@story MARLA CANTRELL
@image COURTESY JIM HORTON
Jim Horton walks across the room, sure and quick, like a man who’s late for an appointment. He is dressed in a cyclist’s shirt, shorts that hit him at the knee, and running shoes. His clothing is not an affectation. Just days before he’d finished a 100K bike tour through Arkansas’ wine country.
When he adjusts the cap he’s wearing, his Livestrong wristband flashes yellow against his tan skin. Jim could easily pass for fifty, but he’s not. This personal trainer is sixty-eight and proud of it. There were times when it looked as if he might not make it this far. Like in 1984, when he was only forty
“I’d been having some bleeding and I went to see the doctor. That bleeding turned out to be a blessing. Colon cancer is called the silent killer because there’s often no warning. I was lucky enough to get the warning.
“When I heard, ‘You’ve got cancer,’ I thought about my three kids. They were seven, five, and less than a year. I had to get this tumor out; I had to get back to work.”
The surgery was a success. The cancer hadn’t spread, so he didn’t need follow-up treatment. But the brush with cancer changed Jim. Already fit, he began researching new exercise programs and diet plans.
Jim smiles. “I’ve always been kind of extreme,” he says. “I started running marathons and triathlons and I swam like crazy. I worked harder. I played harder. I ate better. If you’re going to survive cancer, you’d better be healthy.”
Not long after, a new opportunity emerged. Jim became the director of the cancer support foundation that was housed inside a medical clinic in Fort Smith.
“I worked at a metal desk with drawers that hung, and I had a yellow legal pad and four pens, that’s how small this operation was.
“Doctors understood that cancer survival was much more than just treatment. It was the mental part, the human part, what happens in the twenty-three hours after you leave the doctor’s office. We had a simple plan for survivors: you help me and I’ll help you. The simplicity of it really worked.”
Eventually, they opened the Phillips House on Dodson Avenue, where he worked with his staff, many of whom were volunteers, to help cancer patients become cancer survivors.
“That house started to burst at the seams. We were doing nutrition programs, education programs, support groups. We found out that some of our patients couldn’t afford pain medication and we worked with the doctors to help them get it. Sometimes they’d ask the doctor to write a prescription for two or three pills because they couldn’t afford more than that. That,” he says, “will stop you in your tracks.”
With no space left, Jim started writing grant applications, and the board started looking for a new location. They let their imaginations soar, considering what the perfect support house would look like. It would have wide porches, chairs with stocky arms big enough to hold a mug of coffee, and tall windows where light would stream through.
While Jim was running one day near Creekmore Park, he noticed a plot of land that was mostly woods. A cow lived there, so old it had no teeth. His excitement, which normally stays at about an eight, jumped to a perfect ten.
“When the owner found out what we wanted to use the land for, he was all in,” Jim says. But while this perfect plan was coming together, something sinister was unfolding inside Jim’s body. At fifty-five he was diagnosed with cancer for a second time.
“I remember sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for my results and hoping for the best, but I didn’t get the best news. I had prostate cancer.
“I had a triathlon scheduled in six weeks. I ran it and then came home and went to the hospital.” Jim laughs. “I had a friend who’d brought me some Superman balloons and stickers, and I took the stickers and put them in certain places that only the surgeon could see, and I’d drawn arrows and written little notes on them like, cut here, don’t cut here.
“Again, I felt lucky because I was getting my checkups and I was catching the cancer at an early stage. I can’t say enough how important this is. Never, ever wait.”
He felt lucky, but his body had taken a major hit. “I was back at square one physically. I remember standing in the middle of the floor and realizing I was too weak to take another step. I set little goals: walk a half a block, walk a little farther, until one day I was back running.”
While he was recovering, the work on the Donald W. Reynolds Cancer Support House continued. “It was a five-year process. It’s a joy to me even today that I was able to be part of it, to watch it grow from the ground up.”
Jim retired as director in 2003, ready for a slower pace. But in 2008, after a scheduled checkup, he learned he had a tumor in his left lung. The news hit him hard. He remembers driving around town, not far from his home. “I had no idea where I was. I’ve heard of this happening to other cancer patients. My mind was just on overload.”
The saving grace turned out to be all those years of training, which had increased the size of his lungs by a third. The extra space would come in handy after the diseased lung was removed. With that bit of good news, he started plotting his comeback. He’d run again. He’d swim and bike. He was sure of it.
Before his diagnosis, he’d made plans to travel, and he decided he should go. “So, seven weeks after my surgery, I went to Europe, with all my medical records,” Jim says, and then laughs. “I knew I needed to get away from all the medical stuff. My wife Susan and I stayed about six weeks. Didn’t take one pain pill during that time. We took a sixteen-day boat tour from Rome to St. Petersburg to Stockholm.
“The only problem I had was that I couldn’t raise my arm over my head, so I couldn’t lift the luggage to store it on the train. I learned to ask for help. I took my time away just to think about how great it is to be alive. We walked all over the place. I felt like a kid in a candy store.
“When we came back, my running buddies came to my house. I couldn’t run, but I did let some of the air out of my mountain bike’s tires so I could ride alongside them without bouncing too much. Isn’t that cool?” he asks, and you see how his mind works, how a spark of light surfaces even in his darkest hours. “Now I’m running and swimming again and doing triathlons. My time last year was better than it was when I was in my fifties.”
Jim sits easily in his chair, his arms folded, his strong legs stretched out in front of him. He doesn’t worry about much. He thinks God has treated him with care, bringing him through each episode with cancer. So he plans for the future. He’s already run twenty-two marathons as far away as Berlin, and there are more to come. His bike sits waiting, and somewhere there’s a lake he needs to swim across. His goal is simple: He wants to live every day he’s been given. “So far, so good,” he says, confident his story is far from over.