Last July, Islanders Geoff Johns and his wife Carol Lutra-Johns did what they have done for years: They led a raucous brigade of drummers and samba dancers down Vashon Highway during the Strawberry Festival parade. Many of those lining the street broke into applause, and some danced in place along to the beat — a brief, wild moment of exuberance and joy on Vashon.
But at the time, even as the drums pounded and the crowds cheered, Johns was deeply concerned about his health. He’d noticed a lump in his neck a few weeks before the parade — a symptom that soon led to a diagnosis of stage four head and neck cancer, followed by neck dissection surgery in early August.
The illness came as a shock to Johns, 54, and to many on the Island who knew him as a healthy and seemingly tireless percussionist, performer, educator and world-music scholar. Since moving to Vashon in 1993, he’s carved a niche for himself as a sought-after teacher, conducting residencies with thousands of public school students through his work with Washington State Arts Commission and Vashon Allied Arts’ Artists in the Schools programs. He’s also long been a fixture in the Island’s vibrant music community, contributing his talents to several bands, and he has also regularly collaborated with Lutra-Johns, a dancer, vocalist and choreographer.
But since his diagnosis, the couple has been intensely focused on something else — his recovery.
“My life has changed dramatically,” he said.
Johns’ illness is extremely serious, and his stage four diagnosis meant the cancer was not contained. Radiation treatment was ruled out after additional nodules were found in Johns’ lungs, and doctors gave him and Lutra-Johns little hope that chemotherapy would eliminate the disease’s spread.
“An oncologist told us it would be like mowing the grass,” Lutra-Johns said.
And so, Johns is now immersed in the rhythms of a new way of life — fighting a life-threatening disease that both he and Lutra-Johns prefer to call a “healing opportunity.”
He has embarked on an alternative, natural course of treatment that includes a diet that is completely organic, mostly vegan and free of gluten, sugar and caffeine, and also includes a dizzying array of juices and dietary supplements. On a daily basis, he meditates, does yoga and takes daily walks in Island Center Forest. He also receives several massages a day from Lutra-Johns, who is a licensed message therapist.
Gratitude and optimism, the couple said, are also part of their daily practice.
A week before Thanksgiving, Johns and Lutra-Johns welcomed a visitor to their house, a cozy place they built themselves a few years ago in the Roseballen community, and shared their feelings about what they have learned throughout their ordeal.
“Gratitude is a gateway emotion,” said Johns. “It takes you into everything else.”
“It’s practical spirituality, and energetic hygiene,” said Lutra-Johns. “You can receive what you need by being in a positive state. Being an optimist is its own reward, because how you are with people affects what they give you back.”
Islanders, both said, have already given them much, by donating meals, helping them maintain their lawn and offering prayers and moral support. They’ve also donated money to Johns’ account at Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union — funds that are much needed since Johns has no health insurance and has not been able to work much since his surgery. And last month, several of Johns’ performer friends — a group that includes several UMO Ensemble members — hosted an evening of improv, dance and music that raised additional money for the couple.
“We love this community,” said Lutra-Johns. “I’ll start to cry sometimes — not because I’m sad, but because I’m grateful.”
So many Islanders have stepped forward to help them, they said, that their biggest remaining need is for a volunteer to help them manage the flow of assistance and good-will.
They said they had also received 100 percent charity care from the University of Washington Medical Center and Swedish Hospital, as well as other financial assistance from Bastyr Center for Natural Health and Seattle Special Care Dentistry. Another thing that has buoyed the couple is having family nearby — Johns’ mother, son, daughter-in-law and toddler granddaughter all live on the Island.
And in the meantime, they want Islanders to know Johns is feeling better.
“Mostly I feel really great,” he said, adding that his biggest complaints now are what he called “collateral damage” from his surgery — conditions that include Bell’s Palsy, a nerve disorder that has resulted in a temporary semi-paralysis of one side of his face. The malady struck him six weeks after his neck operation, timing he believes was not coincidental. He also has another complication of surgery called “first bite syndrome,” which results in intense pain in the lower jaw area that is experienced on the first few bites of food. Botox injections, he said, might help that problem, as well as, he joked, his general appearance.
Keeping a sense of humor, and focusing on the positive, is clearly of vital importance to Johns.
“I’ve learned what I had to learn — how to cope and not go into despair and depression,” he said.
But when asked what he was most thankful for, he didn’t speak. Instead, he simply pointed to Lutra-Johns, who sat close to him on their living-room sofa. The pair smiled at each other, and a few minutes later, when a photographer arrived to take their photo, they shared several kisses as the camera clicked.
How to help
Islanders can donate money directly to Team Geoff, an account at Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union. To help in other ways, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.