Photo credit: Bryon Miller
Longtime professor by day and professional musician by night, the co-founder of the Panza Foundation reveals the defining moments of the last decade as a mesothelioma patient
“I’ve learned that you must fight, embrace the absurdity, and remember that luck plays a huge role in the outcome. You were unlucky to get this terrible disease. But if you fight as hard as you can, you might receive some luck along the way,” explains John Panza, an Ohio native who was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2012 at age 38.
“The willingness to fight while maintaining a sense of humor about the absurdity of this whole enterprise has helped many people physically and emotionally during and after treatment.
Being stubborn and refusing to quit seems to play a role in our quality of life, and every long-term mesothelioma patient I know is noticeably stubborn.”
Since hearing the life-changing words “you have cancer” and “it’s mesothelioma” nearly 11 years ago — discovered through video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) — John has undergone a series of surgeries and medical treatments that initially began with an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP), chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
“Cancer wants to kill you. The moment you are diagnosed, you are at war and have to fight back immediately and with conviction. It’s you versus cancer.
“You might not win the war, but you must fight like you can. You might even surprise yourself with how strong you are. I’ve been fighting nonstop for more than a decade.”
In 2013, John developed empyema, an infection impacting the thoracic area, which in his case occurred in the empty space left by his now-missing lung. This new diagnosis resulted in four subsequent surgeries in five days, a month-long hospital stay, and what seemed like an endless course of antibiotics.
Four years later, mesothelioma cells spread to two of John’s lymph nodes, one of which was removed in 2019 for analysis following an exploratory surgery.
In spring 2020, John’s attempt to shrink the remaining damaged lymph node through chemotherapy proved unsuccessful. In 2022, he agreed to have it surgically removed and to undergo preventive radiation targeting the affected area.
“From the day I was diagnosed in June 2012, I told anyone who listened — and many who didn’t want to hear it — that I have a terminal illness,” recalls John.
“I explained that all the surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation are merely meant to keep me going — like a palliative version of those paddles used in the hospital to shock a heart back to life.”
The Beat of His Own Drums
Acquaintances unaware of John’s private battle against cancer would never be able to guess what he has been through. In addition to living a deeply fulfilling life with his wife and 15-year-old daughter, John has served as a college professor for nearly 30 years, teaching courses in literature and humanities.
As an accomplished musician, John plays the drums in three popular Cleveland indie-rock bands: Hiram-Maxim, Arms & Armour, and Terrycloth Mother. He has also opened a music studio in Cleveland called Dark Current.
Admitting that he constantly suffers from tinnitus caused by chemotherapy, his hearing is still so sharp that he regularly mixes albums for several bands.
In summer 2022, despite having only one lung, a slightly curved spine, and a missing rib, he learned to play cricket. Most recently, he took up Pilates, which he describes as “a game changer.”
As a result of his daily fight routine, which involves dedication to self-care, John’s oxygen levels consistently remain at 98 to 100%. After witnessing the outcome for himself, he recommends that anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma invest in self-care, whether that be classes offered at a cancer center or creative activities at home.
“I remain in awe of what the human body can endure and still feel ‘normal.’ My body might look like I was stabbed, shot, or lost a fight with a bull, but I keep going. And I continue to enjoy travel, music, teaching, and writing,” he says.
“Have you ever seen a three-legged dog running with the other dogs like that phantom limb is still intact? That’s me every single day.”
Since 2014, the Panza Foundation — the nonprofit organization he launched with his wife — has donated more than $60,000 to help local Cleveland bands purchase equipment, reserve studio time, and access the proper resources to share their music with the community.
As of January 2023, the Panza Foundation has selected four new bands to support in the coming year.
“Playing music is a form of expression that translates into symptom relief for me,” notes the drummer, quipping that he has the option to “hit things with sticks” to release his occasional anger. “Whether I am playing it or hearing it, music moves me in a unique way.”
John also remains connected to the Virginia-based Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, often engaging with the organization’s Facebook community.
“They have a wonderfully supportive discussion forum with patients new and old, inexperienced and grizzled (like me), and even some medical practitioners,” John shares.
“Seeing folks be in the moments I was in a decade ago helps keep my situation in perspective. They are feeling that same fear I once felt. They are at the beginning of the process and learning that the business here is ugly.
I hope that our mesothelioma community helps these individuals find their way the same way that happened for me early on. We aren’t a large community, but we are pretty mighty.”
It’s All Relative
John’s reaction to his diagnosis — a combination of believing in luck and what he considers genuine stubbornness — was partially influenced by a family history of cancer.
In 1994, when John was just 20 years old, his 52-year-old father died from small-cell lung cancer only 10 months after being diagnosed.
“He never had a chance,” John recalls of his late father, John Raymond Panza, Sr. “Compared to him, I have been enormously lucky.”
“Everything about his situation was working against him: wrong job, wrong health factors, wrong cancer, wrong hospital, wrong decade. It pains me to think that if he’d been diagnosed just 10 years later, he probably would’ve had a fighting chance for 5-10 more years. But that’s how this stuff works.”
Looking back on his own cancer journey over the last 11 years, John contends that if given the opportunity to travel back in time, he would have made the same decisions he did in 2012 — particularly to remain aggressive and trust his surgeons and oncology team.
“Truthfully, if I had been diagnosed in 2023, agreeing to an EPP would take some convincing,” he admits, explaining that selecting an EPP as a precautionary treatment for mesothelioma has decreased considerably in the last 10 years.
“It doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for the 38-year-old me.”
To that end, John offers some advice for people who are new to the mesothelioma community: If you have recently been diagnosed, find a mesothelioma specialist and begin medical treatments immediately.
“Every day that you wait or waste is one less day you can fight this disease,” he warns. “Delaying medical treatment of any sort will only make your already challenging situation more difficult or even dire.”
While acknowledging that a holistic approach to treatments may relieve certain symptoms for some patients, John understands firsthand the importance and effectiveness of medical intervention above all other forms of fighting back against cancer.
“Massages help my aches and pains, and caffeine helps counter the sleepiness I sometimes feel from my gabapentin. But in the past decade, I have watched too many mesothelioma patients trade known and effective medical treatments for holistics out of the fear of potential side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery,” he reveals.
Unfortunately, John says, “When they are eventually confronted with the reality that symptom management is not the same as medical treatment and that the cancer has gotten worse, it’s too late, and they have missed the window for effective treatment.”
Since the roles of educator and drummer have provided John with years of experience in front of crowds, he has a sense of ease about pulling the proverbial curtain back to reveal a glimpse into his personal life with his family.
“I continue to be in awe of my wife and daughter’s resilience in the face of my illness,” John says. “The two of them make me so happy every single day. Being with them all of these years in a physical condition that is semi-normal is pretty cool — and very unexpected.”