LAWRENCE, Kan. — A warm fall Thursday at Lawrence Fire Station 5 is one of the only places John Mathis wants to be.
“My goal is to be back at the start of the New Year because I still love my job,” the 55-year-old said.
He’s been at this station since 2008 but has 30 years’ experience with the department.
“They’re my family,” he said.
However, Mathis’ been out of the mix for the last few weeks on FMLA. He stops by when he can, which usually happens on the days he goes to his new daily destination.
“It readjusted everything,” said Mathis of his August 25 cancer diagnosis.
A CT scan revealed a large mass at the base of his tongue and throat, something he only got tested for after dealing with a sore throat for two months. A biopsy confirmed it was malignant. Because of where it’s located, doctors have said surgery is not possible.
“It’s stage three technically because it’d gotten to some lymph nodes in the area,” Mathis said.
His biggest fear was that he wouldn’t live to see Christmas. However, doctors told him it’s not only treatable but curable. Still, they can’t provide any guarantees. His wife, Wendi, said they told her he’s got a 70% chance of getting through it.
“We’re giving him as much support as we can,” said Lawrence Fire Chief Rich Llewellyn. “The fire department as a culture is very close knit, so it really is like a family member having cancer.”
While his prognosis is good, he’s going through an intense treatment, meaning he’ll miss wearing a red suit for Lawrence’s ‘Santa Rescue Event’ on Mass Street the day after Thanksgiving, something he’s done for 12 years.
“This is a Hallmark movie and a bunch of things,” added Mathis, talking about the next part of this story. You see, Mathis was adopted and never knew his biological parents.
The year was 1967. Mathis’ birth mother learned she was pregnant after John’s father was deployed to Vietnam. She was very young then, and by the time she could get a letter to him and back she’d already given John up for adoption. It’s something she didn’t want to do, but something she felt she had to at the time.
Fast forward to Christmas Day in 2021 when John’s wife, Wendi, gifted him a DNA-based ancestry test kit. After sending the test in, he received an email from a woman who would later turn out to be his biological mother.
Mathis was skeptical at first, but asked questions only his birth mother would know. It turns out she’d been looking for him all these years. In that time she’d married a different man and moved to England but that marriage ultimately ended.
A short while before John took that DNA test his birth father hired private investigators to find his biological mother in the hopes of reconnecting. One of them found her, and the two have since reconnected and married. The only thing missing was the son they’d never known. That is, until John received that DNA kit.
“Last April they came here, and she saw me for the first time since I was two days old. He saw me for the first time ever,” he said.
The family celebrated Christmas together for the first time in 2022, along with John and Wendi’s three children. Since then, his mother’s moved to Lawrence, and his dad plans to join her once he sells their house in California.
A holiday tradition is one of the things John is looking forward to, which is why he wants to beat his cancer. “I’m not done yet. That’s why I want to come back to work. I’m not done.”
A family friend has set up a GoFundMe to help cover John’s medical expenses, which he described as “suddenly [getting] thousands of dollars [in bills] and we don’t even know when it stops.”
To help his family out, we’ve attached that GoFundMe which you can access by clicking here.
What’s more, the Kansas City metro nonprofit Answering the Call is giving the Mathis family $5,000. The nonprofit, which started in 2015, helps first responders who’ve either suffered a severe catastrophic injury or been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness. It helps about 30 families each year and has given those families $750,000 since its inception.
You can help first responders in the area through that organization, which is asking the community to give $9.11/month to first responders in desperate need.