University basketball coach who was diagnosed with cancer in June 1992. Soon after, Valvano gave an inspirational speech, in which he encouraged people battling cancer: “Don’t give up — don’t ever give up.”
“I was a big N.C. State fan when he won his championship ring, but I think I became a bigger Jim Valvano fan for that encouraging thing about not giving up,” McCarthy said. “Every day you survive brings you closer to the cure.”