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Paying it Forward: Survivor Cheers Others

Network - Spring 2009

By Mary Brolley

John Stroehlein, M.D. (top right), with
Dean and James Wiley

James Wiley studied the young couple on the Rotary House International hotel elevator. They looked worried, distracted — out of it.

“First time?” he asked gently.

The couple acknowledged that they were indeed visiting MD Anderson for the first time, then asked why he was there.

“For a check-up,” he said, then, sensing their interest, continued.

“Twenty-eight years ago I came here with no hope, with stage IV colon cancer.”

The couple brightened. Wiley told them that he was living proof that even those with the bleakest diagnoses must hold on to hope.

“You are in the best place you can be,” he assured them.

Since his remarkable recovery from cancer, Wiley and his wife Dean have reached out to encourage those in all stages of the cancer journey.

From despair to hope

In 1980, Wiley was a 37-year-old chemist working at a DuPont Corporation fibers-manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Afraid to confront the possibility that he was ill, and wishing to protect Dean, he ignored symptoms of colon cancer.

During cancer surgery in a Chattanooga hospital, his physicians discovered that it had metastasized to the liver. They thought that nothing could be done. Wiley had perhaps six months to live, they told the couple, and sent them home.

Then a friend of a friend recommended MD Anderson.

So the Wileys flew to Houston and met a team of medical professionals led by John Stroehlein, M.D., professor and chair ad interim of the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. After a thorough diagnostic work-up, Stroehlein felt that liver surgery was an option for Wiley.

Such surgery was rarely performed in 1980 — just 10% of those with metastatic liver cancer qualified — so Wiley was a lucky man.

In the first year after surgery, Wiley and Dean returned to MD Anderson for frequent follow-up
visits. Though the travel to and from Houston was difficult, people rallied around to help.

Wiley is deeply grateful for the support that helped him survive and thrive: his faith, the care and concern of family, friends and coworkers, a supportive employer and the steadfast assistance of a loving partner.

In fact, Wiley believes that his cancer, or the journey through it, has enriched his life. It strengthened his faith and increased his love and respect for Dean. In the early years of their marriage, he admits he was “a bit of a chauvinist.”

“I thought I should take care of everything,” he muses. “But she amazed me after I got sick.”

Even in the early hours of the crisis, and despite his bleak prognosis, “I only saw her cry once,” he says. “She was focused. She took people to task. She had my back.”

To express his feelings about his cancer journey and miraculous recovery, Wiley has written a book about his experience.

“The Dawn Will Come” (available at also touches on Wiley’s impoverished childhood in rural Mississippi, the hard work and academic success that earned him scholarships to college, and his military service in Vietnam.

And though he credits others for his triumphs over adversity, the reader comes away with a genuine admiration for this thoughtful, gracious man.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center