My name is John Barrett, I’m 59 years old. I was born and raised in Orange County, CA and have been enthralled with the beach and ocean my whole life. I started going to the beach with my parents as a baby.
The first time I remember trying to bodysurf was when I was 14 years old at San Clemente. By the next summer I was completely hooked. That summer,1975, my friend Mike and I would take the OCTA bus from Garden Grove to Huntington state beach (Magnolia) several days a week. Mike had one of those old canvas blow-up rafts. One day, the outside break was pretty heavy, very tempting, and the current was strong. We desperately tried to make it outside to the sand bar but couldn’t do it.
We kept getting hammered and Mike lost his hold of the raft. The next thing I knew this red thing was bumping into me. We were getting rescued. When we got to the shore I said “thanks,” and tried to walk back to my towel inconspicuously, but the lifeguard motioned for me to come to his tower so he could take my information. A pretty large crowd looked on. It was quite embarrassing, but I like to think I learned an important lesson.
The next summer, 1976, I got my driver’s license and things began to change. My parents gave me unlimited use of their brand new, red, Volkswagen Convertible. The only problem was, they didn’t give me unlimited use of their gasoline. Even though gas was only 50 cents a gallon it was a challenge for my two best friends and me to come up with a buck or so to get to the beach and back. We had to scrounge, beg, and borrow pennies, nickels, and dimes just to get gas to enable us to make the 25-mile round trip.
Going to the beach and bodysurfing became an obsession. For the next five summers, I believe I went to the beach as much as anyone in the county who did not reside at the beach. I averaged at least five beach days a week in those years, It was a great life. This was my schedule for the summer of 1976 & 1977: 8-10am summer league basketball practice; 10-11 weightlifting (or rather weight rooming); 11am, leave for the beach; 11:30-11:45 troll for parking; 11:45-4:00 bodysurfing and suntanning; and then twice a week at 7pm, a summer league basketball game.
At that time I discovered the West Newport Jetties. I also got my first pair of fins (duck feet) and a kickboard. While I loved basketball, my athletic fantasies began to shift. I dreamed less and less about scoring game-winning baskets, and more and more about sliding down the face of a ten-foot peak (neither of which have come to fruition...though I have been pummeled by a ten-footer at the wedge). My lifestyle of heavy beach-going continued through most of college.
As I moved into adult life though, I got away from it somewhat. After my first daughter was born (1991) I got back into it as much as I could. For about 15 years (1991-2005) my in-laws owned a mobile home on the beach at El Moro, just north of Laguna. My wife and I, and our three daughters spent many weeks there for many years and got terribly spoiled. It was a dream come true and we made special use of it.
During that time I came across something that I think was called a “wave gun,” or something like that. It was a plastic handboard with a leash, and instead of a hand strap to secure your hand, it had a rectangular hole in the middle so you could grip it. It was a lot of fun, but it had a couple of design flaws. One was that the leash was a short wrist leash so you couldn’t change hands if you used the leash. Secondly, it had a little tiny hole in it, so it filled up with water fairly quickly and lost its buoyancy. It was only good for about three or four waves.
In the winter/spring of 2016 I came across Slyde Handboards. I can’t remember where or how I saw them, but I told my wife I wanted one for my birthday in June. Being the incredible gift giver that she is, I received a brand new Slyde Wedge and a carrying case to go with it. On Father’s Day of that year we went to the beach and I took it out for its maiden voyage. I dug it instantly. Unfortunately that was the only time I used it.
On December 19, 2016, I was officially diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. I had kept myself in good shape throughout my adult years. I’d done a variety of sports and activities and lead a healthy lifestyle. At one time or another, I’d run 5 & 10K’s, done cycling and mountain biking, snow skiing, racquetball, surfing, masters swimming, weight training, and tennis. I ate a low-fat, low-sugar diet, and I always ate my vegetables; the exact diet recommended to prevent colon cancer. I hadn’t even had a soda since 2005. I’d had a physical in 2012 for my insurance policy and according to their classification system I was in the Superman category. I never saw cancer coming.
On October 1, 2016, my wife and I went out with some friends to an Oktoberfest celebration. For dinner, we both ordered bratwurst and sauerkraut. It was a pretty hearty serving and my wife didn’t finish her plate so I finished off her sauerkraut. The next morning I woke up with a really upset stomach. I was not surprised, the problem was the upset stomach continued through the day, and the next day, and the next, and it didn’t stop. After about ten days I started to think maybe I should see a doctor. I had a physical scheduled for mid-November and I was able to get it moved up a week.
