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Lawrence firefighter battling throat cancer months before retirement

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Lawrence firefighter John Mathis started to develop a sore throat several months ago.

When the pain persisted and he found it difficult to swallow, he sought answers, and he was diagnosed with throat cancer in August.

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“It was terrifying because I’m planning on retirement and spending more time with the family while not knowing how long I had,” he said.

John, 55, is a firefighter-paramedic at Ladder 5 (Station 5, 1911 Stewart Ave.). He has served at Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical for 28 years, and prior to that he was a volunteer firefighter for two years.

But he wears a different suit when it’s time for Santa Claus to be saved from the top of Weaver’s Department Store as part of downtown Lawrence’s annual Holiday Lighting Ceremony and Santa Rescue.

For the last 12 years, John has acted as Santa during the event.

This year, John is passing the torch to Lawrence firefighter Jack Dolan. Although John’s time as Santa has come to an end, he relishes in the memories of meeting community members and accepting kids’ Christmas wishes.

Children loved him as Santa — for the most part.

“The only baby he ever made cry was our daughter,” said Wendi Mathis, John’s wife.

John remembers that after his diagnosis, he wanted to shut the world out some days. Rallying around him have been his fellow firefighters. He’s been on the same crew since 2008, so his colleagues are like family.

Doctors found a large, malignant mass at the base of his tongue and throat, and it couldn’t be surgically removed because of its location. Doctors found the cancer had spread to John’s lymph nodes, but more testing ruled out its potential spread through the rest of his body.

With seven weeks of radiation therapy and chemotherapy completed, John is looking at two weeks of rock bottom before getting better, he said. Right now he isn’t able to eat solid foods or get much exercise, and he’s experiencing lots of fatigue. Having no taste, or a strange metallic taste, is a nuisance, notably when he wants to enjoy some frozen custard from Freddy’s.

Although he feels like he’s in the worst part of his long recovery journey, John’s prognosis is positive. In the estimated six weeks of recovery ahead, his next milestone will be in two weeks when he’s supposed to begin eating solid foods.

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John and Wendi, married for 26 years, have three children: Henry, 20; Emmet, 18; and Greer, 13. The family resides south of Lawrence, but they both work in town. Wendi is a science teacher at the Lawrence College and Career Center. They’ve got a house full of dogs, two cats, a horse and a treefrog.

Wendi described what her family has experienced so far as “eye-opening.”

One lesson she said she and John gained was to not “think you’re gonna save your children heartbreak by hiding from them.”

That was evident when their oldest son, Henry, who Wendi presumes took the news the hardest, cracked a joke after John told him he was about to start treatments. Henry responded, “Pretty lazy way to lose weight. Most people just go to the gym.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Married couple John (left) and Wendi Mathis laugh together.

A family who likes to stay active and have fun, the Mathises don’t shy from humor. It’s part of what has helped them through this difficult time. That, and faith.

“God’s got it,” John said. “I’m gonna get taken care of. Whatever the outcome is, it’s gonna be OK. But I’m blessed, between family and fire family and friends.”

John is aching to get back to his station and hopes to return to work in late December. But he’s still sticking with the career plan he made before his diagnosis: he’ll begin his final shift at 7 a.m. Jan. 29, 2024 and officially retire when he walks out on Jan. 30, 2024 — his 56th birthday.

John plans to stay involved with the fire department in some capacity after retirement, though, because he can’t imagine not contributing to the profession for which he feels destined.

When he was 20, John was in a traumatic car accident just outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It took two and a half hours for first responders to cut him out of his car, he recalls, and he suffered broken legs among other injuries.

As he fought to stay awake, he saw arms and hands in bunker gear and gloves, and he knew he’d make it out alright.

“I like making decisions that mean something,” John said. “I’ve been taking care of people just like I was taken care of sitting in that car.”

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The Mathises gave a special thanks to Ronnie Doumitt, president and founder of Answering the Call, a resource that aids and supports first responders who have been injured on their jobs or are battling illnesses. The Kansas City-based nonprofit organization donated $5,000 to help the Mathis family with medical bills.

Kelly Welch, a friend of the Mathises, also organized a GoFundMe on the family’s behalf. Community members can donate to the GoFundMe, which on Wednesday afternoon had raised more than $10,000 out of a $25,000 goal, on its webpage, gofundme.com/f/active-kansas-firefighter-battling-cancer.

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Note: A misspelled name in this post has been corrected.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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