By Rubin E. Grant
John Michael Pierce was on a date earlier this year when he started choking on a piece of steak.
Trying to play it cool, Pierce excused himself and went to the men’s room.
“I started jumping up and down to get it to pass,” Pierce said. “I hadn’t choked in 15 years.”
A few days later, Pierce choked again during a meal and then he started choking during every meal.
Pierce, a 2015 graduate of Vestavia Hills who played football for the Rebels, figured something was wrong and he should take it seriously. So, he scheduled a doctor’s appointment at UAB to determine the cause of his choking. He had an X-ray taken, then went through a serious of swallowing tests on different textures of food.
It was discovered that Pierce, who just turned 25 in September, had a tumor in his esophagus. He scheduled an appointment with a gastrointestinal physician and had some biopsies taken. The results showed it was cancer, an esophageal carcinoma.
His parents were in town from San Destin, Florida, and were wondering how they would proceed. He and his mom traveled to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to see what treatment options were available.
When he finally got an appointment, he found out he had stage 4 cancer that had spread to his stomach and spine, and he had a 5.8 mortality rate.
“It was hard to hear, but my dad, mom and sister were calm, so that made me calm,” Pierce said.
Pierce turned to a Bible verse, Joshua 1:9, as a reminder that God is with him in whatever circumstances he has to go through.
Since his diagnosis four months ago, Pierce has undergone eight rounds of chemotherapy with some more rounds to go. “It hasn’t been as bad as I thought,” he said.
He has a check-up Nov. 17 to determine his current condition.
Two years earlier, Michael Murray, 50, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Homewood, had his own bout with cancer. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in the spring of 2019 when he was 48.
“Initially they thought it had spread to my lungs, but after a few weeks of exploratory procedures and assessments, it was, thankfully, determined that my cancer had not spread so I did not have to undergo chemo or radiation. A true blessing,” said Murray, an Auburn graduate who has two teenagers with his wife, Patricia.
“I had a colon resection surgery that summer and have thankfully been clear ever since. I am cancer-free and very thankful for the medical team at UAB who managed my case and surgery.”
Reed Foundation Support
Both Pierce and Murray have become involved with the Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Cancer Research Foundation.
Since its inception in 2002, the Reed Foundation has been dedicated to raising money for research and patient care to fight some of the deadliest cancers of all, including colorectal, esophageal, pancreatic, stomach, liver, bile duct, gallbladder, and appendix to name some. It has raised more than $2.2 million and contributed more than $1.6 million to GI cancer research and patient care in the past 19 years.
Murray and Pierce have been invited to attend the 16th annual “Finish the Fight” Iron Bowl Kickoff Casino Party at The Club on Nov. 18, which is International Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day.
The event raises financial support to fund research and patient care at UAB under the direction of Dr. Martin J. Heslin and his team of research physicians.
The casino party will include live music, featuring Prince tribute band Purple Madness, casino games, a wine pull, a liquor toss and other entertainments.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Pierce, a 2019 University of Alabama graduate who is a partner in Creek Leaf 1817, a commercial processing/handling facility in Birmingham that provides customers with hemp-derived products.
“I have some friends on the junior board. This is their biggest fundraising event and I am glad I will be there for it,” he continued.
“I’ve always been a fan of Prince and got to hear the Prince tribute band when they were playing at Iron City.”
Murray is a Reed Foundation board member, so the event means a great deal to him.
“I am honored to participate in this fundraiser as I clearly want to support fundraising for the Reed Foundation and the research that they and their partner doctors are performing,” Murray said.
“GI cancers are clearly on the rise, so the work is critical in getting it under control. Of course, early screening is critical, as well,” he said. “Had I been screened a few months earlier, I likely could have avoided the whole diagnosis. I was, however, very fortunate to have caught it in its very early stages so my case was way better than some.”
To purchase tickets for the casino party, go to reedgifoundation.com and click on the Events tab.
Reservations are due by Nov. 15.
In addition, the Foundation’s Women’s Committee will hold an online and silent auction. The auction opens at noon Nov. 10 and closes at 9 p.m. Nov. 17. To view the online auction, visit reedgifoundation.com.
November is International Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, so the foundation’s junior board will have a fundraising “Toast It Purple” contest, in which participants can vote for their favorite purple drink at participating restaurants and bars.
For more information and questions, call 205-907-3473.