Mr. T: T-Cell Lymphoma Survivor

Mr. T tells the story of his battle with T-Cell Lymphoma and how he chose to fight.

HOST, STACEY GUALANDI: How are you feeling?

MR. T: I’m really feeling good. So like James Brown said, “I’m feeling good” but he said, “I feel good!” You know, because I do. You know, it’s a blessing and I’m a cancer survivor for 12 years. You know, so I’ve been through a lot, you know, there’s been peaks and valleys. You know every day you don’t feel a hundred percent, but I made it through.

STACEY GUALANDI: Yes, you heard that right – Mr. T is a cancer survivor. He’s the ultimate tough guy. Never one to shy away from confrontation, T wants everyone to know about his cancer. He considers it his responsibility.

STACEY GUALANDI: Were you public about your cancer right away?

MR. T: Yeah, yeah. See I tell other people, “If I can deal with my cancer in public, you should be able to deal with your cancer in private because you’re not on the 6:00 news, you’re not on the smut magazine, they’re not following you around.” So I can deal with all of that. So when they hear about me fighting cancer, hear about me not quitting, they can say, “Wow, I’m not going to quit. T went through all that stuff, and he talked about it.” They heard me make jokes on the radio  and what-not, but he’s strong now, he’s healthy now.

STACEY GUALANDI: At first he thought it was just a harmless blemish. He says it was vanity that prompted him to go to his doctor about it.

MR. T: It was noticeable, it wasn’t that noticeable for other people, but I’m thinking “Wow, if I’m signing autographs and bending down, people are going to see that little bump.” And it might – it wasn’t like a little bump, it was like a little sore. You know at first the doctor, he said, “Well, I’d like to take a biopsy.” I said. “Okay, cool.” Then about a week later, you know, I came back and went to his office and he said, “It showed up that you had cancer – you’ve got a rare form of cancer.” So I’m just sitting there and I said “Wow.” It was like a numbness, you know.

STACEY GUALANDI: Coincidentally Mr. T was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoma.

MR. T: See the cancer I have is called T-Cell Lymphoma CD3. You know – I mean one thing you have the T-Cell Lymphoma, then you got the CD3 part like some secret agent scientific stuff you know.

STACEY GUALANDI: Another name for T-Cell Lymphoma CD3 is Mycosis Fungoides. It’s an exceedingly rare form of cancer that affects a little more than 1,000 people in the United States.

DR. MICHAEL PARRA: Mycosis Fungoides is a T-Cell malignancy of the skin. That means that there’s a collection of T-Cells, which are the cells that are actually used for your immune system. But in that particular case, there’s an abnormal number that’s proliferating and growing slowly over time. It’s called mycosis fungoides because it resembles a fungal infection, almost like a skin infection from a fungus, but it’s not.

MR. T: See my cancer, it appears in the skin, but it’s not skin cancer.

STACEY GUALANDI: Doctor Michael Parra is an oncologist at Colorado Hematology and Oncology just outside of Denver. He currently treats several patients with lymphoma.

DR. PARRA: The treatment of T-cell lymphomas is quite unique from the standpoint that many of the kinds of lymphomas, we have to treat systemically. In its early stages, all we have to do is actually treat it locally.

STACEY GUALANDI: T’s treatment went on for about a month with radiation focused locally on the ears. This conservative approach is the customary action with this rare, but slow-growing form of lymphoma.

DR.PARRA: So the treatments for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma are modified just to treat the areas in the skin – unless it becomes more aggressive and usually most forms of T-cell lymphomas are actually at early stages at time of diagnosis. You don’t need to treat it aggressively initially.

MR. T: It was a month of radiation and the doctor told me, he said “Now, the cancer might come back or it might not. You can’t worry about that. You’ve got to go on and live your life.”

STACEY GUALANDI: But the cancer did come back and this time it had spread.

STACEY GUALANDI: Was there really a low point for you in battling cancer?

MR. T: The cancer came back and I went to the doctor. There was some stuff on my back and what-not and I went to my doctor. Then he saw it and then he said “I think it’s time to go to chemotherapy.” That’s when it hit me – the whole thing of cancer, because you know, when you hear of cancer, you know, chemotherapy, people’s hair falls out and they get skinny.

So I went home and I thought, “Wow, chemotherapy. They’re going to hook me up into stuff.” And, wow, you talk about the nausea, the dizziness, and like I said, after the first day, I don’t get back to regular until maybe about the fifth or sixth day. The first three or four days I’m throwing up, I’m dizzy, I couldn’t sleep, and I spit more. I slept mostly in a chair or on the couch because I was afraid to lay down because if I lay down I thought I might throw up in my sleep and drown or whatever, you know.

STACEY GUALANDI: It’s interesting though hearing the word ‘fear’ and Mr. T in the same sentence because so many people I think would think of you, Mr. T, as not being afraid of anything.

MR. T: It’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with having a little fear. That’s healthy. Don’t go in there and say, “I don’t have fear” because that’s a lie, you know, because you’re not being realistic. It’s okay – as long as that little fear is fleeting; it’s doubt and it’s moving along – as long as it don’t linger. That’s when you get in trouble, you know.

STACEY GUALANDI: Today, targeted therapies can attack the specific antigen causing the cancer.

DR.PARRA: The treatments have evolved more regarding lymphomas such as Mr. T’s from the standpoint that we’re starting to use more targeted therapies – for example, monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibody means that it’s developing only one kind of antibody specifically against only one certain type of protein on the outside of the white blood cell. We can actually have a targeted therapy, theoretically, only against one kind of abnormal cell.

STACEY GUALANDI: Mr. T is on one of those therapies. It will be a lifelong battle, but if anyone’s up to the challenge, it’s Mr. T.

MR. T: Life is an endurance test. It’s not a fifty-yard sprint or a hundred-yard dash; it’s a marathon. So, like I said, I got to endure, endure the hardship. The Bible said, “Endure hardship as a good soldier.” There, you endure hardship, then you fall back to your fighting stance. So, okay, am I going to be a wimp and cry and what-not, or you know am I going to fight it and what-not – and cry? It’s okay to cry as long as you fighting. But don’t be crying, “Oh woe me, what am I going to do?” See I wouldn’t worry about society, my positions in the movies and stuff like that because I’m not an actor. I tell people all the time – I said I joke when I say I’m just a two-bit actor. You know, I said beat I say the stuff I done like I say it allowed me a platform.

STACEY GUALANDI: T relies upon the same thing that got him through his humble upbringings and his ascent to Hollywood fame – his strong faith.

MR. T: Like David wrote, he said “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” And then in another part he said, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” And that’s what keeps me strong and that’s what I tell other cancer patients. We’re going through a valley of a shadow of death, but the key here is we’re going through there. Through is the key word. We’re not going in a cave that don’t have an outlet. See we’re going through. Through means there’s an exit on the other side. So we’re not going to stay there. And I joke with people, I say “Nobody says, ‘Hey let’s go shopping in the valley of shadow of death. Let’s go to the new night club in the valley of shadow of death.’” It’s just a passage way. I have to go through there to get to the other side so when I get to the other side that gives me an authority – so when I speak, I speak with authority because I wasn’t shaking in my boots. I didn’t quit. I didn’t go to drugs or try to commit suicide because the pressure came. That’s why I tell people, “The pressure’s going to come, but if you hang in there long enough, the pressure will dissipate. You’re going to be all right.” But, we got to go through there.

STACEY GUALANDI: So I guess in terms of anybody who’s diagnosed with cancer what would you tell them to say to that cancer?

MR. T: I say not just to the cancer but to themselves, “I pity the fool who don’t fight back.”

[End of recording]