In the meantime, I had several appointments with “Dr. Google.” Not the best idea. I went back and forth diagnosing myself with Crohn's, irritable bowel syndrome, and diverticulitis. I ruled out cancer because one of the main symptoms of colon cancer is blood in your stool, which I did not have. Crohn’s, IBS, and diverticulitis did not make sense either, but the stomach issues were not going away. Finally, I got my physical, and the M.D. didn’t know what the problem was either, but he said he wasn’t worried. He recommended I schedule a colonoscopy and in the meantime start taking a probiotic.
Ironically, after taking the probiotic for a couple of days, things got better. Then the symptoms came back. Finally, on December 8 I had my colonoscopy. I’m sorry to say that at age 56, this was my first colonoscopy. When I came to, I heard the doctor telling my wife there was a tumor but that it was “well-differentiated” which sounded like a good thing.
The next eleven days were an absolute rollercoaster. Hearing that I had a tumor was traumatic. (As a psychologist I often help people suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related difficulties, so when I use the word here I mean it literally and I’m not exaggerating). Waiting to hear the results of the biopsy was rough.
The next day we got the call and were informed that it was cancer, another trauma. The only thing I remember after that was that my wife and I wept in each other’s arms. We were terrified. Both of us prayed to God and reached out to friends. We were referred to a surgeon because it looked operable to the gastroenterologist. At that appointment, the surgeon administered one of the most physical and psychological traumas of my life, a digital rectal exam (I’m not joking, it’s much worse than a prostate exam). He also ordered scans and told me he would call me with the results. Then he didn’t call. So I called him. His receptionist said he wanted to see me later next week. I hung up and then called back and argued my way into an appointment that afternoon. The thought of waiting 10 more days to find out those results was unbearable, more trauma.
When we met with the surgeon he informed us the cancer had spread to my liver and lungs and therefore, colon surgery was not an option. Trauma again. He referred us to an oncologist who confirmed that it was indeed staged four cancer. Trauma.
I actually didn’t care for that oncologist too much (I think it’s imperative in this process that you like your oncologist). He was too cold and authoritarian. He told us that any treatment would be merely palliative (as opposed to curative) and told us the average survival for stage four colon cancer was 2 1⁄2 years. He had a plaque in his office showing him as “doctor of the year,” but I’m suspicious of those awards. As a psychologist, I get calls every once in a while from a magazine to let me know I’ve been nominated for doc of the year and all I need to do is write a couple of paragraphs on why I’m so great and send it in along with $250.
However, he did do something important. He recommended we get a second opinion and referred us to the Norris Cancer Center at USC. We got in for a consultation on December 23 and I started in a clinical trial of chemotherapy with a trial drug on January 6, 2017. I did that for three months and saw some good progress.
All along the way, my wife and I prayed hard for wisdom and direction in the decisions we had to make. In the cancer world, there are a lot of decisions to make. We also asked our friends and family members to pray for us, even those who didn’t necessarily believe in God. The support of friends and family have been a vital part of this journey. I have several friends who offered to talk anytime I felt the need, and I took them up on their offer quite often and still do from time to time.
While not all cancer patients agree with me, I don’t believe cancer is a burden one can bear alone. I’ve met some who don’t want to burden their friends and family but I’ve found the relational support to be an important aspect of the mental journey.
My support system has helped me manage stress which I believe can help me in the fight against cancer. One of the best things you can do for a loved one with cancer is to listen to them. Let them talk and listen without judgment. (I’m not sure why but it’s easy to believe getting cancer is your fault, that you’ve done something to bring this on yourself). People have brought us meals; offered to drive me to my treatments; sent us encouraging letters, cards, and texts; prayed for me; sent us books or inspirational gifts; visited me in the hospital. All these things have made me feel loved and supported on this awful cancer journey.
I guess I would agree that I see life through different eyes now. Tomorrow is not a guarantee so I try to take life one day at a time...literally, one day at a time. I have a different view of frailty and weakness and suffering. It’s more a part of the human condition than I ever realized. I try to be grateful for every good day and for all the small moments I used to take for granted. While I underwent treatments, my wife did a lot of research.
The linear part of her brain was able to function much more effectively than mine. We both read a couple of books and she scoured the internet. I met with and interviewed fellow cancer journeymen and women. One of the best books we read was “Nothing to Fear” by a guy named Larry Burkett, a financial advisor who had gotten cancer. One of the main points of his book is, “Be your own advocate.” My wife and I took this to heart. I also heeded the words of a fellow cancer patient who told me, “no human being can tell you how long you have to live, so don’t let anyone tell you so.”
Ultimately, we decided to leave the clinical trial and seek treatment in Germany. I appreciated and respected my oncologist at USC, but I didn’t feel like she was committed to me being cured. She was invested in “prolonging” my life and helping me have a good “quality” of life, but I wanted more. The trick here is to seek more but be careful about false promises and scams. We used a combination of listening to God in our spirits, using our brains to do research (especially my wife’s as my brain has been pretty mushy), and talking to friends and professionals.
