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Sportscaster Ernie Johnson Jr. on Living with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – The Complete Interview

by Laura Shipp

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

(Photo courtesy of Turner Broadcasting)

Ernie Johnson Jr. is the host of TNT’s Inside the NBA, alongside former basketball stars Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. He is also a play-by-play announcer for golf, basketball, and playoff baseball for both TNT and TBS. Ernie has twice won the Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio Host, once in 2002 (when he tied with Bob Costas) and again in 2006.

In 2003, Ernie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after noticing some swelling on the left side of his face. Here, he shares his story with Coping® magazine.

Can you tell me a little about when you were diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma in August 2003. I have a neighbor who’s a doctor, and I asked him one day about some swelling near my left ear. He suggested that I get an MRI at his office and then sent me to another doctor with the results.

That doctor thought it was a benign parotid tumor but said if I wanted to get another opinion I should go to Emory University hospital. It was there, on August 21, 2003, (which happened to be my wife Cheryl and my 21st wedding anniversary) that after a needle biopsy, I was told it was most likely cancer.

I kept that to myself that night, telling Cheryl that the doctor would let me know the next day. The definitive word came in a phone call the next day.

What went through your mind when you were told you had cancer?
There’s nothing that really prepares you to hear the word “cancer.” When the phone call came, our family was having dinner. My oldest son, Eric, was home from college, and I excused myself from the table to take the call. The call took about 15 minutes, and after I hung up and was headed back to the kitchen, Eric said he and our youngest daughter, Carmen, were going to the video store.

"My advice to others who have been recently diagnosed is to realize that you have cancer, it doesn’t have you. It’s certainly been my experience that your outlook is a huge part of the battle."

“What should we get?” he asked. “Something funny,” I told him. After they had left, Cheryl asked if that was the doctor on the phone, and I told her the news. Needless to say, that was a difficult conversation to have.

What kind of treatment did you have?
I remember the first day Cheryl and I went to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, GA. We were sitting in the waiting room thinking, “How did we ever wind up here?” It was surreal. I drank that delightful barium sulfate mixture and had a scan and then underwent a bone marrow test, which was as uncomfortable as the doctor had warned. Then came the waiting for results.

In many ways, that’s the hardest part because you simply can’t put it out of your mind, waiting for another phone call. As it turns out, the kind of NHL I had was not aggressive, and I didn’t feel bad physically. “Watchful waiting” was the initial course of treatment – visiting the doctor periodically to keep an eye on things with no other treatment required.

Some people struggle with the idea of watchful waiting. How did you come to terms with the decision to not treat your cancer immediately?
I never really struggled with the idea of watchful waiting. My doctor is an expert in the field, and I was totally trusting in his course of treatment. I was asymptomatic at the time. Aside from the swelling I could feel near my ear, there was nothing evident to suggest to anybody else that there was anything wrong.

What later prompted the move to begin chemotherapy?
The decision to begin treatment didn’t come until nearly three years later. Late in 2005, the swelling had begun to increase to the point that I thought it was noticeable to others, but thought they just weren’t saying anything. By February 2006, it became evident that there was something going on, so I was given what’s called a maintenance regimen, chemotherapy with a targeted medicine called Rituxan followed by Rituxan on its own for two years.

The fact that I made my living on TV complicated things. I became very self-conscious that it was apparent on the air that my face was swollen. That’s when I contacted the Turner Sports PR department and told them what I was dealing with and that I wanted to make folks aware of it. My doctor and I had agreed that we would begin treatment after the NBA season was over in June. I wanted to send the message to people that even though you’re diagnosed with cancer you don’t need to go into hiding.

Did you experience any particularly difficult side effects?
I handled the treatment very well. I’d heard all the stories of chemo and what it can do and had been thoroughly prepped by my doctor on what to expect. I remember after that first long day in the chair, going home, eating a little dinner, going to bed, and waking up the next morning feeling good. I took the meds I was given, took a couple of walks that Saturday, went to bed that night, and woke up feeling good the next day. That’s how I proceeded – one day at a time, never concentrating on what might happen, just taking it a moment at a time.

