The communal dining room was filled mostly with couples chatting somberly with one another at their individual tables—fitting given the enormity of each of their circumstances. One table, however, right up front, was completely occupied with people who were engaged in lively conversation accented with bursts of rowdy laughter. At the center of the raucous exchange was a pastor from North Augusta, South Carolina—John Sanders.
“I kept commenting to my wife, ‘Listen to that guy, he’s reeeeally loud,’” chuckled Tom Shankle, remembering the moment.
As the couple prepared to leave the room, weaving between the dining tables as inconspicuously as possible, Shankle said a hand came out of nowhere and a man grinning ear-to-ear like a Cheshire cat said, ‘Excuse me, who are you? I’m John.’”
After Shankle introduced his wife and himself, Sanders went on to ask why he was there at Caring House, a lodging facility dedicated to cancer patients receiving outpatient care at Duke Cancer Center. Shankle explained that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sanders revealed that he, too, was battling the disease.
The men continued to talk and discovered that they were both undergoing in the same Folfirinox chemotherapy regimen, once a clinical trial.
“When John was receiving radiation therapy, I was getting chemotherapy,” Shankle, 70, recounted. “Since coming to Duke I hadn’t met anyone else battling pancreatic cancer. I had heard about another patient being treated here with the new chemotherapy regimen and radiation. As we talked, it dawned on me—this must be the other guy.”
Except for cancer and a shared sense of humor, the two didn’t have a lot in common. Shankle, who grew up in Hamlet, North Carolina, was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. Hospitalized after his tour of action, Shankle said he received little help from his inpatient stay and continued on a downward spiral after being discharged. Severe PTSD and its effects led to the demise of his marriage.
For the next 25 years, Shankle, a carpenter, moved from one state to another, never staying in any one place longer than six months. It wasn’t until he met his now wife, Nancy, that he began to seek treatment again for his PTSD. With her help and encouragement and ongoing psychiatric therapy, Shankle, who for the better part of his life considered himself to be withdrawn, was finally able to overcome the demons of war that had plagued him after his return from Vietnam.
In May of 2018, Shankle underwent a procedure to resolve some genitourinary issues. During that procedure his genitourinary specialist discovered what he thought was stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer. This discovery led Shankle to Duke Cancer Institute for surgery and treatment for cancer.
Sanders, on the other hand, is an extrovert who admittedly has never met a stranger. After receiving a marketing degree from Claflin University, he spent 36 years working at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reservation constructed in 1950s to produce materials used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Sanders, the father of five who born and raised in Estill, South Carolina, has also served for many years as a pastor at his church, Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. Throughout the years, he’s been active in his community, coaching baseball and basketball for special needs youths as much as his busy schedule would allow. Diagnosed on March 26, 2018, with stage 2 pancreatic cancer, Sanders was forced into medical retirement just six months later.
Despite the differences in their life journeys, cancer led them down a fateful path to friendship.
“Cancer connected us,” said Sanders. “Our response to our diagnosis is what we really had in common. We didn’t let cancer overtake us. We said to it, ‘Come on; I’ll take you on for a ride as well.’”
The two men stay in touch on a regular basis, calling and texting one another to discuss their treatments, side effects, the weather and sports. They look forward to time together whenever they both happen to be guests at Caring House.
Shankle recently completed treatment. His last CT scan reported “clear, no cancer.” He will continue to come to Duke every three months for follow-up visits.
Sanders, 60, also shows no signs of cancer.
The two have devised a bucket list of activities they plan to check-off together.
“We haven’t spent as much time together in person as we’d like,” laughed Shankle, “but we’ve covered so much ground. We’re going skydiving. We’ll swim with the manatees. We’re also going to find the biggest, baddest rollercoaster.”
Sanders said he is all-in for the skydiving, but he has to veto the rollercoaster.
“I just can’t do that anymore; I’m too old for that,” he chortled.
Bowing to the give and take of friendship, Shankle conceded, but held fast to the other activities on their bucket list.
“Now it’s just a matter of getting to full health so we can start taking these trips,” he said.
Founded in 1992, Caring House offers comfortable, supportive and affordable lodging for cancer patients being treated at Duke Cancer Center. Caring House features 18 private rooms, a great room, fully-equipped kitchen and dining room, library, gardens and more. To learn more, visit Caring House.