Jhett Johnson always has a friendly, happy-to-be-alive smile on his face. Now I know why.
Life is a precious gift that's not to be taken for granted. This guy knows that.
Like so many strapping, healthy young men, Johnson hadn't had a physical since his high school sports days when October of 1995 rolled around. No sense seeing a doctor when you're 24 and feeling fine.
But things weren't fine. One of his testicles ballooned out of the blue. He told his dad. He called a doctor.
"I went in and had a checkup, because I could tell something was wrong," recalls the 6' 4", 240-pound teddy bear, who turned 35 on April 7. "I went to a doctor in Casper (Wyo., his hometown). He checked me out and gave me an ultrasound. It worried me that they wanted to move that fast. It's something serious when doctors clear their schedules like that."
After the same-day ultrasound, the doctor wanted Johnson back the very next day for exploratory surgery.
"He told me that first day, 'I'm sure you have cancer,' " Johnson remembers clearly. "It blew me over. That drive home is when I realized what was important to me. It was good for me, because I'd been so consumed with rodeo. I was engaged at the time, and all I could think on that drive home was that I wouldn't live to get married and I'd never have kids. I thought about my family-my parents and my brother having to bury me if things went wrong for me."
The exploratory surgery confirmed the doctor's diagnosis of testicular cancer.
"He woke me up to say they were going to remove one of my testicles," Johnson said. "All I remember is him saying, 'Hey, Jhett, we're going to take it, OK?' I said alright, but I was half out of it. That's all I remember about it.
"I never got mad about it or asked why. When I got cancer, it was like, 'Let's get to work on beating it.' "
Post-op, Johnson was given three options: 1. Radiation; 2. Chemotherapy; or 3. Another surgery, a lymph-node dissection, to remove the lymph nodes in his back.
"The way the doctor explained it to me, it was just like gutting a deer," Johnson explained. "They laid me open from the chest down in the front, pulled my guts out and set them on my chest, so he could get to my back to remove my lymph nodes. That's where the cancer was headed if those lymph nodes weren't removed. The lymph nodes got tested, and they were clean, so it hadn't spread there yet."
There was actually a fourth option offered, too, which amounted simply to close monitoring and regular testing.
"But he said if we did that I'd be dead in two years," Johnson said. "That's the one that really got me. When you're 24-25, it's hard to believe that 27 is as far as you're going to make it. I had the lymph-node dissection on December 20, and spent Christmas in the hospital that year."
Meanwhile, there was the matter of his roping career to consider.
"Justin (his brother) and I had decided before I found out about the cancer that we were going to try to make the Finals in 1996," Jhett said. "We were definitely going to the bigger winter rodeos, anyway. I wasn't healed up to go to Denver or Odessa, so we started at El Paso in February. I wasn't supposed to do anything for 12 weeks or so after the surgery, so Justin had to saddle my horse for about the first couple weeks of the rodeos, at places like El Paso and San Antonio.
"It was a really good year for us. We won third at El Paso at our first rodeo, second at San Antonio and we won Tucson. When it was over that year, Justin was 17th (in the world among headers) and I was 18th (on the heeling side). Most guys would have been bummed to barely miss the Finals, but I was just
happy to have a year to compete. When they tell you you have two years to live it changes your perspective on things."
Did it ever. No more whining about drawing the runner or an occasional slipped leg.
"I've never been the best loser," Johnson admitted. "Losing was devastating to me earlier in my life. Now I know when they say, 'It could be worse' that it really can be.
"Before cancer, roping defined who I was. The day they told me I had cancer was the first time I wasn't thinking about roping. Cancer put me on a better path. My life was consumed with getting better horses and winning-with rodeo instead of my life. I guess I needed something strong to remind me that there's more to life than rodeo. That's when I thought to myself, 'I don't have to rope. What I have to do is get married, have kids and enjoy life.' "
He did just that. Jhett and his wife, Jenny, have two boys, Kellan, 7, and Carson, 5. He truly and understandably appreciates his family more than most.
"Even in the rough times, you have to eat it up," he said. "Every once in awhile I hear a guy complain about having to sign autographs. I say, 'Don't complain about autograph lines, enjoy it. You may not be in that autograph line next year. You could get sick or in a car wreck or whatever.' "
The first five years after the cancer was detected, Johnson had to get a chest X-ray and have blood drawn every three months. About a year and a half after he first found out about the potentially deadly diagnosis, he got tested again and the doctor called and told Jenny the cancer was back. Fortunately, further testing found it to be a false alarm. They'd simply misread the first round of results.
Qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was Jhett's "ultimate goal" as a roper. He considers overcoming cancer just one of many obstacles along the way, albeit the most trying and important. Johnson was touched to receive a hand-written letter of congratulations from his doctor, Dr. Jones, after he'd read in the Casper paper that Jhett's mission had been accomplished.
"It was pretty simple, really," Johnson said. "It just said, 'Congratulations on making the Finals.' But I thought that was pretty neat. Ten years of patients had passed through his doors, and he took the time to sit down and write me a letter."
The chest X-rays and blood tests backed off to six-month intervals after five years passed.
"Every time I'd go it was a reminder," he said. "The smell of the hospital makes me feel alone. When I was in there for the surgeries there were no visitors allowed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I was in and out, but when I woke up I wished somebody was there."
Fittingly, Johnson underwent his last round of regularly scheduled X-rays and blood work last November, right before the NFR.
"They said if I made it 10 years without the cancer coming back I'm clear-cured-and just as likely as anybody who's never had it to get it again," said Johnson, who was starched up and particularly pretty in pink on Breast Cancer Awareness Night at the NFR.
It's as if his roping dream came true to reward his fight and courage on the cancer front.
"Most guys make the Finals in their twenties," he smiled. "I was 34 when I made my first Finals. Justin and I came so close that first year we rodeoed, in 1996, and that dang sure hurt us financially. If you rodeo hard all year and don't make the Finals, you've darn sure got to regroup. I came back the next winter with Richard Eiguren. We didn't do any good that winter, and by then I was broke, so I did go home. I was pretty bummed out to come so close in 1996 and then run out of money in 1997.
"Until you're out there all year you don't really know what it takes. Staying out there with them in 1996 was really a great opportunity, because it gave me a chance when I did go home to practice what I'd learned and seen out there on the road that year."
When he headed home in 1997, Johnson went to circuit and amateur rodeos, and took in some outside horses for training.
"That became my routine; staying close to home, riding horses and putting money in the bank," explained Johnson, who endorses Big O Tires, Powerline by Classic and Hart of the West Western Wear. "In July and August, you can go to a rodeo every day of the week in Wyoming and Colorado. I went to a few of the bigger winter rodeos, and if it was going pretty good would stay out and rodeo a little more.
"But 2005 is only the second year I stayed out there all year long. When it went so good in 2004 for Shane (Schwenke) and I, we decided that we were a good enough team and realistically had a chance to make the Finals. So I sent all my outside horses home, and made a commitment to Shane to go all year (2005) as long as we were making a living. I hadn't pro rodeoed steady since 1996 until 2005, where I was devoted only to PRCA rodeos."
After finishing second in the average at NFR '05, and sixth and fifth in the world, respectively, Johnson and Schwenke are back in the hunt again in 2006. Johnson's still smiling, but roping's just one piece of his happiness pie.
"It was 10 years in October of 2005 since I got told I had cancer," he said. "A decade later, my biggest nightmare turned into my biggest dream.
"Before cancer, roping was who I was. Since cancer, roping is what I do."