“It would be easy to be depressed, but that’s not me. I’ll tell you a thousand jokes and make you laugh. That’s me.”
You were diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at age five. Are you aware of anyone else being diagnosed that young?
No. That was 1969; medicine has improved so much that I wish it would have happened to me today instead. But 54 years later, I have no complaints, because I did get treatment, although it was experimental. They said to my parents, “We’re going to try,” but they didn’t give me any chance of survival. When I left the hospital after a three-month stay, they said: we hope he makes it to ten. Later, they said: we hope he makes it to 18. When I got to 18, they said: we don’t know. I beat the odds then, and I’m beating the odds today.
Do you remember what happened when you were five?
I recall the day my mother had either an Avon or Tupperware meeting at our house in Fortuna, California, and I came running through the room. One of the ladies said, “Barry, stop!” She saw a lump on the right side of my neck. The next day we went to the doctor’s office, and I was diagnosed with mumps. That went on until my family decided it wasn’t mumps. The doctor cut some tissue out and sent it in. The next thing, he called and said: you have Hodgkin’s disease, and you need to go to San Francisco. I didn’t know what it was, but I understood I had cancer.
We drove seven or eight hours to Mount Zion Hospital and met with Dr. Alan Schroeder. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but it involved cobalt radiation. That was just the start. I had seven surgeries while I was there. My parents had to leave me; my dad worked, and my mom needed to take care of my brother and sister. There were three kids in my hospital room, all on IVs. Several kids on the unit passed during those three months.
What happened when you got home?
When I walked in the door, my sister said: that’s not my brother. I had changed physically; I didn’t have hair on the back of my head. But my parents never talked about it, didn’t protect me and said: go be a kid, be yourself. I had a lot of energy, like any five-year-old, so I was playing sports as soon as I was strong enough. Sports were a huge deal in my family; my dad was a baseball pitcher and basketball player, and my brother, Garry, was an all-conference basketball player at Santa Clara University. He’s six-foot-three, and I was supposed to be tall like him–if not taller. But having my thyroid irradiated stunted my growth. I was going to play baseball at Santa Rosa Jr. College, but my health didn’t allow me. It took a while to figure out that my lungs had deteriorated.
I started coaching, including basketball at the University of Idaho and at Piner High School back in California. I got college offers, but every time I had an opportunity, I got hit with something. I had a heart attack in 1991, when I was 28. But I came back and coached at Saratoga High School and West Valley College. I kept having health problems, and I kept bouncing back. My cardiologist called me Mr. Indestructible.
Were there more late effects to come?
Yes. I was working with special ed kids, something I did for years, which involved walking to parks and different places each day. But then I couldn’t walk very far, and my arm was ice cold. None of my doctors could figure it out, but I thought I’d had a stroke. They finally saw that one of my carotid arteries was closed, and the subclavian arteries, which go down your arm, were blocked. I had surgery to open the arteries; 20 minutes afterward, my surgeon checked on me and said: the bypasses are failing; we’re going back to the OR.
Six months later, I was working at a high school and, during the middle of class, I nearly dropped to my knees. I called my doctor and described what happened; the next day, I drove to San Francisco and was back in surgery. We figured out my body was rejecting the plastic they used in the bypasses. Now I have at least 15 stents in my heart and carotids. They’re afraid to do a coronary artery bypass, but I’m not afraid. I had seven surgeries when I was five years old.
At this point, I’m in poor health; I’m on oxygen full-time. I fell at a friend’s house and had to go to the emergency room, where they took an x-ray and found a tumor on my kidney. They did a procedure and are checking me every few months. I have my limitations; I understand that. I used to be the most active person you can imagine. I’m glad I got to do those things. But now I’m sedentary. I can’t walk far; I throw the ball to the dog, and then I have to come home.
Have you become a bit philosophical over the years?
I think I have. I’ve had some disappointments, including that there was no follow-up from the hospital–not one word–despite the amount of radiation they gave me. In 54 years, no one got in touch to say “how are you doing,” “are you having any health problems” or “we’re conducting a study.” I don’t blame anybody, but I’m sad about that.
I always wondered what happened to my doctor. Four years ago, I looked for him. There were three Alan Schroeders in California, so I took a chance and found him at home, trimming his hedge. He was 92. I said: my name is Barry Mendenhall, and he said: “Oh my God.” I hadn’t seen him since the 1980s. When I went to shake his hand, he said: “I’d rather have a hug.”
My best friends today are the same friends as when I found out I had cancer. I never found the woman I love when I was younger; I was always sick or something was going on. About 15 years ago, I met Mamie Galliani, and we live together in Eureka. She is so important in my life. My father is 82; we talk most days. My mom passed a few years ago, but she got to see me grow up. My grandmother was a second mother to me; she was a strong influence in my life. I lived with her during her last few years when she was dealing with cancer. She lived that life–where, if you give, it will come back to you.
Cancer started in me at a young age. I had successful treatment, but the cancer has never left me, and it’s still messing with me today. The older I get, more and more people call me to say: I have cancer; what should I do? The first thing I tell anybody is: be positive. You have to move forward. It would be easy to be depressed, but that’s not me. I’ll tell you a thousand jokes and make you laugh. That’s me.