Lifelong Smoker Goes Into Extra Innings In His Fight Against "Mr. C"

Sep 18, 2013

How do we own up to our own mortality? RadioActive reporter Madeline Ewbank tells the story of one man's baseball game against cancer and the odds stacked against him.

Jon Nyberg is sitting out on my porch, watching the sunset and working on the latest New York Times Sunday puzzle. Fifty-two down: wake-up times, for short. He's proud of the grizzled chin and the head of wispy, gray hair he's been growing, a look his friend likes to call "the Amish experiment." But his skin hangs off his bones like his cigarette hangs off his lips.

"When I get stressed out, which I do a lot of the time," said Nyberg, "I revert to going out to my deck and lighting up a cigarette."

He reached for another from his bright yellow pack of American Spirits. As if nature's loudest colors weren't caution enough, the package is plastered with warnings from the Surgeon General. One declares that smoking may cause cancer, but Nyberg doesn't seem to care. Probably because it already has.

Nyberg was diagnosed with throat cancer in July 2012. "It was determined at that time that I needed a CT scan," he continued. "At which point, the person that administered it said, 'you're here about your cancer.' And I wasn't aware that I had cancer. And she said, 'don't tell the doctor that I told you.'"

When my mom found out that Nyberg had cancer, she immediately went to the internet and looked up the type of cancer he had.  "It didn't look good at all," she said. "The survival rate for five years was pretty low, but he had a positive attitude about it, and I didn't want to bring up the negative."

When my car needs to go to the shop, I say to the mechanic: "Fix it, I don't care what it is." And I feel the same way about cancer.

So she didn't. Because Nyberg didn't want to know. "I never gave a darn about the medical aspects of things," he said between coughs. "When my car needs to go to the shop, I say to the mechanic: 'Fix it, I don't care what it is.' And I feel the same way about cancer."

His upbeat attitude seemed to work. Last January, the cancer looked like it was going away. There was talk of more radiation and then maybe even a surgery to remove the lump in his throat once and for all. It was  a miracle that the man to beat such a devastating cancer lived off of Pepsi and potato chips and had smoked since he was 12.

But in the next CT Scan his lymph nodes lit up like Fort Knox, meaning the cancer wasn't leaving; it was getting much, much worse. Nyberg said he was brought back to real life when the doctor told him that it was never going to go away. He told the doctor, "Well, instead of Mount Everest, I'm going to have to find my thrill on Blueberry Hill."

Nyberg has kept going in for chemo infusions over the past couple of months until three weeks ago, when he got more bad news: he was too weak for chemo.

Tomorrow, at his next appointment, he's going in to find out what happens now.

For the first time in all my life, I see that I'm mortal.

When I asked him if he's nervous for his next appointment he answered, "Am I nervous? You bet your life. I'm scared to death. For the first time in all my life, I see that I'm mortal."

Nyberg used to have this analogy for his battle against cancer: "Each time I had a treatment, it was like another inning. I would send out an email suggesting, well I'm now in the seventh inning or the sixth inning. It was me against Mr. C, as I called cancer. And I'm into extra innings, you might say."

It's fitting, since he met my parents through their softball team. He held the pitcher's mound for more than a decade, until running to first might have popped a lung. When Nyberg started his chemo treatment, my father offered up our spare room as his Seattle base.

It seems to be a different chapter unfolding in front of him; and he doesn't know if it's the final chapter.

He told me why he thought Nyberg was nervous for his next appointment. "He didn't think forward to this day might come, and now he has to," my father reasoned. "So it seems to be a different chapter unfolding in front of him; and he doesn't know if it's the final chapter."

Being too weak for chemo was a curve ball. And it left me wondering, what does this mean for the game against Mr. C?

But Nyberg doesn't like to think that way. "It's definitely like the AA program, one day at a time," he said. "And when I wake up in the morning I say, I've got another day."

So here's the next day, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Most of it is waiting around in a lobby full of restless people. Today, Nyberg is dressed in a faded pink Cape Cod sweatshirt, a sure sign that he's in a good mood. But he's also walking with a bad limp.

Like always, a good friend is here with him. "He's here for every consult," said Nyberg. "I said to my daughter, 'Why? Why's everybody so good to me?' She said, 'Dad, you're a good guy.' Who think's they're a good guy, you know?"

It's true. Nyberg lives off of good karma. He adopted his daughter from China. He found a job for this friend.

When Nyberg was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, his bank account was in the double digits. But he lives comfortably in Ocean Park, Wash., in a house owned by his friend Candy. He drove her to chemotherapy while she battled cancer.

Nyberg and his friend lounge in the lobby, until finally, a nurse calls for him and he is led into a small, white room with frightening diagrams. A fellow follows in short order. He asks some basic questions about Nyberg's overall health since his last treatment.

Well, you know, it's that whole mind, body, spirit thing. I get terribly lonely, and I have some anxiety. Because it was made clear to me by Dr. Lin the last time we talked that I'm going to have cancer for the rest of my life.

The fellow recommends some medication and the friend writes down what Nyberg will need. Then the fellow says he will fetch Dr. Lin, who will tell Nyberg about the plans for his treatment. After he leaves, Nyberg quips, "Has he graduated from high school yet? He had the sweatiest palms of anyone I've shook hands with in years!"

It's been made very clear that the odds favor Mr. C. It's really a matter of when.

Nyberg cracks jokes to shake the seriousness of the appointment. But this is a moment, a small moment, when his life balances on the edge of a knife. He knows he will face death. It's been made very clear that the odds favor Mr. C. It's really a matter of when. And this 15-minute conversation with his doctor might just determine that.

"I do think now that, clearly, my mortality is an issue," mused Nyberg. "And what I hope is, when that time comes, I will understand what life was all about."

The door opens. "Hey Dr. Lin," greeted Nyberg.

This story was originally broadcast on Monday 9/2/13.