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The Biggest Challenge of His Life

Monday, June 22, 2020 11:19 AM

He is a triathlete, a coach and a father of five. That helps explain Tim Johnson’s self-described “Superman complex.” An avid competitor, Johnson faced an unexpected jolt in the form of cancer a few years ago that set him up for the ultimate test of strength and courage.

Man on a bike

Hitting a Wall
Johnson’s journey began in the spring of 2016. The Deerfield resident had undergone surgery to remove what he thought was a benign parotid tumor on a salivary gland. But the issue was far more serious, as the tumor was in his parotid gland and it was malignant. Johnson knew he had to act quickly.

“I was never the one who got hurt or sick. I was working out all the time, and I was super healthy,” said Johnson. “Cancer put the brakes on all that. Tomorrow’s never promised, and I’m not Superman.”

Johnson’s wife Anna Marcolin—a psychotherapist with a background in oncology—tapped into her network and they quickly found their way to Kellogg Cancer Center Hematologist David Grinblatt,
MD. Dr. Grinblatt diagnosed an aggressive form of large B-cell lymphoma, but the silver lining was that it, fortunately, was caught at a very early and treatable stage.

“We expect a 90% cure rate with the right treatment,” explained Dr. Grinblatt, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “This was one of the first diseases where adding immunotherapy to chemotherapy showed a significant benefit.”

Cancer-fighting Confidence
Johnson knew from his first meeting with Dr. Grinblatt and Oncology Nurse Dorina Perry-Escarda, that he was in good hands. “Dorina was a total angel. She was great in educating us about everything to expect through treatment, and we quickly became good friends,” Johnson recalled. “Dr. Grinblatt’s track record drew us to him, and we never had any doubts.”

The treatment plan called for six rounds of chemotherapy with immunotherapy. Johnson attacked it with his usual positive attitude and competitive athlete’s mindset. The chemo derailed his race season, but Johnson doubled down on a healthy diet, rest and meditation, focusing on regaining his health and strength.

“There were days I was so tired I couldn’t even will myself to get up,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of self-coaching, getting ready mentally and willing yourself through the next round of chemo. Through it all, I knew I was going to make it.”

Pedaling On
Johnson credits his wife, family and friends for their enormous support that carried him through the treatments. When his hair started to fall out, his three boys joined him as they celebrated shaving their heads together. “We made a big ‘to-do’ of it and had fun,” he said. Instead of racing, Johnson became the designated photographer at triathlon events and struggled to jog even a few yards. But a few months after his final chemo treatment in November 2016, Johnson triumphantly returned to training.

Now age 53, Johnson is cancer-free and feeling as strong as ever, hoping to use his positive experience as an inspiration for others. “Tim’s prognosis is excellent,” added Dr. Grinblatt. “We’re optimistic this is gone for good.”

With a new race season ahead of him, Johnson is full of gratitude and goals that include setting a new personal record in a Half Ironman and coaching other triathletes to be their best. “There are so many positive takeaways from this experience, including accepting temporary setbacks and limitations. Thankfully, I’m moving forward with those lessons.”