John Casterline, a Navy veteran, was always a very active and strong man. But, surviving cancer was by far the most challenging battle he ever faced. An avid hiker, John was hiking in the Sierra Mountains when he discovered a lump under his upper left arm. He knew it was something he needed to get checked immediately when he got back home.
Five days after having the lump tested, he got a call from his doctor’s office around 8:30 at night; John had a feeling it was bad news.
He was told he had lung cancer; and very shortly after that, he was informed that it had progressed to stage IV lung cancer. Being a military man, John admitted that very little scared him … “except for cancer — that scared me.” He remembers going online to research the survival rate of a stage IV lung cancer patient and being shocked by the low number; less than 10 percent survive beyond the five-year mark.
John went to four different hospitals in search of the best place to get treatment, which proved very stressful as none of them could offer the level of personal care and medical advancement he felt he needed at this stage of his illness.
Then, he found MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, a part of Orlando Health. “When I walked in, the first thing I heard was that grand piano playing,” John fondly recalled. “I just loved it; it put me immediately at ease and really set the mood. And the people — I couldn’t get over how everybody was so helpful and so informative and courteous.”
After learning about the incredible work Jennifer Tseng, MD, is doing in cancer treatment, John made a special request that he be assigned to her for his care. Usually a doctor is assigned to the patient based on a variety of reasons, such as doctor availability, treatment requirements, etc. However, John knew in his heart that Dr. Tseng was the doctor for him. And without the slightest bit of resistance from the staff, his request was granted. “I thought to myself, wow, that’s great customer service. I didn’t have to run all over looking for people; they came to me.”
John described his initial meeting with Dr. Tseng as one filled with instant, mutual appreciation. “She is the most intelligent doctor I’ve ever met in my life. She was just as impressive as I was told she would be.”
When he had his first appointment with Dr. Tseng and she asked him if he had experienced any recent weight loss. He explained that he usually ran about 170 pounds and was now at 150, to which she responded, “Well, we’re going to stop that right now; we’re going to fatten you up.” John laughed. “I’ll never forget those words. I turned to my wife right then and there and said, this is where I’m going to be treated. It was such a huge relief for me; that’s when the tears flowed.”
Before John began his chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Tseng explained how it was all going to work and assured him that she and the team were there for him from start to finish — something for which John was truly grateful. He recalls that any time he would get down or pessimistic, the MD Anderson – Orlando team (and his friends and family) would encourage him to keep a positive attitude. His friends even made T-shirts that read, Team Casterline. “It was a team effort,” John said. “The support was just great. There’s something Orlando Health is doing right about customer service,” he continued. “The overall care I receive there — the way they explain things to me, and the attention they give me — just incredible.”
After surviving stage IV lung cancer, John had a new lease on life. He even decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (a 2,650 mile-long trail that runs all the way from Mexico to Canada). However, while training for this hike, John came down with prostrate and throat cancer. But, that didn’t stop him from achieving his goal; at this point, nothing could stop him. So, he continued on with his training despite his circumstances.
And after surviving three types of cancer, John achieved his goal and hiked more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. When asked how he managed to persevere through these very difficult times, John replied, “I just kept my mental attitude as positive as possible and refused to give up. That’s key.”
In the meantime, John was so inspired by the support he received from the team at MD Anderson – Orlando as well as the support from friends and family, he started a website dedicated to raising money for the American Lung Association. So far, he has had more than 100,000 hits on the site and has raised approximately $20,000.
But, John is far from done. Feeling the best he has felt in quite some time, he plans to hike the remaining 1,600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail sometime in the near future to raise even more money for cancer; and this time, he is calling it, ”my hike of hope.”
If there is one thing John took away from his battles with cancer and his experience with MD Anderson – Orlando it is that, “you don’t have to quit doing what you’re doing just because you have cancer; you don’t have to give up your dreams, no matter what your diagnosis. Live your life. And at Orlando Health, you really get that kind of support.”