Thirty-one-year-old John Barnett was taking attendance during his second-hour P.E. class at West County when he felt tingling in his pinky. He didn’t think much of the incident until the tingling continued into his hand. Then he felt the tingling in the left side of his mouth. Suddenly he could no longer speak clearly.
When the school nurse arrived in the gym, she suggested John’s wife Megan take him to the hospital. After they arrived and a few tests were completed, doctors thought John had suffered a stroke. Still not certain and realizing he was young to have experienced a stroke, further tests were performed until they saw something on one of the scans.
On Nov. 30, 2017, John was immediately transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis where he received further tests and a full MRI. The neurosurgeon informed him that a walnut-sized tumor had attached itself to the area of his brain which controlled his speech.
He needed surgery, and there were two options: surgery while he was under anesthesia or awake brain surgery, also called awake craniotomy. This is a procedure performed on the brain while the patient is awake and alert. This type of surgery is used to treat some brain, or neurological, conditions including some brain tumors or epileptic seizures. Often if the tumor is located in the brain where vision, movement or speech is controlled, the patient may need to remain awake during surgery. This means the surgeon is able to ask the patient questions and monitor his or her brain activity during their responses to ensure the correct area of the brain is treated.
John’s mom Lila looked at the doctor and asked, “Sir, is it cancer?”
The doctor responded that the tumor would be sent to pathology but he was “99% sure it was cancer.”
John had already lost several family members to cancer, including his dad Richard in 2010, both his grandfathers Lowell and Verlin, and aunt Dorinda.
“Cancer is such a terrible word in our family,” said John.
John’s surgery was scheduled, and he asked everyone except Megan to leave the room so they could pray. He scooted to the edge of the bed, looked out the window at the darkness and dreary weather, and closed his eyes to pray.
“I said, ‘God, I can’t do this,’” he said. “I don’t have the ability. I don’t have the strength, so I’m giving it to you. You do whatever you want with me.”
At that moment John felt God told him to “be quiet.”
“God said to me, ‘Boy, you know the story of David and Goliath,’” he said. “David had no business standing in front of a 9-foot giant. Cancer is your goliath. Just give it all to me.”
At that moment John lifted his head, opened his eyes, and suddenly he saw sunshine outside of the window where he’d just seen darkness. The sun hit his eyes, and Megan walked over to close the blinds.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘No, Babe, that’s God’s reminder that this is his battle,’” John said.
The family left the hospital that day knowing brain surgery was looming only a week away. They tried to return to normal, but everyone’s focus was on the surgery. Megan asked John repeatedly what his decision would be: undergo surgery asleep or awake.
“I told her I’d do whatever God told me to do that day,” he said.
When John returned to school, he called his colleague, someone who had become as close as a sister to him (the writer of this story).
“I asked Pam if she would have people write down scriptures for me so I could read them when I needed them most,” he said.
When the day of surgery arrived, John read those heartfelt words of comfort and special Bible verses his colleagues had written to him in a journal.
“Those people don’t fully understand what those verses and words meant to me,” he said. “Those verses calmed me as much as possible, and I gave it all to God that morning.”
After they arrived, John was prepped for surgery and prayed once again. He told his doctor he’d decided to be awake during surgery.
During surgery, John recalled saying he had to hurry to pick up his kids from school. He had to name items when shown pictures.
“I knew they were in my brain, and I got very scared,” he said. “But then I looked down at my feet and I saw Jesus. I don’t remember any more of the surgery after that.”
The four-hour surgery ended up taking six hours. The doctors’ goal had been to remove 25% of the tumor so John’s speech would no longer be affected.
The next day, the doctor informed John that 50% of the tumor had been removed. This was their first victory. But when John was later asked questions, he didn’t know some of the answers: his wife’s name, the current president. When he was handed a pen, he did not even know how to hold it.
When he was being released from the hospital, John had “a little Richard Barnett” in him and demanded to walk out of the hospital, which the nurse politely refused due to hospital policy. But he insisted he would sign whatever form necessary for him to walk freely out of the building. And he did just that.
John arrived home to find that his brothers Richard, Jim and Jared had moved a bed to the lower level of his home so he would not need to climb the stairs. His brother Josh drove John to physical therapy in Festus.
