Make Life Count: One Longtime Cancer Survivor's Story

May. 31, 2024

It was college spring break week at the University of Rochester in 1976. John Saunders, 18 at the time and a first-year student, had just started dating a girl a few days earlier — but there would be no fun outings, no hanging out. 

“I remember thinking: Hey! What are you doing for spring break? I’m having a splenectomy,” jokes Saunders, who is now 66. He had just learned from UR physicians that he was sick and needed surgery to remove his spleen as treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that afflicts young adults. 

Cancer is not a typical concern of college students. They are busy figuring out campus life, meeting new friends, keeping up with studies. In 1976, swirling through colleges across the nation was an election that sent Jimmy Carter to the White House, and big news that two guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had invented a computer and established a company called Apple in the garage of Jobs’ parent’s home. America was celebrating its bicentennial, and the #1 Billboard hit was “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings. 

The 1970s was also a time when only about half of all people diagnosed with cancer would survive at least five years, although it was the start of a pivotal era for progress against the disease. 

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and created a national infrastructure for world-class cancer research. At the UR, a group of clinicians, scientists, and academics had joined forces to officially establish a cancer center on campus, funded by a grant in 1975 from the National Cancer Institute. One of the leaders of that effort was the renowned and pioneering radiation oncologist Philip Rubin, MD, who ended up becoming Saunders’ doctor. (Rubin died in 2014.) 

Saunders recalls sensing that Rubin was a big deal in his field, and he trusted him. 

“I remember that he was reassuring. He said there had been a lot of advances in cancer treatment recently,” Saunders says. “And I also remember that he said: Don’t go to the library and read about this, because they’ll say you’re going to die. And that’s not true.” 

Taking that advice, Saunders shoved aside doubts — and focused on moving ahead. 


Carrying On, Through Adversity

Saunders had first noticed something was wrong weeks earlier, following the Christmas holiday break. He found a lump under his left arm while putting on deodorant in his Susan B. Anthony Hall dorm room. He figured he had mononucleosis, a virus that’s fairly common among college kids. At the health center, doctors
seemed concerned and ordered tests. 

On Friday, Feb. 13th (the irony of that unlucky day was not lost on Saunders and his friends), he had diagnostic surgery to remove the lump and nearby lymph nodes. As it turned out, Saunders and his parents got the best news possible: the cancer was very early, stage 1A. With a cure in mind, doctors prescribed aggressive treatment. Surgeons performed the spring-break splenectomy, and then from April to July Saunders underwent daily radiation therapy to his entire torso from chest to belly button, and the left arm. 

Side effects of treatment were minimal at first, although he did develop an esophagus burn and was on a liquid diet for a while. As a young guy who liked to eat, “that was really hard,” Saunders recalls. 

What did he feel, emotionally, when all of this was happening? 

“The story is intertwined with my Christian faith,” Saunders says. “I believed that I had things to do in life, and I hadn’t done them yet. So, it’s up to God to get me out of this alive. In some ways, I had an amazing amount of peace—but I also wasn’t looking forward to cancer treatment, right?” 

Doctors advised him that many people leave college during treatment. “But I chose Option B,” Saunders says. “I wanted to carry on with my life.” 

Throughout the ordeal, he lived fully. He took a regular course load as a physics/math major. His sister was married that winter, and Saunders attended the wedding. That summer, he stayed in Rochester and moved off campus, renting a South Wedge house with a buddy. He played piano and got a job at the Eastman
School of Music
in the instrument repair department, riding a bike to and from work, hoping that exercise would rev up his immune system and fight the cancer. 

Mary Ellen and John Saunders - longtime cancer survivor and UR alum.
Mary Ellen and John Saunders

And he and that nice young woman that he met days before his diagnosis settled into a long relationship. They graduated together in 1979, got married in 1980, and she went on to earn an MBA from the Simon School of Business and a master’s degree in public health from the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry. Mary Ellen Saunders has been by his side ever since.

“At the end of that first spring break, she told me: ‘We’ll get through this.’ She’s a very strong woman,” Saunders says, “and has the ability to deal with tough situations.” 

In June, John and Mary Ellen Saunders will have been married 44 years. They have been living in the Chicago area for decades and raised four children. In 2023, they welcomed their first grandbaby, Lila Rose.  


Retired and Grateful

Saunders has been cancer-free since 1976. 

But like many cancer survivors from that era, he suffered from what oncologists call the “late effects” of treatment. These can include cardiovascular problems, lung damage, and second cancers. Thankfully, Saunders has not faced the latter, but he has been through other health challenges. 

About 20 years ago, Saunders was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder that his cancer-care team had warned him was a possibility. Then, 10 years ago, he developed radiation-associated retinopathy and distorted vision in his left eye. Eight years ago, he developed heart murmurs and aortic stenosis — again, from the earlier radiation treatment to his chest. Doctors monitored it closely until the condition progressed from mild to severe. 

In January of 2022, Saunders had open-heart surgery at Northwestern University. It was scary, he says, and it took weeks of medication adjustments and cardiac rehabilitation for him to regain his footing. Eventually he was back to normal life and his exercise routine. 

Louis (Sandy) Constine, MD, a professor of Radiation Oncology at the UR and Wilmot Cancer Institute, who has led several international research projects on the late effects of treatment, says Saunders’ case is not unusual — he calls it the “agony of victory” — but the future is much brighter for people being treated today.

Modern radiation therapy machinery is “light years” better, Constine says. “With sophistication and elegance, we can do a much better job at targeting areas of the body that harbor lymphoma cells… We can use different angles and exclude much of the chest and heart. That’s a tremendous change in terms of the risk to the body.” 

Recently, researchers discovered another, new treatment strategy—skipping radiation altogether, and using chemotherapy and immunotherapy to treat young people with HL. A landmark study led by Wilmot Director Jonathan Friedberg, MD, MMSc, cured more than 90% of patients with this new regimen. If Saunders were diagnosed in 2024, he would not get a splenectomy and would not likely receive radiation, Friedberg says. 

Doctors did what they knew best at the time, and Saunders remains grateful. “It’s 48 years later and I’m alive,” he says. “That’s awesome!” 

He retired from a lengthy career in information technology, first at Abbott Laboratories, then at AbbVie, the pharmaceutical company, where he appreciated being part of medical science. Now, he takes part in treasured family gatherings, Christian ministries, and a civic organization with a goal of reducing political polarization. 

“You’ve only got one life to live,” Saunders says. “Make it count.”