How Jason Roberts Beat Cancer, Survived Divorce and Lived to Fight for Better Blocks
It was June, a few weeks after his long-shot run for Congress and his marriage both came to an end, and Jason Roberts couldn't shake the nagging weariness that had dogged him through the campaign. He felt constantly as if he'd just racked himself on his bike frame.
It was an odd feeling for Roberts, who's become the tweed-clad leader of the growing movement to make Dallas less Dallas-y by encouraging walking, biking, and dense, close-knit communities. The IT consultant-turned-evangelical urbanist has had a hand in establishing any number of neighborhood groups in Oak Cliff, secured funds for a downtown streetcar line, and founded Better Block, which aims to create more livable neighborhoods by fostering grass-roots change. In other words, he's never been one to sit still.
His doctor told him that it was probably nothing, just some scar tissue common to youngish, physically active men. Still, he ordered some tests and sent Roberts on his way. His nurse called a few days later with the results and to schedule an appointment. She also mentioned, almost in passing, that he had a tumor.
"It was just like a state of shock," he says. "All the blood left my face at that point."
The nurse didn't say what type of tumor or if it was malignant, just that it existed. For details, he was referred to an oncologist.
"The first thing he says is, 'All right, I need to come back to you because I want to spend some time with you,'" Roberts says. "'Your case is interesting.'"
He eventually gave Roberts a diagnosis of Stage 3 testicular cancer. The doctor didn't put odds on survival. (Lance Armstrong's chances were reportedly 50/50 when he was diagnosed with the same disease.) What the doctor found so "interesting" was that Roberts, who at 38 was already beyond the typical age range in which men develop testicular cancer, had what is called a yolk sac tumor, which is rarely seen in anyone over the age of 3.
The good news was that it had only spread to his abdomen, and not to his brain, lungs, and other vital organs that testicular cancer commonly attacks. The bad news was that his AFP count, a measure of how many cancer markers are in the bloodstream, was off the charts, not to mention that none of his doctors had ever seen a yolk sac tumor in an adult.
Doctors wanted to start treatment immediately, but Roberts persuaded them to hold off for a few days so he could make a planned trip to the D.C. to accept the White House's Champions of Change award.
"I literally got back from the plane, slept that weekend, and turned around and started chemo," he says.
The treatment was intense: four cycles of chemo for three months, followed by abdominal surgery. The first round was easy, and Roberts thought it'd be smooth sailing from there. But the nausea and lethargy kicked in about halfway through. It wasn't quite like the cancer patients you see in movies whom chemo leaves writhing with agony, he says, but it wasn't pleasant. "You feel like an 80-year-old man, basically."
The cancer drugs left Roberts' immune system severely weakened, so his outings were limited. He had to cancel multiple speaking gigs on behalf of the Better Block Project, including one in Mexico City, for fear of catching something. Then he became sick anyway and was twice laid up in the hospital with fever for several days at a time. For someone who tended to avoid medical settings, the experience was "kind of a nightmare."
Worse still was the forced inactivity. He spent a lot of time in the bachelor pad he'd moved into after separating from his wife last May. (They remain good friends, he says.) Friends suggested he use the extra time to catch up on his reading or compile his ideas into a book, Roberts says, but "when you have something like cancer you can't really focus, because [you wonder], 'Am I gonna live for another month?'"
The treatments wrapped up in December. After a worrying but mercifully brief spike in his AFP count -- there was concern the chemo might not have been as effective as hoped -- he underwent surgery.
To say it was invasive would be an understatement. The incision was a foot long, stretching from sternum to pelvis, and surgeons had to pull out his intestines to remove the testicle and the affected lymph nodes.
That should have been the end, but it wasn't. The surgery carries with it a one- or two-percent chance of developing an infection, chylous ascites, that fills the abdominal cavity with fluid. Roberts got it. At a follow-up appointment, doctors found his belly was distended and, having dropped 45 pounds off an already slender frame during treatment, he "basically looked like an alien." On the first visit, doctors drained 12 liters from his abdomen.
There's now a small tube draining fluid from Roberts' belly so the same thing doesn't happen again. He's also attached to an IV line that replenishes the nutrients stripped from his bloodstream by the infection. He has the docs' OK to ride his bike again. He doesn't much, because riding a bike just isn't as appealing when there are tubes and IVs snaking beneath your clothes.
Slowly, though, Roberts is improving. His oncologist declared that, for all practical purposes, he's cancer-free, and he's feeling well enough to do more work for Better Block, taking some of the load off co-founder Andrew Howard, who has been carrying the organization. Recently, he's taken trips to San Antonio and Norfolk, Virginia, both of which were pretty miserable. Coming up is a four-city tour of Australia, paid for by the Australian government.
This, Roberts says, has been the strangest thing about his battle with cancer. It came at a time when a lot of things were going spectacularly right. There was the White House award for his work on the Oak Cliff Streetcar, another honor from the Venice Biennale and Better Block going international, thanks largely to a TEDx speech that is still getting occasional bursts of interest.
And all that carries more weight in the wake of a brush with death. "It's kinda humbling to get the shit kicked out of you when you've been blowing and going nonstop for so long," he says.
More to the point, it reinforced his belief in the need for the type of closer-knit communities and social networks his brand of urbanism tries to foster. He doubts he could have made it through his ordeal without the help of friends who fed him and washed his clothes when he could barely move.
"Probably the majority of people in the country don't have that," he says. "It reaffirmed the work we've been doing."
He's not even bothered by his status as what he calls a "Lone Ball." A girl he dated for a while asked if he ever experienced phantom pain, an itch that just can't be scratched. He doesn't. He also doesn't spend nearly as much time thinking about sex, thanks to rock-bottom testosterone levels.
"It's kind of liberating," he says. "You can think about so many things, get so much done because you're not thinking about that."
That's only temporary, though. Roberts' testosterone levels will return to normal, as will his energy. The tubes will be gone soon, too, at which points Roberts plans to renew his humble quest to change the world, one city block at a time.