When Dec. 19 arrived, John, Megan and his brother Jim traveled back to St. Louis for a follow-up appointment with his neurosurgeon. That’s when John was informed he had Stage 4 Glioblastoma.
“You don’t have the gene to fight it,” the doctor said. “If you decide not to do chemo and radiation, you have three to six months to live. If you decide to do those things, you have 12 to 15 months to live. You need to get your affairs in order.”
Megan was now in the same place where John and Jim had been when their father had been diagnosed with cancer.
“They told my dad he had a year,” said John, “and he made it 11 months.”
John looked at the doctor and matter-of-factly told him, “I am going to walk my girls down the aisle and I’m going to see my son graduate high school.”
The three left the doctor’s office. John and Jim waited in the main lobby while Megan went to the restroom. The brothers were crying. A gentleman walked up to ask what was wrong, and John couldn’t speak. Jim told the man his brother was 31 and had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. The man prayed for John right there in the lobby.
John said, “On the way home I had to make terrible phone calls. I had to call my momma. I told her she had to call my brothers because I didn’t have it in me.”
When they were half-way home, John called colleague John Hartley Jr. who was apparently just the right person John needed to talk to at that moment.
“John told me, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’”
That Bible verse was from Isaiah Chapter 40. He also sent lyrics from the song “Heaven’s Point of View” by The McGruders: “Today I faced a mountain that I have no strength to climb … soon I’ll soar like an eagle high on wings of grace … what once looked like a mountain is just a hill from Heaven’s point of view.”
That’s when John’s attitude changed. He went home and had a wonderful reunion with all the family and friends who were waiting for him.
“I walked in and saw all these people with tears, and I began consoling them,” he said. “My whole mindset changed back to what I prayed to God for when I asked him to take control.”
At that point John knew he would be OK, regardless of what happened. He knew this phase was temporary even though he did not know the final outcome.
Anderson Cancer Center treatment
A few days later, John had received calls from so many people, including one from then-West County Superintendent Stacy Stevens whose friend of a friend worked at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who could possibly get him admitted to that hospital.
John and Megan were hesitant to accept the offer due to growing medical expenses even though they knew MD Anderson was one of the top-rated cancer facilities in the nation.
Then a complete stranger from Farmington called. Kevin Thurman and wife Karri invited John and Megan to stay with them while Kevin was also receiving treatment in Houston. The Barnetts knew that was the push they needed to travel to Texas.
John’s brother Jim and best friend Justin Nettles drove them to St. Louis for their flight on Jan. 1, 2018. The cost of the flight was paid for by West County school board members, teachers and staff.
Jim walked over to speak with security to explain about John’s recent brain surgery. One of the female employees looked at John and said, “My husband and I will be praying for you, and they don’t know everything. My husband was diagnosed with brain cancer 10 years ago and he’s still with us today.”
John had difficulty sleeping that night. He knew important doctor visits awaited him the next morning. So he got up during the night and went into the walk-in closet, got on his knees and prayed.
“I remember asking God if just one person finds Jesus through all of this, then every day away from my kids, every day away from my family and friends, every day away from my students, every radiation and chemo treatment would be worth it,” he said.
The first time he met Dr. Mary McAleer, she described John’s approach to cancer with a basketball analogy even though she didn’t know he was a middle school boys basketball coach.
“Buddy, this doesn’t look good, but we have two choices,” she told John. “We can let cancer dictate or we can put on a full-court press. We’re going to attack it by doing chemo and radiation at the same time. We’re going to attack it and not let it attack us.”
Dr. McAleer explained how the hospital employed “one of the people who writes the book on brain cancer” who wanted to review John’s case himself.
Then Dr. McAleer told John something completely unexpected: he had been misdiagnosed. He had a rare form of brain cancer, Stage 3 astrocytoma, and he had the gene to fight it.
Radiation and chemotherapy started on the same day the following week. With radiation, John was custom-fitted with a face mask which fastened to the treatment table. He listened to Christian music while he received radiation. During his first treatment, he heard a new song about marching on. On the third treatment, he heard it again. The song, Rend Collective’s “Marching On,” became his rally song.
The words resonated with John: “Let our praises remind all the darkness of how great and how mighty our God is, for the battle belongs to the Lord and no one else … we are marching on, we are marching on.”
