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Alumni Profile: John Cleland, BS '73
Survivor milks life for all it’s worth
The cancer started in his testes and spread to John Cleland’s lungs. Three rounds of chemotherapy could not knock out the cancer, but it all but killed the host. His mouth was lined with sores. Swallowing was difficult, and eating was impossible. He had lost 60 pounds of muscle mass.
Sitting in Dr. Lawrence Einhorn’s Indianapolis office, Cleland’s 105-pound frame barely dented the fabric in the chair when he heard the worst words in the world.
“We’ve done all we can do,” Einhorn told Cleland, BS ’73. Cleland’s heart pounded so hard he thought it would come out of his chest.
“That’s it,” he thought. “I’m gone.” Six weeks short of getting his degree in animal science, a lifetime in front of him, a new wife to share it with, and his doctor tells him he’s a dead man walking.
“There is one other thing we can try,” Einhorn said. His research team at the Indiana University Cancer Center would gain fame for saving Lance Armstrong’s life 25 years later with a chemotherapy protocol that included platinum.
But in 1973, Cleland would become only the third patient to try the platinum treatment.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t ask Dr. Einhorn about the other two patients,” Cleland said. “If I had known what happened to them, I probably never would have agreed to the treatment.”
They both died. “I was young and couldn’t fathom the severity of my cancer,” Cleland says. “But every time I became ill from the treatments, my confidence wavered.”
The waiting game dragged on. Weeks and months went by, and Cleland’s cancer did not reappear. Today, he’s still cancer-free.
During the first months and years after Cleland’s remission, he approached life differently. He smiled more and was appreciative of the things he had.
“Even today, very few things bother me,” he says.
As Cleland recalls his cancer-filled days, he can’t help but remember the impact that the Purdue Agriculture family had on his life. Purdue faculty and support staff sent cards and get-well notes, made phone calls to check in, visited Cleland at home, prepared food and helped with transportation to needed locations.
“During my cancer battle, everyone in the Department of Animal Sciences began looking after me as if I was a son to each and every one of them,” Cleland says. “I owe a special thanks to the people of the department, because they helped get me through my cancer battle.”
It was during this time that he began collecting milk bottles from various Indiana dairies. His academic adviser, Blaine Crowl, gave him his first bottles.
“Blaine took me to the Indiana Guernsey breeder’s field day, to various antique shops in search of milk bottles, and just to his house to sit and talk,” Cleland recalls.
Today, the milk bottle collection has grown to more than 1,500 bottles from 670 Indiana dairies.
Cleland’s dreams of becoming a dairy herd manager were put on hold during his cancer treatment. After winning his battle, he decided to put his life lessons to work as a teacher. He earned his teaching license and has taught biology at Zionsville Community High School since 1981. He also has put his experiences in running four marathons to good use as an assistant cross country coach at Zionsville.
It is difficult to have a conversation with Cleland without discussing the center of his cancer-free world, his family. Cleland and his college sweetheart, Judy, were married just before his 1973 cancer diagnosis and have three children: Chris, 23, and 18-year-old twins, Brice and Cecelia. Today, Judy is an environmental engineering consultant with clients in the public and private sectors.
“My wife was very businesslike during my cancer battle,” Cleland says. “She never babied me, and she stayed very optimistic.”
Judy wasn’t home much during the initial stages of their marriage. She was a full-time student, studying engineering, and worked at Smitty’s Grocery to support them both.
“The hardest part of John’s cancer was seeing a strong, athletic, young person lose weight, lose hair and lose strength as the medicines and disease took their toll,” Judy says. “The day John removed all of his hair with a washcloth was one of the saddest days of my life.”
In 2000, Judy nominated her husband to carry the Olympic torch as it traveled through Indiana. Out of more than 200,000 nominees, Cleland was one of the 142 Hoosiers selected to carry the torch across the state.
“I nominated John because of the fortitude he showed training to run marathons after beating cancer, despite the damage chemotherapy has done to his body,” Judy says. “To me, that seemed to represent the Olympic spirit.”
Cleland responds: “Being able to carry the torch was a high moment in my life. Once that flame was in my hands, I was like a rocket.”
Family, friends, former students and strangers lined Keystone Avenue in Indianapolis to cheer him on as he carried the torch. Afterward, he gave out autographs and had photos taken with admirers.
After the Olympic torch relay, Cleland took his torch home and put it under his bed.
In 1974, you had no choice but to try an experimental therapy that Dr. Larry Einhorn offered you with no assurance that it would help. I’m grateful you did. You paved the way for the cure of testis cancer and the definitive treatment that would cure me in 1997.
— Letter from Lance Armstrong
“Judy kept asking me to do something with it,” he says. “The torch was just collecting dust, and I wanted to do something good for somebody.”
It occurred to Cleland that maybe Dr. Einhorn and the IU Cancer Center could use the Olympic torch to inspire cancer patients and families to hang on and fight a little harder for a cure. In November 2004, Cleland presented Einhorn with the Olympic torch for revolutionizing the treatment for testicular cancer. The “passing of the torch” has become an annual event at the IU Cancer Center in recognition of survivorship.
“Passing of the Torch” is a way to honor cancer patients or former cancer patients of the IU Hospital who in some way promote cancer awareness, bring recognition to the IU Cancer Center, or who help with patient care and well-being.
So Cleland’s legacy will live on, long after he has used up all the extra time he has been given.
Contact Cleland at firstname.lastname@example.org