Shortly after Jason Mendelsohn learned that he had stage 4 HPV-related tonsil cancer, the 44-year-old Florida businessman began making videos to each of his three kids – just in case.
Just in case he wasn’t there for their b’nai mitzvah, their weddings, the birth of their children – his grandchildren.
“I actually said one day you’re going to be married. I’m not going to be there. This is what’s important,” he recalled.
That was in 2014. Today, Mendelsohn, now 48, is cancer free.
Instead of getting on with his life, though, the Orlando-based insurance appraiser is dedicating it to other victims of this dreaded, but largely unheard of, disease.
He has joined the executive board of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, the national organization dedicated to detection and treatment of head and neck cancers. Until recently, he was the only member of the panel who was not a physician.
He also joined the board of the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute.
And he travels – extensively – giving interviews, raising money, connecting with other cancer survivors and generally spreading the word about the virus that affects three out of four adults by the time they’re 30, and is treatable.
“My goal is to have my story told on seven continents in as many languages as possible – to save lives worldwide,” he said
Sitting in a Louisville Panera during a recent visit here (he came to town to tour bourbon distilleries – something from the bucket list he compiled while fighting the cancer), Mendelsohn pulled back the top of his overcoat, revealing a long, crescent-shape scar on the right side of his neck. It’s a constant reminder of everything he almost lost. It extends from the bottom of his right ear to the center of his throat.
Doctors think he contracted the virus more than 25 years ago while in college. One day, in 2014, he felt a bump on his neck. After 10 days of antibiotics and steroids, he had a biopsy done. It confirmed the worst.
That diagnosis led to a radical tonsillectomy, a neck dissection, 42 lymph nodes removed, seven weeks of chemo and radiation therapy, and a feeding tube.
“I couldn’t swallow my own saliva for a month,” Mendelsohn said. “It was brutal.”
Slowly, as he started to heal, word of his illness leaked out.
While still in bed, a client of his called to say he was doing the Ride to Conquer Cancer – a two-day, 150-mile cycling trek to benefit Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. He mentioned Mendelsohn in a video he made, wrote his name across his jersey and suggested Mendelsohn ride with him next year – after he beat the disease.
Such a tall ambition for a guy still undergoing therapy who never actually rode a touring bike before, but when he was well enough, Mendelsohn began training with a local bike shop employee who heard about his case. He raised $25,000 on Facebook in eight weeks. Organizers for the event even asked him to speak at the opening day ceremony.
This was about when he realized he had a story to tell and a difference to make.
News outlets began asking him for interviews, including NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, which did a segment about him.
He’s organizing Smash Cancer Tennis Tournament at the USTA National Campus in Orlando. It’s tentatively slated for November 2018 and will benefit the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
Recently, he went live with a slick-looking website – www.SupermanHPV.com – which tells his story. It’s based on the name his friends gave him as he recovered from the treatment. They bought him a Superman T-shirt and figures
He’s committed to helping people with the disease find transportation to the hospitals where it’s treated ( a major problem, doctors tell him) and find dental care for problems caused by the cancer (loss of saliva, jaw problems).
All of which is good stuff, but why is this a Jewish story? It’s not like HPV-related cancers are Jewish genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs or Crohns.
True, Mendelsohn is Jewish. (His twin son and daughter celebrated their b’nai mitzvah in Israel – on Masada.)
And the Jewish press has saturated him with coverage. So far, the Oregon Jewish Life, Canadian Jewish News, Heritage Florida Jewish News, The New York Jewish Week, Atlanta Jewish Times, Intermountain Jewish News (Denver), Washington Jewish Week – and us – have published stories.
But this is a Jewish story, Mendelsohn said, because lives – Jewish and non-Jewish – are at stake. Mendelsohn is trying to save lives.
As it says in Mishna Sanhedrin, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
“It may sound hokey,” Mendelsohn said, “but people want to protect people, and it’s a good story.”
Besides, he added, his hope is “that fathers will no longer have to make videos to their kids.”
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of Jewish Louisville Community.)