Moments with Mary Kay.
John Murphy sits in his 100-year-old house on a hill on the southwest edge of Colorado Springs, talking passionately about his epic combat against melanoma. His hands and words are moving fast.
But his voice grows quiet and reverent as he travels to an enchanted night 53 years ago. His mind departs this room, and 2019. He’s returned to a 1966 Denver dance night when he studied at Regis University. The dance turned gloomy.
“My date didn’t like me,” he says. “My date ditched me.”
But Murphy, a jolly soul, never stays down for long. He looked across the crowded room and saw Mary Kay Conway, an 18-year-old brunette. Instantly, and maybe faster than that, he was smitten.
“She just kind of arrested my attention,” he says, shaking his fists. “My heart was beating awful fast.”
They talked, and a mysterious something ignited. Two years after the chance dance encounter, they were married and living in this house on the hill. Ever since that dance night, they’ve clung together, joyfully and intensely.
Murphy closes his eyes as he travels to another moment with Mary Kay. It was Oct. 6, 2010, when they sat in an office in Denver, listening to Dr. Paul Bunn gently announce John suffered from melanoma. John’s lungs were covered with tumors, including one as large as a golf ball. After telling John he had three or four months to live, Dr. Bunn left the room.
John and Mary Kay hugged each other, tears in their eyes.
“Johnny,” Mary Kay said, gazing at her husband, “you can’t die on me. You can’t die on me.”
John, thinking back, pauses for a long moment.
“I knew I was going to have to put up a hell of a fight,” John says. “I wanted her to see me brave. I wanted her to see how hard I would fight to stay with her and the kids and the grandkids and our life.
“Here’s the thing: If you’re in love, it makes the fight a whole lot easier.”
Mary laughs softly as she remembers devastation that led to epic endurance.
“Just everything about him is amazing,” she says. “He’s not an ordinary person, I’ll tell you.”
As they held each other, alone in the doctor’s office, she told herself John would not leave her. She spoke to herself in defiance of all odds.
She laughs again. John remains, as always, by her side.
“I’ve been proven right, huh?” she asks, knowing the only answer is yes.
It’s been a joyful, excruciating journey from the day John was told he was doomed to this morning when he sits in his favorite upstairs room. John, 73, sports bolo tie, checked shirt and flowing ponytail. His voice resembles a bark, with every word clearly spoken. This voice is a remnant of his days as a bold trial lawyer. You never need John to repeat himself.
He’s blessed to be alive and knows it. His brother, Marty, earned a doctorate in biochemistry and has a deep fascination with conquering cancer. In the darkness of 2010, Marty connected his brother with cancer experts at Massachusetts General Hospital, who treated John with state-of-the-art experimental drugs.
Each day, John took five “tumor-attacking” pills. Four red ones, the size of a vitamin, and one tiny white one. The pills were astoundingly effective. John had been given three, maybe four months to live. Five years later, his lung tumors had virtually vanished. He was hiking in the hills and mountains near his home, riding his bike, pushing his snowblower.
Melanoma, ever ruthless, was not vanquished, returning with force to attack John’s brain. In 2017, at the worst stage, he battled cancer of the brain lining. He struggled to hear. He could not bend over. Death, again, seemed near.
Doctors switched strategy, giving him experimental meds that triggered his immune system to attack cancer. Normally, the immune system fails to recognize cancer. It’s “cloaked,” John says, which fools the body into ignoring the invasion.
The treatments worked. John has ridden his electric bicycle 200 miles along streets and mountain paths during the past three weeks. He feels strong and hopeful.
“I’m at a high point,” he says. “It’s the first time in three years that I don’t have tumors, but I’m not cancer free.”
No doubt, it’s been a battle. During early treatment, his temperature often spiked over 104 degrees. Cancer has invaded his lungs, brain and spine. His body features a 16-inch surgery scar on his right leg and a 4-inch scar on his stomach. He’s struggled with colitis and acidosis while taking, over the years, five tumor-targeting drugs and six immunotherapy drugs.
He remains a celebratory warrior. Yes, celebratory.
“Melanoma can’t kill me,” he says, his voice rising. “I don’t believe it! It’s not going to kill me! Now, I might die from the experiments and that’s acceptable. That’s friendly fire. I would much rather be killed by friendly fire than the enemy. Melanoma will never take me.
“I know the reaper is going to get me. He’s like an old faithful dog. He’s with me every day. When I wake up, he’s there looking at me, but he’s not going to get me with melanoma. I truly believe that.
“The reaper was like a roaring wolf when he first came at me, with his teeth tearing into me and now he’s still there, but he’s got the mange, he’s got the torn nut sack and he’s got one eye that won’t open.”
John shakes with laughter, his eyes afire.
“I don’t live in fear. I live in hope and in joy.”
On Oct. 6, 2010, the day he was told he soon would die, John thought of hummingbirds. He spent summers sitting next to Mary and family on a big deck with nine hummingbird feeders. Each spring, hummingbirds build tiny nests in nearby ponderosa pines and flock to John’s and Mary’s feeders.
“I won’t see the hummingbirds, for sure,” John thought on Oct. 6, 2010. “I won’t see another spring.”
He stands on his deck, gazing at the city below and thinking of April 18, the day he expects the hummingbirds to arrive to delight him and Mary.
“We just sit there,” Mary says, “and we watch them and look at our view. It’s like parking for the rest of your life. It’s so beautiful at night.”
From the shadows on his deck, John gazes at brilliant sunshine in the distance. He stares for a long time, cane in hand, smile on face.
Hummingbirds soon will return, and John will sit on this deck with Mary Kay, celebrating a spring he never thought he would see.