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Sitting in the shade in front of the concession stand along the first-base line at the Sandia High School baseball field, John Gunther is a man finding his peace.
And that, my friends, is not an easy sentence to write.
“I’m going to do the best I can with my quality of life,” Gunther, 54, said Thursday.
His body is ravaged with cancer, a cancer neither he nor his doctors can stop. His Stage IV colon cancer has spread to his liver, lungs and lymph nodes. Those harsh chemotherapy treatments, which ended in August, unfortunately offered only a temporary reprieve.
A recent CT scan detected plenty more cancer in his body. His doctors, he said, want to resume the chemo treatments. That idea was rejected.
“For what?” Gunther said without a trace of anger, although he’d damn sure be entitled to that. “I’m in a good place. I am. I don’t want to go through chemo again. It’s so debilitating.”
When I first wrote about John last Easter, his mood was optimistic, his attitude dogged. He is a man of deep faith. A strong man. The diagnosis was severe, but his belief that he could beat this was unwavering.
Today, as always, he remains practical and upbeat — even amid the burden of having to face this unspeakably horrific attack on his body. His generosity in discussing this openly is not only astounding but warrants a mountain of admiration.
Having said that, Gunther harbors no illusions about the finite nature of the road ahead.
“I think everyone has their moments of tears and sadness,” said Gunther, who gave a remarkably candid interview last year when I first wrote about his disease, and gave another one Thursday.
“Even I have my moments of pity parties. But God has a plan, and if it’s to use me to bring others to the Lord, that’s good. I’ll be OK.”
He has been Sandia’s head coach for six seasons, and for over 20 years has been teaching math. It is difficult to conceive how he manages to keep doing both given the size of the obstacle in front of him.
Chemo sessions often left him physically spent during the 2016 baseball season. But he soldiered forward. He still is frequently saddled with unrelenting bouts of fatigue.
“Now it’s the cancer that’s draining me more than anything,” he said.
The sense is, he knows full well that this will likely be his last baseball season with the Matadors. His son Robert will handle the heavy lifting of the coaching. The new season begins Feb. 28, and John will remain in the dugout. His hope, he said, is simple — to make it through the season.
“This,” he said, talking about baseball, “is a refuge and a sanctuary.”
He does have another CT scan later this month, and his medical team has floated the idea of treating him with a biologic agent that could perhaps stop the cancer from spreading any further. It would apparently not be as harsh as chemotherapy.
However, there is a downside. His skin, he said, would react harshly to sunlight. And the Gunthers have a May trip to Cancun in the works.
I asked him what his personal goal was for this spring.
“Honestly, as weird as this may sound, to make sure I can take this trip with my family,” he said. “The only thing on my bucket list is to spend as much time with my wife and my family as I can.”
This, too, is an awful thing to have to write. This is a good man. A man who already is having to think about the logistics of his own funeral. Who in the hell should have to do that at 54?
I am reminded of these gracious words from John last year, and they seem to resonate even more strongly now than they did then:
“We’re all dying,” he said. “If my days are numbered, so be it. If I can be the best example I can for my peers, then I’ve done my job.”
On Thursday, John Gunther’s message was largely the same as it was nearly 11 months ago.
“It’s on me,” he said. “I hope I conduct myself with character and integrity while I go through this phase of my life.”
Whatever else can be said, this much is certainly true:
My goodness, has he ever.