John Mahoney: The Story of an Innovator Taking Back his Life



“After I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I had the conversation with my fiancé to give her the option to leave me if this would be too hard on her. Instead, she insisted we move the wedding date up to before my surgery.”

Always the innovator, John started his own web development company while still a 16-year-old high school student. After studying computer science and e-commerce in college, he started his career as a consultant and a few years later, began managing an IT platform and team at a global finance firm. John enjoys his fast-paced and intellectually-stimulating work environment and is accustomed to the stress of long work days.

Friday, March 16th, 2012 did not start out as a particularly notable day. The previous night John had entertained some colleagues and was quite tired when he arrived at his office in downtown Chicago. Throughout the day he had a series of intense meetings punctuated by strained correspondences with a vendor with whom he was trying to negotiate a software deal. By 4:30 pm, he was ready to have one last discussion with a colleague and then head home. When John stood up from his chair, he started getting a strange feeling. He told his colleague he needed to go splash some water on his face. However, the words he thought he was saying were not the words that his colleague was hearing. After a few seconds, John collapsed beside his desk.

John’s colleague called an ambulance and rode with him to a local hospital. Once there, concerned that John had experienced a seizure, the ER doctors ordered both a CT scan and an MRI. As a healthy 29-year-old, John did not expect that the doctors would find a mass the size of a golf ball in his left parietal and occipital lobes. Further, he did not expect that the mass would turn out to be a brain tumor. Yet that is exactly what the doctors discovered.

While in the hospital, John remembered that in 2008 he had endured a 3-week long hospital stay at a different institution for an undiagnosed illness that turned out to be mononucleosis. At the time, the other hospital had run a full body scan and an MRI of his brain. The doctors were able to compare the mass discovered in 2012 to the brain scan that was performed 4 years earlier. It was clear from the comparison that the mass had grown between 2008 and 2012. John and his fiancé Allyson began asking their friends and family members with connections to the medical world who they would recommend for neurosurgery. After two close friends mentioned Dr. Alfredo Quinones (Dr. Q) was the most highly-regarded neurosurgeon in the field and the one to whom they would trust their lives, they decided to meet with Dr. Q in Baltimore.

After meeting with Dr. Q, John knew that he was in the most capable hands. Not only was Dr. Q a brilliant surgeon, but in their meeting he showed that he cared about the patient as an individual. John made up his mind that very day to schedule his surgery with Dr. Q. Dr. Q wanted to wait 5 weeks to operate on John because of the complexity of his surgery. He hand-picked a team of doctors and nurses to assist him with John’s awake craniotomy in the brand new operating theater.

With the surgery scheduled, John and Allyson had time to turn back to their personal lives. They had their wedding venue booked and their save-the-date cards mailed at the time of John’s seizure in March. They planned to wed on June 23rd. However, with the impending surgery, they decided to cancel their 200-guest wedding in favor of an intimate ceremony that would allow them to marry ahead of John’s surgery. 10 days after their initial discussion, and with the help of their families, John and Allyson tied the knot on April 20th. Although it was not the wedding they had planned, the way they felt on their special day was exactly as they had hoped. The strength of their love and commitment was affirmed.

In late May, John, Allyson, and John’s parents returned to Baltimore for surgery with Dr. Q and his team. John was apprehensive, but the surgery was successful. 2 weeks later, he received his diagnosis. He had an anaplastic astrocytoma, which is a type of grade 3 malignant brain tumor.

During his recovery, John gave careful consideration to the type of post-surgical treatment he wanted to receive. When he was told he had a malignant brain tumor, John instinctively wanted the most aggressive form of treatment, including therapies that are not standardly prescribed. Then he realized that if he chose aggressive treatment, his quality of life would likely suffer. Thus, after hours of additional research and many discussions with his doctors, John opted for the standard of care, which included radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy. He added in several supplements and prescription medications that his doctors felt would not hinder the radiation and chemotherapy. He felt this regimen would improve his quality of life and not limit his future treatment options.

Just 3 weeks after his final day of radiation, John joined Dr. Q and Team Q’s Quest at the 2012 Baltimore Running Festival and proudly completed the half marathon to raise money for Dr. Q’s research.

For those patients who have been diagnosed with brain cancer and are experiencing a similar journey, John offers some advice:

First, do not give up on yourself. Do not tell yourself, “I have cancer and now I am going to die.” Do not decide that this is the end. Instead, live your life as you would have prior to your diagnosis. Believe that you will beat the odds and do not let the negativity from people around you or statistics dampen your positive outlook. John emphasizes while this may sound simple to those without brain cancer, for those who have brain cancer, this is one of the hardest things to do in practice.

Secondly, compartmentalize. After John was diagnosed with brain cancer, all he wanted to do was research. He read countless articles about his disease, prognosis, progression-free survival rates, and mortality rates. He was letting cancer take up all his time and he decided that was not how he wanted to live. He now spends an allotted amount of time researching treatment options. He continues to be an informed patient and has open dialogue with the doctors who are caring for him. Thus, at the end of 2012, he and his doctors discussed switching him from a normal diet to a modified-Atkins diet. The working theory is that reducing sugar and carbohydrate intake may help prevent the spread of brain tumor cells. After 4 months on the diet, John feels well and all of his MRIs have been stable. John wants to continue to discuss innovative treatment options that will not harm him with his doctors. However, he no longer lets his disease dominate his time and thoughts.

Finally, John believes that doing what truly makes you happy is paramount. Though at present (as of March 2013) he is on active treatment, taking oral chemotherapy each month, he is fortunate to be able to work full-time while taking a few days off on occasion when he feels tired from chemotherapy and to visit his doctors at Hopkins. He still thoroughly enjoys his job, but has learned to slow down. He now takes more time to relax with family and friends in Chicago and elsewhere. John has a passion for cooking and he and Allyson often enjoy preparing meals together. They are determined to start running regularly again as they will join Dr. Q and his team at this year’s Baltimore half marathon. They respect and admire Dr. Q and his staff at Johns Hopkins and the work that they do to make their lives and the lives of many others, possible.

Written by Alexandra Larsen