So, my wife and I went to Germany and I got a treatment that did not cure me but helped me get to a point where I could have surgery. When I left for Germany I had approximately 40 tumors on my liver (though my liver functioning was normal). When I got back 3 months later, I had approximately 13.
I returned to USC and got back on chemotherapy but we weren’t really satisfied. My wife continued to search and we prayed for help. We ended up finding a medical consultant to help direct my treatment. He laid out the common factors involved for people cured of stage four colorectal cancer. Some of them I’d already done but one was having the primary tumor removed. I had surgery on January 6, 2018, to remove my rectal tumor. It was successful in removing the tumor but I went into a sepsis coma and was in ICU for 9 days and the hospital for 3 months.
I spent the majority of 2018 recovering from that surgery. I had a lot of complications from that hospital stay that were unrelated to cancer, like shoulder atrophy, and a bladder stone. I was also given an ileostomy during the surgery. This is where the surgeon pulls a loop of your small intestine outside your abdomen in order to bypass the large intestine. So, until my cancer becomes sufficiently reduced and stable, I have to wear a “bag.” Due to all the complications from surgery I had to be off of systemic cancer treatment for about 8 months. That allowed the cancer to grow back some - not nearly as bad as before but still it’s less than ideal.
So, I had to get some additional chemo and radiation and ablations on my liver and lungs. In December of 2018, I started to feel pretty good. For the first time all year, I was able to see the possibility of getting some of my old self back. In late December when people started talking about New Year's resolutions I thought to myself, “if I keep going this direction, I’m gonna bodysurf this summer.” Not too long after that, I got an email announcing the 3rd annual Slydefest handboard competition in San Clemente. I decided that I would sign up as a way of forcing myself to complete my goal. I put my money down, so I would either have to do it or throw it away.
In early February I had scans that showed some tumor growth. As a result, I had scans and colonoscopy to get a biopsy and a better look at some growth at the site of my original tumor. Some presence of cancer was found. I also had to get some tumors in my lungs ablated. By the end of March, I was trashed. I was weak and my lungs were a mess, although pretty much tumor-free. I started immunotherapy in April. I slowly started to get stronger and by Memorial Day I was feeling better. Then I started thinking about Slydefest again, and it looked like I was going to make it.
I’m not sure why, but I didn’t tell anyone I’d signed up until about a month before. My wife and kids thought it was great and said they wanted to go with me. Then my wife surprised me once again with a night at a hotel across from the pier in San Clemente. My wife turned it into a family event and it was one of the best days of my adult life.
A couple of weeks prior to the event I decided to see if I could still swim and catch waves. I hadn’t been in the water for three years and I’d been pretty sick in the meantime. My stamina was a concern. So, I took a couple of trial runs in Newport. I was able to handle myself in an okay manner. I felt confident I would at least survive physically. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had no intention of bringing home any trophies, I was just hoping to catch a couple of waves. At the competition, I didn’t keep track of how many waves I caught, but I had a blast. Just participating was exhilarating and fun, and due to a couple of late cancellations in my heat, I advanced to the semifinals.
One of my favorite parts was just before my heat in the semifinals. My group was waiting for the horn to let us know we could to go out. One of the other guys said, “Hey, do you think there’s a chance we can get this heat reduced to 7 minutes?” He didn’t know it, but that was so refreshing to me because it told me I wasn’t as out of shape as I had thought.
Another highlight for me was the feeling of accomplishment I had for making it to the competition after setting this goal then enduring all the physical setbacks I’d had this spring. Of course, I think the best part of the day was having my family and a couple of great friends there to cheer me on. It really felt like a celebration, and it was.
After the Slydefest event, I was pumped and I started searching for other competitions. As a result, I signed up for the World Championships in Oceanside and the Chubascos BodySurf and Handboard Championships. I did so with some apprehension because I was due for scans in early July. I had some doubts as to whether the immunotherapy was working. I was feeling good but hadn’t had good news for some time. Scans for cancer patients are at best like final exams in college. Your future is dictated by scan results.
On July 15 I got scans and they showed everything to be stable or shrinking. We were so relieved and excited. It was the first good report we’d had in a long time. Practically what it means is that I’ll stay the course on the immunotherapy and God willing live an uninterrupted life for a while. The next scans are scheduled for October.
So, I’ll be in the water as often as I can and I’ll be participating in the Chubascos and Oceanside championships. For me, though it’s not about the competition or even my performance. The main thing is that when I’m in the waves and bodysurfing I completely forget that I have cancer. The ocean draws me in and then lifts the mental burdens of my cancer. Hopefully and prayerfully, I’ll be back next year for the fourth annual Slydefest...and then the fifth...and then the sixth...and then…