The only thing I really noticed after that first treatment was that when Cheryl would suggest something for lunch that sounded good, I was amazed that when it was ready, I wanted no part of it. It was strange. Ten days after that first treatment, I woke up in the middle of the night with a fever and wound up in the hospital for a few days, but that was the only bump in the road. From that point on, I would get a shot of Neulasta two days after each treatment to keep my white blood cell counts up, and I was good to go. At the end of October 2006, my cancer was in remission, and I was done withthe treatment regimen.

How did having cancer affect your work?
The folks at Turner Sports were great during this entire episode. They simply told me to focus on my treatment and not worry about work. So while I was in treatment, I missed my usual broadcast duties at the British Open Golf Championship and the PGA Championship, and hosting our College Football Studio shows in September and October. They told me that if I felt up to it, I could return to the air for opening night of the NBA season at the end of October. I’ll never forget that as I sat at my office desk preparing for the first show of the season, I got a call from my doctor telling me that I was done with chemo.

What is the status of your cancer now?
I’m still in remission. I see my doctor 3 times a year.

Are you doing anything in particular to make sure you stay in remission?
I think that when you go through an episode like this, you want to try to take better care of yourself. I work out more than I ever used to and am probably in the best shape of my life.

Did your diagnosis change your family dynamic?
The thing I learned about cancer early on is that while only one person in the family may have it, it affects everybody in the family. One of the most important things you can do, in my opinion, is to be open and honest with your wife and kids every step of the way. I wanted them to come to me with questions and concerns. My main concern was that the kids would hear from classmates at school some horror story that would scare them. We learned very early that there are so many different kinds of cancer, and the best thing to do was to share with them what my doctor told me about my case, not somebody else’s.

What about your co-anchors, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith? Did they treat you any differently after they found out you had cancer?
That’s a great question. Before I made my diagnosis public, I spoke with Kenny and Charles in my office one at a time. I told ‘em what I was going through and that I didn’t want that to change the way we went about our jobs. We have a lot of fun on that show. We take shots at one another all the time. I didn’t want them to think, “We can’t joke around with Ernie because he has cancer.” Both Kenny and Charles were great through this whole thing, very encouraging, checking up on me when I was going through chemo.

What was it like to go through something so personal while in the public eye?
It wasn’t easy after making my situation public. I spoke with the director of our show and asked that, when possible, he not take many tight shots of me on the set. I was really self-conscious about the swelling of my face and neck. But at the same time, I didn’t want to just go into hiding because I had cancer. I was going to face this thing head-on. The night that I told viewers what I was facing, I said that everybody has issues they have to deal with, and this was mine. I said that my family and I would face this challenge the same way we face any challenge, that we would trust God, period.

Many survivors I’ve spoken with say that cancer is the worst and the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Do you feel the same way?
I would agree. Getting the word that you have cancer is absolutely devastating at first. The uncertainty is the worst part. Once you have the tests and the results and you know what you’re facing, it’s actually much easier to deal with. My Christian faith has been my lifeline through this whole thing. While this is certainly not something that I would have chosen, it’s part of a much bigger plan for my life. The opportunity to encourage others who are going through similar trials has been awesome.

What advice do you have for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
My advice to others who have been recently diagnosed is to realize that you have cancer, it doesn’t have you. It’s certainly been my experience that your outlook is a huge part of the battle. Being open and honest with your family is another key. Talking openly with your wife and kids can relieve a lot of tension and anxiety. And as I’ve said, faith is vital.

What is in the future for you now?
In the future for me? Well, I was diagnosed when I was 47. I’m 54 now. When I wake up tomorrow morning, I’ll thank God for another day … and I’ll keep doing that whether I’m here for another 5 minutes or another 60 years.

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Click here to read the interview published in Coping® magazine.