An unforeseen journey: How J.J. Singleton’s cancer battle instilled a new sense of purpose

Singleton got to meet golfing legend John Daly at a tournament a few years ago. Donated photo Singleton got to meet golfing legend John Daly at a tournament a few years ago. Donated photo

Challenges and trauma impact people in different ways. For Haywood County native J.J. Singleton, who has battled cancer for about nine years now, it presented an opportunity for personal growth, growth he feels would have never otherwise been possible. 

Singleton, 36, participated in sports his whole life. His dad and uncle played college football, and following suit, after playing high school ball at Pisgah, Singleton played linebacker at Brevard College. However, he suffered multiple concussions and his college career was cut short. At that point, he didn’t want to work out if it wasn’t for his sport and began drinking beer, or as he put it, “fully enjoying the college experience.” Before he knew it, he topped out at 315 pounds in early 2015. That’s when he decided to turn things around and committed to a CrossFit regimen, led by his former football coach, Brandon Holloway, who is now Pisgah’s girls’ basketball coach.

Things were really turning around. He’d lost weight, he was feeling better, and then around Memorial Day, he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. He chose to ignore it. “Typical guy thinking.” He searched the internet for articles related to his symptoms, and although cancer frequently popped up, he chose to ignore the red flags.

“I thought I’d pulled a muscle working out or something,” he said. “And then it got worse through the summer and my mom made me go to the doctor.”

Singleton, just 28 at that time, had a large tumor in his colon, and within a week, he was under the knife. Surgeons removed about 80% of his colon, three feet of his small intestine and several lymph nodes around his abdominal area. Doctors thought they got everything. Singleton sought a second opinion from another doctor, who agreed with the initial assessment. He underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy over six months just to ensure any cancer would be obliterated. Everything continued to look great. Follow-up scans and a colonoscopy turned up good results.

And then, just about six weeks later, the abdominal pain returned.

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“I woke up to that same throbbing,” he said. “I went straight to the doctor.” 

The cancer was back. Tests quickly revealed that the cancer had moved to his abdominal wall and several lymph nodes in that area, and it was classified as “incurable.” He tried multiple chemotherapy cocktails, but nothing seemed to work. He sought experimental treatment that was in a stage-two clinical trial. It was that or hospice, so he went for the Hail Mary.

“In a sense I got lucky,” Singleton said. “From the beginning, my doctor in Asheville wanted to combine our care with the Duke Cancer Center, so that changed everything. I had a whole team there.”

Since then, he’s been treating the disease as well as doctors know how. He has endured chemotherapy every three weeks for the last several years. Next week marks his 144th treatment. He said that while chemo gets progressively tougher to deal with, he is happy it’s working, adding that he’s seen plenty of friends with colorectal cancer for whom treatment didn’t take, and they lost their battles.

“It’s keeping me alive,” he said. “I’m still here.” 

Overall, Singleton has been cut open on 10 separate occasions. The first one was at Haywood Regional Medical Center and the next nine were Mission Hospital in Asheville. During one period for 14 months after one surgery, he didn’t eat any food. He couldn’t even have a G-tube to pump food into his stomach. Instead, he got regular infusions that gave him the basic vitamins and minerals needed to survive. A surgery eventually rerouted part of his stomach so that he could eat real food again.

The treatments and surgery take a toll on him physically and mentally. He said about a week before he’s back receiving chemotherapy, a sense of dread begins welling up that grows until the day he’s in the chair. Forty-eight hours before the treatment, he stops eating solid food.

“In my experience, it’s easier to throw up the meal replacement shakes than any food in my stomach,” he said.

But Singleton said he usually gets to enjoy about two weeks during which he feels “somewhat normal.” For example, he and his father have season tickets to Virginia Tech football — the team his father played for.

“I like watching any kind of sporting event,” he said.

Singleton said that for the first several years, he felt like he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. In fact, he wouldn’t even take part in support groups, until his doctor brought up the relatively new Man Up to Cancer. Singleton thought it would just be another group that may fit his preconceived notion, but he was pleasantly surprised. It changed his view on the power of support groups.

“It was a place where we could hang out and be real,” he said. “A lot of men isolate because we think we have to be tough and handle everything. But there, you can be emotional and talk about everything that’s going wrong. I felt at home there.”

That group helped him find his voice and figure out that it mattered. He could make a difference. Last year, he was featured on “ The Today Show,” and just last week he was the subject of a Business Insider story. Before he knew it, Singleton was traveling to tell his story before political leaders from around the country and the world, as well as leaders in the pharmaceutical industry. Through telling his story and being honest about his struggles, he found a renewed sense of purpose. Singleton laughed as he described how afraid of speaking in front of people he used to be.

“I used to be uncomfortable even speaking up in a large group of friends,” he said. “Now, I’ll talk in front of a room with 600 world leaders and leaders from pharmaceutical companies.”

Some events have brought him face-to-face with celebrities and professional athletes. One of his favorites has been the Cologuard Classic, an event held every February that pairs a colorectal cancer survivor with a PGA tour golfer for a day on the links. His first year, he was paired up with John Daly, a man whose golf game is as legendary as his larger-than-life personality. Last year, he was the recipient of the first-ever Jerry Kelly Award, which is given to “someone who embodies passion and commitment to advocating for this disease.”

But perhaps his favorite moment was getting to meet Reggie Bush, whose college football career at the University of Southern California is still regarded as one of the best ever.

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One of Singleton’s heroes when he was playing high school football was Reggie Bush. Here’s a photo when the two met. Donated photo

“He was my favorite,” Singleton said. “I watched him all the time, because he was in college playing when I was in high school.” 

Singleton said he’s grateful for every day and the work he gets to do to call attention to the disease that’s taken so much from him for the better part of a decade. Along with raising awareness at the highest levels, he also wants to make sure everyone knows the basic things they can do to catch cancer before it progresses, like in his case. The seemingly obvious thing is to get a colonoscopy as soon as a doctor recommends it. Then, if anything turns up, Singleton said it’s important for a person to take charge of their own care and investigate all opportunities for treatment.

The other perhaps less obvious thing people can do is get genetic testing if possible. Through testing, Singleton found out he has Lynch syndrome, which made him genetically predisposed to colorectal cancer. Had he known that when his abdomen began hurting, he and his doctors could have begun treatment much earlier.

“Even in the eight years since I’ve had the genetic testing, that technology has come leaps and bounds,” he said.

In this and other advances in technology, Singleton said he maintains hope, perhaps for his own future, but more so for others who will have to endure cancer and may have a better outcome.

“There are a lot of people working to make this more of a chronic illness instead of a disease, and that’s like a cure to me,” he said. “I think that’s achievable in my lifetime. So if I can tell my story about my clinical trial experience to get more people to think that way, if I can help change things for the next generation, that’s what keeps me motivated.” 

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The event at Frog Level offers beer drinkers the chance to make their pints count. Donated photo

On Saturday, Jan. 27, J.J. Singleton will be at Frog Level Brewing for an all-day fundraiser that will have food and live music from Ben and the Borrowed Band. The event begins at 2 p.m. with live music at 6 p.m.

Throughout the day, $1 from each pint of beer sold will go to the nonprofit Fight Colorectal Cancer . Singleton said the event has been a hit the last two years, and he wanted to thank both Frog Level and folks who turned out to donate.

“It just shows that people around here care,” Singleton said. “I know people are praying for me and will say they care on social media, but to see them come hang out and donate money has been really motivating.”

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