Finding Your Cancer Hero


Barnes discusses discovering the value of inspiration in healing.

When I was a high school senior, I was asked by a teacher to identify my heroes in life — those role models who had inspired me to discover and celebrate the very best that humanity has to offer — and perhaps to take a look at my own core values, ambitions and dreams to better understand their origins.

As we were called upon one by one, I found myself feeling reluctant to share my choice, even though my hero was very clear to me. My classmates had proudly expressed their affinity for Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus, a variety of dead presidents, entrepreneurs and world leaders.

When my turn to speak arrived I stood and quietly announced, “Walt Disney.”

But it was true, and it remains true to this day. Walt Disney changed my life, gave me hope, empowered me with dreams and gifted me with an eye for a world of possibilities.

Now, 60 years later as a male breast cancer survivor, I sometimes find myself in conversations trying to explain that I was referring to Walt Disney the man, the visionary who died of lung cancer at the age of 65 who is far removed from the Walt Disney Corporation which today is controversial at best and loathed by some as an over-priced, elitist company who’s treasures are only available to the wealthy.

But that’s another story.

I only knew Walt, the man. On the day that he died, Epcot had not yet been built, but Walt had finished designing it to be the “experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” a place where people actually lived and worked with the magic of science making their lives easier.

Soon after his death, the politics of the corporation took over; his plans were ignored and Epcot became yet another commercial amusement park. That was never Walt’s dream.

I graduated from Walt Disney Elementary School in Anaheim California, and it was there in 1956 at the age of 6 that I met Walt.

Disneyland had been open for just a year, and one day, all of us kids in school were instructed to follow our teachers to the cafeteria.

Once we were assembled, the doors burst open and in marched Walt Disney, followed by the entire Disneyland band. Busses that were waiting outside carried the full student body to Disneyland for the day, where we were escorted for hours by Walt himself and treated to a wonderful lunch.

I was at the front of the bus since my last name began with “B’’ and on the ride over Walt slid in to sit next to me.

I don’t remember a word of our conversation, but the child-like playfulness he expressed and the delighted enthusiasm he exhibited to be sharing his dream with us was something I’ve never forgotten.

Over the years I went on to work as a cast member at Disneyland and also as a corporate magician for special events.

My entire career as a stage magician was inspired by his work ethic, his creativity and his imagination, and for the rest of my life, I’ve admired him as a hero.

So after my mastectomy and recovery, I began to look for hope and purpose through someone I could trust with my life. I wanted to find another mentor, another source of inspiration and another hero. These are the people, I reasoned, who can pull us forward and upward when we are down or defeated. These are the voices that give us hope, remind us to live every day, and to never settle for second best.

No longer that 6-year-old boy, my choices of heroes have broadened and matured over the years.

I salute them often and draw on their wisdom and pioneering spirit to remind me that even cancer has no power to steal away our resolve to keep on living, or to lose our adulation for the “complete” human experience — that world of both make-believe and stark reality, which sometimes includes cancer.

Here then are a few of my cancer (and life) heroes, listed with who they were, and what eventually took their lives. Who are yours?

Walt Disney: visionary (lung cancer)

Carl Sagan: astronomer and futurist (myelodysplasia)

Carroll Barnes: uncle (stomach cancer)

James Barnes: father (prostate cancer)

Fred Rogers: children’s entertainer (stomach cancer)

Doug Henning: stage magician (liver cancer)

Mattie Stepanek: 11-year-old writer/poet (dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy)

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