So John asked for that song to be played repeatedly during his radiation treatments. After awhile, the staff knew he wanted “his usual song.”
He listened to that song for 30 treatments. Each day, Megan encouraged John to eat well, walk several miles and stay active. The doctors were surprised and impressed with his determination and hard work.
He called every day to check on family and friends. Each day he talked to Pam he said, “I have a favorite number. It’s zero.” (That number would soon represent how many treatments remained.)
With John’s positivity and continued great news, many were skeptical. They thought he was putting on a front for others. So Megan’s parents Jada and Steve Holbert and best friend John Simily, the district’s then-athletic director, each traveled to Texas to see for themselves.
“It was true,” he said. “I was doing well.”
The last day of radiation was scheduled for 6:30 a.m. so John and Megan could leave Texas to surprise their kids. They’d been away for 44 days without seeing daughters Khloe and Ava and son Elijah.
“When I got to ring that bell, it was like stepping on Satan’s throat,” said John. “We flew home and got our level of normalcy that still wasn’t ‘normal.’”
When John and Megan flew back to Texas on March 19, they sat in a hotel room while John endured the biggest struggle yet since he’d first received devastating results on Dec. 19.
“Satan was going crazy,” he said. “What’s this scan going to look like was all I could think about.”
Megan decided to do something that evening to take their minds off of the next day’s uncertainty. They decided to go see the movie “I Can Only Imagine.”
John didn’t fall asleep that evening at the theater as he often does. In fact, he watched it in entirety.
The next day was March 20. John had an MRI during which he fell asleep because he was in such a stage of comfort. As the couple waited for the results, they were so afraid so they prayed together. They’d had also become extremely comfortable with the hospital and staff. They knew when they saw the lead oncologist, that usually meant bad news.
Suddenly there was a knock on the office door where they were waiting. The second-in-command oncologist and nurse practitioner entered the room. John and Megan exchanged uneasy looks.
The doctors displayed the Jan. 2 scan on the left and the March 20 scan on the right.
After a few moments of silence, the doctor said, “We can’t find anything on the scan from today.”
John and Megan couldn’t speak, and the doctor continued.
“Sir, the whole team has looked at this scan and we can’t find anything on it. There’s nothing here, Sir. Your scan from this morning is so clear it looks like you never had any type of cancer or treatment.”
Stunned and speechless, John quietly said, “Ma’am, I know why. I need to pray right here and give thanks. If you want to leave, I’ll open the door when I’m done. But you’re more than welcome to stay.”
Immediately John and Megan, along with the doctors, prayed and gave thanks for the miracle they had just witnessed.
“Going back to that prayer in the closet that night, I said, ‘God, let this be all about you. If someone can see you in me, then everything has been worth it.’”
The lead oncologist asked if the hospital could use John’s case as a study case.
Almost three months later, John’s news shockingly went from grim news to the most amazing news ever imagined.
Words simply can’t describe the phone calls they made to family and friends. He went from possibility having to retire early from teaching and coaching to returning to work.
When John walked into West County Middle School on April 5, there were tears of joy and much-anticipated hugs. The staff welcomed him back with a breakfast, and students had made colorful posters which were displayed throughout the hallways.
Five years later
Today, John is healthy. He’s passed all his MRIs. Although he took a short break from coaching, he’s back to coaching, this time girls’ basketball. He shifted from teaching P.E. to Social Studies.
Over the last few years, John has learned to thank God for his trial with cancer because it changed his life for the better.
“Now that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days now or still struggle sometimes, but I turn to God with anything,” he said. “I’m still a mistake-maker, but brain cancer changed my life completely.”
John is especially grateful for all of his family, friends, colleagues, students and parents, and the community for their love and support through a difficult time.
Today when he struggles, John often leans on his younger brother Steven who offers continued encouragement and prayer.
He also credited wife Megan for being there for him through some of their darkest days.
“There is no way I would have had the strength, courage or fighting spirit to be here today if it wasn’t for her,” he said.
Monday marks the five-year anniversary of John’s initial diagnosis with cancer.
“With every breath I take, I am living proof of the power of prayer,” he said. “God hasn’t changed. He still performs miracles every day.”
“I knew they were in my brain, and I got very scared. But then I looked down at my feet and I saw Jesus. I don’t remember any more of the surgery after that.”
John Barnett, cancer survivor
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal