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 living over a decade as a mesothelioma survivor

Ohio native John Panza was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2012. He was only 38 years old at the time — a very young age to be diagnosed with this asbestos-caused cancer — but he knew he was ready to fight.

“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,” John says.

Read about John’s 12+ year journey as a mesothelioma survivor and how music played an important part in his story.

Fighting Aggressive Cancer With Aggressive Treatment

Doctors confirmed John’s mesothelioma diagnosis through video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS).

Since hearing the life-changing words “you have cancer” and “it’s mesothelioma” more than a decade ago, John has undergone a series of surgeries and other medical treatments.

From the moment he was diagnosed, John felt like he was at war with his cancer — a battle he wasn’t sure he was going to win, but one he was certainly going to fight.

“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.”

- Quote from John Panza, 12+ year mesothelioma survivor

In 2013, John developed empyema, an infection impacting the chest area. In his case, it occurred in the empty space left where his lung used to be before getting extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) surgery.

This new diagnosis resulted in four more 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 after exploratory surgery.

In spring 2020, attempts to shrink the remaining damaged lymph node through chemotherapy proved unsuccessful. In 2022, he agreed to have it surgically removed and to undergo targeted radiation to keep it from recurring.

“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,” said John. “And I continue to enjoy travel, music, teaching, and writing.”

Learn how other survivors managed treatment in our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.

The Beat of His Own Drums

Despite his ongoing health battles, he continued to live his life as fully as possible. Acquaintances who didn’t know about John’s private battle with cancer would never have been able to guess what he’d been through, but he didn’t hide much.

“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. All the treatments 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.”

- Quote from John Panza, 12+ year mesothelioma survivor

The average life expectancy for pleural mesothelioma is about 18 months, but treatment has allowed John to continue making memories alongside his wife and daughter.

He’s been a college professor for nearly 30 years, teaching courses in literature and humanities.

Also 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 Productions.

Despite having tinnitus from chemotherapy, his hearing is still so sharp that he regularly mixes albums for several bands.

Having only one lung, a slightly curved spine, and a missing rib didn’t stop John from learning how to play cricket in summer 2022. Most recently, he took up Pilates as an alternative treatment, which he describes as “a game changer.”

As a result of his daily routine, which involves dedication to self-care and his musical passions, John’s oxygen levels consistently remain between 98% and 100%. He recommends others diagnosed with mesothelioma invest in self-care, whether enrolling in classes at their local cancer center or enjoying creative activities at home.

“Playing music is a form of expression that translates into symptom relief for me. Whether I am playing it or hearing it, music moves me in a unique way.”

- Quote from John Panza, 12+ year mesothelioma survivor

Finding Shared Strength in His Family

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.”

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.

“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.”

The Difference a Specialist Makes

If given the opportunity to travel back in time, John says he would have made the same decisions he did in 2012 — particularly to remain aggressive and trust his surgeons and oncology team.

He offers similar advice for the newly diagnosed: Find a mesothelioma specialist and start treatment immediately.

“Every day you wait or waste is one less day you can fight this disease.”

- Quote from John Panza, 12+ year mesothelioma survivor

While acknowledging that a holistic approach may relieve certain symptoms for some patients, John understands firsthand the importance of medical intervention above all other forms of treatment.

“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’re 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.”

Other survivors have shared how important a mesothelioma specialist was in their treatment journey. Read their stories in our Free Survivors Guide.

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Giving Back

Since 2014, the Panza Foundation — the nonprofit organization John 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 2024, the Panza Foundation has selected four new bands to support in the coming year, along with a few local festivals and events.

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.

I hope 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.”

- Quote from John Panza, 12+ year mesothelioma survivor

Get Help Becoming a Mesothelioma Survivor

John and other mesothelioma survivors have stressed the importance of having a support system in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you don’t have to face this alone.

Mesothelioma Hope’s caring team of Patient Advocates can provide personalized medical, financial, and supportive care to ease your stress and inspire hope.

Call us at (866) 608-8933 now for help, or get a Free Survivors Guide to read more stories of resilience directly from mesothelioma patients.

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Sara Bunch, Senior Editor, News & MediaWritten by:

Senior Editor, News & Media

Sara Bunch is a writer with a background in academic, entertainment, ethnic, and faith-based news media. She is a double alumna of California State University, Northridge, where she earned a B.A. degree in English and an M.A. degree in Mass Communication, with an emphasis in Journalism. Her master’s thesis focused on the coverage of ethnic and religious minorities in international news outlets.

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