Running His Way Through Cancer
Diagnosed with a rare form of the disease, New York City police officer Johnny Lawrence is battling it stride for stride.
The spring of 2019 upended Johnny Lawrence’s life as he knew it. The 43-year-old NYPD officer from Queens Village, NY, received a diagnosis of small bowel cancer, a rare disease that makes up only 0.6% of new cancer diagnoses in the United States. Lawrence, a weightlifter who was used to lifting 300+ pounds at the gym, soon found himself unable to get out of bed without help from his wife. He spent months on chemotherapy fighting for his life.
A year later, as COVID-19 hit this past March, Lawrence found himself back in the hospital for emergency surgery on his small intestine. No visitors were allowed due to the pandemic, so Lawrence recovered alone, his phone the only lifeline to loved ones in the outside world. Once he returned home, Lawrence knew he need to rebuild his strength.
With gyms closed, Lawrence decided to take up running. Not his exercise of choice, but he found it surprisingly agreeable. So agreeable, in fact, that he decided to go all-in and train for his first marathon. Fast forward a few months and on September 13, he completed the Charge Running Boston For All virtual marathon (a race against the clock, wherever you are, since in-person races are still on hold in much of the country) and placed fourth.
As Lawrence continues his cancer fight, he's using running for positive motivation. HealthCentral asked him about the ups and down of his cancer journey.
HealthCentral: Tell me about the day you received your cancer diagnosis.
Johnny Lawrence: It came out of nowhere. I was feeling lethargic a lot; I’d get tired and out of breath from walking up the stairs. I went to the doctor, who told me I was anemic and my blood levels were dropping. They did a colonoscopy, found nothing, and finally decided to do a CT scan. That’s when they found out I had a rare small intestine cancer. I had two tumors in my small intestine, and they had spread to my liver. Not too many people in the world have this, so that made it even more scary. At Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, they told me they were going to treat it like a colon cancer. They told me I was a strong guy and still young. But they put me on a very rigorous amount of chemo, which was probably the worst experience of my life.
HC: How were you feeling in those first few months?
JL: I’m a police officer, but I haven’t been back to work since April of last year. After I found out about this, I had to start going back and forth to the doctor and chemo. The chemo really lays you down. Some days I’d only eat a banana and drink water. I had no appetite and was always throwing up. This was a good six to seven months that I went through this. I went from 290 pounds to 205 in six months, so I lost almost 100 pounds.
My wife is also a police officer, and she’d be going to work crying because she didn’t know what was going to happen. She went from seeing me in the gym lifting 300 pounds to being in a fetal position in bed. I could barely move, and she had to carry me to the bathroom sometimes. I couldn’t get down the stairs. It was really rough.
HC: One year into your cancer battle, COVID-19 hit. How did that affect your treatment?
JL: In February or March, I was switching over from the rigorous chemo to a lighter chemo because my tumors were shrinking. Then, I got really sick. A tumor was blocking my intestine, so when I would go to eat, it would come right back up. The doctors wanted to do emergency surgery. I had to go into the hospital right when COVID was going on. My wife dropped me off and couldn’t come in, and I had to take a COVID test before I got admitted, which luckily came up negative. Meanwhile, my wife tested positive for COVID from being at work, so we had to quarantine away from each other.
They put me on one side of the hospital for negative COVID patients, and I had my surgery to remove the two tumors. It was risky because the tumors were close to a major artery. When I got out of the OR, nobody could visit and the only thing I could do was call people. I had to go through the whole recovery in the hospital by myself, also worried about COVID. It was scary.
Around June or July, I went back in for surgery on my liver. This time, they allowed one visitor for an hour, so my wife was able to come and check on me. I did about six or seven COVID tests within a three-month period—they tested me when I came in, while I was in there, and before I left.
HC: What prompted you to start running?
JL: Before all this happened, three friends and I were going to the gym together regularly. One of our friends had cancer, and we were encouraging him to come to the gym and keep motivated. Then I found out I had cancer, too. My friends and I, we just tried to push each other. Anytime I had my chemo, I’d be down for a week, then the next week I would go to the gym with them. But it got to a point where I was losing so much weight, the weightlifting was getting hard to do. I had to find something else. Then gyms closed with COVID, so the next best thing I could think of was to run. I started running seriously in May of this year, and now I’m running like nine to 10 miles a day and loving it. It makes my whole day better. I was in the Marine Corps when I was younger, and I feel better now than when I got out of bootcamp at age 16.
I started using the Charge Running app, and I just completed their Boston For All virtual marathon on September 13. The way the virtual race worked was that through the app, they gave you five hours to run the 26 miles, or to run as far as you could go. I finished the 26.2 miles in five hours and six minutes, and they kept the clock running an extra six minutes so I could finish. I came in fourth place out of like 150 people, so not bad at all.
HC: How is your cancer battle going?
JL: I just found out from a CT scan that my cancer is back, and I’ll have to start doing chemo again. The spots came back up on my liver, so I’m not in remission anymore. It was tough for me and my wife to handle, and it took a little bit of time to process, but we’re staying positive about the whole situation. Hopefully, the chemo won’t take a toll on my body like it did in the past, plus I know what to expect. I’m just hoping that it kills the cells and I can go back into remission in the future.
Right now, I want to get my story out there so it can help somebody else. Cancer is really a hard thing. You don’t ask to get this. It’s not something that you “catch”—it’s something that just happens to you. It’s an unknown, and that’s the thing that plays mind games with you.
I’m trying to keep a positive attitude, keep fighting, and keep going through what I’m going through with a smile on my face. I beat it one time, so I can beat it again.
The NYPD is having a 1.5 mile run for Johnny Lawrence on October 10 in at Cunningham Park in Queens, NY. Call any of the numbers below to purchase a running shirt and help support Johnny’s fight.
Small Bowel Cancer Statistics: National Cancer Institute. (2020.) “Cancer Stat Facts: Small Intestine Cancer.” seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/smint.html