From Comic Book Fan to Real-Life Superhero

From Comic Book Fan to Real-Life Superhero

How a CLL Diagnosis Helped This Survivor Find His Power

by Ashley Hubbard

Every superhero has a cardinal moment in which they unlock their powers. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) developed his spider-like abilities following a radioactive spider bite. Matt Murdock (Daredevil) acquired superhuman senses after a chemical spill caused him to lose his eyesight.

A self-described “comic book nerd,” John says his pivotal moment just happened to come when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in 2019. And now he wants to use his powers and compassion to help others.


A routine exam gone awry

With no signs for alarm or concern, John went in for a routine visit with his primary care doctor. After a blood test (and a recheck) came back with a high white blood cell count, his doctor referred him to an oncologist.

As a former journalist and health reporter, John knew enough to know this wasn’t good news. He vividly recalls his thoughts prior to his appointment.

“I decided that whatever happens, I’m going to pursue this with as much bravery as I can,” John reflects. “I’ll never forget that.”

With his suspicion confirmed in October 2019, John did find out that his CLL had been discovered rather early. While he would eventually need treatment, there was not much he could do in the interim, a position many CLL survivors find themselves in.

CLL is often referred to as a “wait-and-see” cancer, which can produce a lot of helpless feelings – something John remembers well.

A growing adversary

The following spring, John began experiencing fatigue, sluggishness, and occasional abdominal pain. John’s cancer had become more aggressive and his oncologist suggested he start treatment with CALQUENCE® (acalabrutinib). Ready to finally feel like he was actively fighting his leukemia, John eagerly agreed.

I decided that whatever happens, I’m going to pursue this with as much bravery as I can.

Starting in May 2020, John began taking his medication faithfully, never missing a dose. By October 2020, his blood work was reading as “absolutely normal,” results that continue to be present today.

“If I wasn’t taking it, I don’t know if I’d even be here,” John states. “It’s something I live with, and it’s not really that big of a deal to take a pill twice a day.”

A new perspective

Every superhero needs their iconic sidekick, and John found his through his supportive network of family, friends, and coworkers. John always has kind words and prayers surrounding him. He also joined a local support group for single people living with cancer.

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Eager to test out his newfound powers, John applied his fresh mindset to propose that the library where he works as a computer aide form a 5K team to benefit the organization that runs his cancer support group.

Cultivate hope wherever you can find it.

This wasn’t the only time people have shown up for John, and it certainly wasn’t the only time John has shown up for others either. His desire to help others has only continued and is why he chooses to share his story.

“Having cancer has taught me that every day is a gift and to use my time wisely,” John shares. “I have to make the most of every day. [Any moment] might not come again.”

A note of advice to other survivors

John urges others with a CLL, or any cancer, diagnosis to develop strong relationships with their oncologists. Recognize that every case is unique, and don’t be afraid to ask your treatment team questions.

Equally important, he hopes that CLL survivors will seek support rather than endure their journey alone. John shares that being able to vocally express everything with other survivors who understand is important, and finding the right support group can provide that.

And, as if he were a superhero signing off, John leaves us with one last piece of wisdom. “Cultivate hope wherever you can find it,” he says. “You can’t go without hope.”

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2022.