Cancer survivor a study in optimism Parks official oversees stadium named as memorial to him

March 31, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A macabre irony weaves through Joe Cannon's survivor story.

When he was battling cancer six years ago, Anne Arundel officials rushed to name a baseball stadium in Harmans for him before his death. Today, Mr. Cannon runs the department that operates the 1,600-seat tribute to his memory.

With a chuckle, the avid sports fan points out that the tumor once threatening his life was as big as a football. He was written off several times by doctors during the past 13 years, he says, but survives a young physician who once treated him.

"I'm so damn lucky," said Mr. Cannon, a square block of a man who runs Anne Arundel's Recreation and Parks Department.

Mr. Cannon, 60, maintains a glass-is-half-full optimism, which has carried him through years of surgery, radiation therapy, experimental drug treatments and dark, near-death days into the remission of his disease. He now rushes from hearing rooms to Cabinet meetings to community forums.

It's hard to conceive that six years ago he couldn't walk into Joe Cannon Stadium for its dedication without help.

"He just never gave up, never sat around and felt sorry for himself," said Buzz Platt, who with Mr. Cannon founded the Anne Arundel Football Association in the early 1960s. "He didn't quit even when he felt terrible."

On a Sunday in 1983, Mr. Cannon and his wife, Rachel, chatted as they painted the kitchen of their Maryland City home. The house had to shine for their oldest daughter's wedding the next Saturday.

Mr. Cannon felt good, except for a small back pain that had become a regular twinge during the previous few months. The next day, he went to Washington where, since 1962, he had worked in the U.S. Government Printing Office. But his life changed on his first trip to the restroom. His urine was blood red.

"I called Rachel and said, 'OK, you better make me an appointment,' " Mr. Cannon remembered. "I thought I was having a kidney stone attack."

Tumor revealed

After a long night and a visit to his doctor, Mr. Cannon checked into Doctors Hospital in Lanham, where tests revealed a massive tumor surrounding his left kidney.

"I made a deal with the doctor," Mr. Cannon said. "I told him if he let me give my daughter away, I'd be right back for surgery."

His daughter, Mary Jo, left for her honeymoon in Hawaii without knowing her father was gravely ill. Her parents hadn't told anybody.

The surgery, which removed the tumor and kidney, put Mr. Cannon on a path that would alternate between hopefulness and disappointment during the next several years. A lifelong Catholic, he would frequently turn to his faith for comfort. For three years after the surgery, radiation treatments appeared to keep the cancer at bay. But in 1986, a spot showed up on his lung that signaled the cancer had spread. Recovery seemed out of the question.

Doctors told him that he should try to "maintain his quality of life" and that when the pain became too much to bear they could "make him comfortable" with a panoply of drugs that would not cure, only soothe.

But Mr. Cannon was determined to fight. He had learned about determination in the Air Force, and from his athletic shortcomings.

"I'd be the guy who went out for the basketball team and got cut," said Mr. Cannon, who grew up in Scranton, Pa. "So I'd become the manager."

More treatment

When the cancer reappeared, Dr. Richard Schuloff urged Mr. Cannon to join his program at George Washington University Hospital, where he was testing interferon. Mr. Cannon signed up.

For three years under Dr. Schuloff's care, he took the drug that was supposed to attack cancer cells. The cancer seemed to stop spreading -- for a while. Then in 1989, a tumor collapsed his lungs and sent him back to the hospital, this time Mount Vernon Cancer Institute in Virginia.

There, Dr. Richard Hoffman became Mr. Cannon's doctor, replacing Dr. Schuloff, who had died in an automobile accident. Treatment of the tumor seemed like pure science fiction.

Doctors would inject radioactive beads the size of BB's through his nose to surround the tumor. After three treatments, which doctors monitored from behind lead shields, the tumor had disappeared.

To keep the cancer dormant, Mr. Cannon embarked on four treatments, including one that mixed his cancer cells with a serum derived from cow's blood. And he continued to take interferon -- 25 million units three times a week -- which he described as "a very heavy dosage."

Hope running out

All the while, his friends and colleagues thought Mr. Cannon was living out his last days. In late 1989, then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer began lobbying for the new stadium to be named for Mr. Cannon, who had served on the volunteer Recreation and Parks Advisory Board since 1977.

"I think he wanted to do something quickly because at the time there was concern I wasn't going to be around much longer," Mr. Cannon said.

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