The Ultimate Tough Guy goes Head-to-Head with Cancer
by Susannah Barba
The formidable Mr. T has been a WWF wrestler, bodyguard, star of TV's The A-Team and has even fought Rocky Balboa in the movie Rocky III. And now, he's taking on the toughest enemy of his career.
It was in September of 1995 that Mr. T, while removing a diamond earring, first noticed a small sore on his ear. "I really don't want to bother my doctor with this little problem," he remembers thinking. Two weeks later, when he decided to see his doctor just to be sure, he was referred to a dermatologist who performed a biopsy leading to a diagnosis of a rare type of T-cell lymphoma. "Can you imagine that?!," Mr. T asks. "Cancer with my name on it -- personalized cancer."
Waiting for Test Results
Mr. T waited anxiously for the results of further testing, including a CAT scan and bone marrow aspiration to determine the extent of the cancer, thinking thoughts common to all who have faced a cancer diagnosis. "Now comes the worry," he remembers. "Here comes doubt, here comes anxiety, here comes fear, here comes that sick feeling down in the pit of my stomach. Can't eat, can't sleep. One day passes. No call from my doctor."
The test results finally come, revealing that the cancer is localized on his ear. Radiation is recommended, five treatments a week for four weeks. At the end of the treatments, the doctors tell him that his cancer is gone and that he should go home and not worry about it anymore.
Becoming a Cancer Veteran
Eleven months later, the cancer is back. Mr. T vividly describes his reaction: "Cancer sores sprouting up on my body and I can't stop it! I have no control over this cancer growing outside of my body on my arms, my back, my legs, and my stomach ... It is cancer popping like microwave popcorn on my body. I am afraid at this point; no tough guy today."
Six weeks of high-dose chemotherapy is prescribed this time. Mr. T placed "vomit buckets" all over his house, but soon gives up on them, resorting to beach towels. "I see why some cancer patients give up the struggle for life and quit," says Mr. T. "With my body, my mind, and my spirit shell-shocked like that, quitting seems easy ... Chemo and cancer fight from my head to my toes."
The chemo fails to wipe out the cancer, so it is followed by interferon-therapy for one and a half years followed by more low-dose chemo, then radiation again, then more chemo as the cancer persists over several years. "I have grown into a cancer fighter. I am a soldier, a veteran at that," Mr. T muses. "Cancer wants to fight me again. I am not afraid this time. Fighting cancer for the third time, can I still believe in God? Yes, I can, and stronger than before."
Learning How to Live with Cancer
Throughout his battle with cancer, Mr. T's faith in God sustains him. As he struggles with fear and worry, he recalls his childhood in the South Chicago housing projects, where he and his eleven older siblings grew up under their father's preaching. "How I am letting my father, Rev. N.B. Tureaud, down by doubting the power of God. He warned us that it would get rough, and hard ... but not too hard for God. I can feel my faith returning; now, I can put up a good fight against cancer, if not beat it!"
Through cancer, Mr. T also learns the emptiness of fame and fortune. "My fame couldn't save me!" he says. "My gold, my money couldn't stop cancer from appearing on my body. If they can't save me, then I don't need them."
Mr. T has learned how to live with cancer. "I pity the fool who just gives up. We all gonna die eventually from something or other, but don't be a wimp. Put up a good fight. Don't sit around waiting on death. We can be tough. We can be determined. Go out and have some fun and make death find you! We can be living with cancer, not dying from it. We can be cancer survivors."
"One more thing," adds Mr. T. "If you don't remind me that I have cancer then I won't remember either, because I am too busy living. If you see me, please come by and shake my hand; give me a hug, a thumbs-up or a high five; take a photo with me, or let's do lunch, because cancer ain't contagious. That would really make my day."
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At the time of this article, Mr. T was seeking a publisher for his new book Cancer Saved My Life: Cancer Ain't for No Wimps, from which portions of this article are excerpted.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2000.