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Cancer survivor Cardinale refused to knuckle under

Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 9:01 p.m.

BENICIA

John Cardinale is 8 years old. He’s been sleeping on the sofa in the living room of his parents’ San Francisco flat for the last five years. His father is an alcoholic. Life in North Beach is unpredictable, many times dysfunctional. In the quiet of the night, when the chaos has subsided, when the silence creates the illusion of peace, young Cardinale makes a pledge to himself.

“This (life) isn’t going to happen to me when I grow up,” Cardinale thinks. “I’m going to work hard. I’m going to make a better life for myself. I’m going to have a family. I’m going to have kids. I will be there for them every day. Every day.”

Cardinale then closes his eyes and sleeps the way only the indomitable can sleep, secure in the knowledge his life is his to control. Freedom arising from willpower is emancipating, enhancing.

And so it came to be. Cardinale graduated from San Francisco State, the first one in his family to graduate from college. He was a sportswriter for five years at the Contra Costa Times newspaper, and by the winter of 2010 Cardinale had made good on his pledge.

“I had everything I wanted,” said Cardinale, 47. He was in his 16th year of marriage to Andrea, had two daughters, Emma and Lauren. He was entering his 15th year at then-Infineon Raceway, in charge of media and community relations. He was a star in the business, having been named three years earlier by NASCAR as directing the best public relations staff in stock car industry. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, exercised at least three times a week and there was no history of cancer in his family. None whatsoever.

“Things were perfect,” Cardinale said.

In December 2010, Cardinale felt a persistent pain in his right side. He was in Las Vegas at a NASCAR awards banquet. There was a twinge in his stomach but the ache in the side caught his attention. He thought it relatively benign, like a gallstone or a kidney stone. Exams were taken, such as an upper endoscopy. The result: He had Stage IV gastric cancer.

“It was like I was punched in the stomach,” Cardinale said.

Thinking that possibly a punch wasn’t a powerful-enough image, Cardinale later amended his response: “It was like someone dropped an anvil on my head.” His oncologist, Pleasanton’s Dr. Rishi Sawhney, said Cardinale should begin to get his life in order, be it finances, spirituality, relationships, anything that would have a loose end attached to it.

“He said I had six to nine months to live, the cancer at that point has spread from my stomach to my liver,” Cardinale said. “It was very aggressive.”

The two-year anniversary of that conversation comes next month on Feb. 10.

“I shouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Cardinale said. “I should be dead.”

And thus we begin the story of how one good man got this far, who sees more in the distance, who finds life now deeper and richer and sweeter than he could ever have imagined. Knocked down but not out, Cardinale took that determination he had at age 8 and expanded upon it, developed it to the point that he’ll be damned if he’ll surrender. He didn’t then and he won’t now, both for the same reason.

“I made that pledge to take care of my family,” Cardinale said.

So when the doctors in the East Bay or at Stanford or at a Houston oncology clinic told Cardinale, “Look at the numbers, John. Look at the data,” he snickered.

“I am not a number,” Cardinale said. “I am a person.”

Cardinale, ever the resourceful newspaperman, went online and found people who have what he has, who are living happy, productive lives 15 years after the initial diagnosis. He called. He spoke. He made friends. He found light.

“I have seen too much, heard so much,” Cardinale said, “to know the impossible is always possible. That as human beings we are only limited by the limitations we put on ourselves.”

News of his situation, of his adamant refusal to knuckle under, created a movement all to itself. Cardinale found he wasn’t living in a vacuum. NASCAR and TNT worked together to send a five-minute, get-well video to Cardinale, clips of NASCAR drivers wishing Cardinale encouragement, guys like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon using a little more face time than the rest to support his friend.

NHRA sent a video as well. The never-shy John Force did leave enough room for other guys like Ron Capps to say hello, which is big news all by itself. The Caring Bridge website in which Cardinale has posted his comings and goings has 20,000 participants. This Saturday at 10 a.m. on the track of Sonoma Raceway, Cardinale will host the second annual “John’s March Against Stomach Cancer.” All the proceeds will be funneled directly into medical research to find a cure of a disease that is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the world, according to the National Center of Biotechnology Information.

“People say I am an inspiration,” Cardinale said, “but I don’t see it.”

Of course he wouldn’t. Cardinale sees himself as the modern version of the American Gothic, someone who takes great satisfaction in being judged as dependable, agreeable, flexible. A dilemma is just a challenge he has yet to solve. Hard work is welcomed because that means something of value requires his assistance. And problems? Hey, we all have problems. And he has less of them than before — all of the cancer in his stomach is gone as well as 98 percent in his liver.

“I don’t discuss what’s happened to me with that many people,” Cardinale said.

He’s not in this fight so someone can hand him a crying towel. Rather, when he lists what’s happened to him the last two years, he does it with the detachment of someone announcing the Giants’ starting lineup. The 30 rounds of chemotherapy he’s endured, the three operations this past December to facilitate bile duct drainage, the weakness that has caused him to walk to the second story of his Martinez house by taking one step at a time using a handrail ... oh well, he said. Stuff happens. OK, sure, after his first chemotherapy treatment, it was scary to lose those 28 pounds in nine days.

“But what would you do?” Cardinale will ask the crowd this Saturday at Sonoma Raceway. “How would you handle the news? Just let it soak in for a second. Think of what you would do.”

He expects the crowd to be very quiet. He expects some might feel an anvil dropping on their heads. He expects most to feel a chill. Yes, indeed, what to do?

“Before this, when I walked outdoors,” Cardinale said, “I always walked with my headphones on. Not anymore. Now I can hear the birds, feel the breeze. The blue sky is a deeper blue to me now. My girls tell me, ‘Dad, you don’t have to hug me 10 more times today.’ We’re here only once. We all should take advantage of it. It’s a gift and privilege for all of us to be here. I never used to think about life this way.”

Cardinale paused. He knew what he wanted to say next and it surprised him. From the most unlikely of sources, he has been making a better life for himself.

“Cancer is a teacher,” he said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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