Cancer treatment has been Dr. Julian Josey’s focus and passion for more than 40 years.
But in May of 2012, the Spartanburg doctor became the patient.
Josey, who began working at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in 1970 and helped pioneer the birth of the Gibbs Cancer Center in 1999, was diagnosed with myeloma – a form of blood cancer.
“I have always been sensitive to the needs of cancer patients,” he said, “But when you experience it as a patient, rather than the caregiver, it puts a totally different coloration on it.”
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On a recent Wednesday, the 75-year-old radiation oncologist sat in a cushioned chair inside a clinical exam room at the Gibbs Cancer Center. An IV needle was stuck in his arm as bone strengthening medication coursed through his veins – medicine he has to have administered once a month.
Seated by his side in the small room was Dr. James (Jay) R. Bearden, whom Josey describes as much more than a colleague. He’s his best friend – a friend who has been there every step of the way.
Josey and Bearden, a medical oncologist and hematologist, shared a vision for a cancer center when they began working together in 1976. They had immediate chemistry, Josey said, and they both had a passion for patients.
In 1999, their vision became a reality when local business leader and philanthropist Jimmy Gibbs made a contribution of $1.2 million dollars. The Gibbs Cancer Center has since expanded to include locations in Gaffney and Greer. In 2005, Gibbs became the only center in the Carolinas, and one of only nine in the nation, affiliated with the MD Anderson Physicians Network in Houston. In 2012, the cancer center added research to its name and focus as a 8,000-square-foot lab was constructed on the third floor.
“Together, we make a whole,” Bearden said. “We have been very close over the years, not only professionally, but as human beings.”
They have raised families together. They have taken vacations and traveled together. They say they finish each others sentences.
Bearden also acts as Josey’s physician. And it was Bearden who diagnosed his friend’s cancer in May of last year.
Josey said he came into work one morning with pain in his foot. He thought it was gout, but Bearden suggested otherwise, noting other recent problems Josey had complained about.
After a bone marrow test, Josey went home and told his wife that he most likely had myeloma. But it wasn’t verified until Bearden came to his home with the news.
Even though Josey’s job for more than forty years has dealt with cancer, that didn’t make the news any easier to hear.
“Even though I was expecting it, it causes a readjustment of your life … The disease causes fear,” Josey said. “It causes anxiety and all the human emotions that you would expect.”
Bearden wanted Josey to get second opinions. So he referred him to other leading cancer facilities, such as Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“You take things very personal with a patient,” Bearden said. “But when it’s your best friend, somebody who has been with me for the majority of my life, you are very attached.”
Josey said having Bearden with him every step of the way has made his recovery path easier.
“The fear was lessened as a result of the way he dealt with me and his kindness,” he said. “There are very few families in Spartanburg whose lives (Bearden) hasn’t touched in 36 years. And that includes my family. Everyone loves him.”
Bearden told Spartanburg Magazine in 2011 that Josey was “like a bulldog, never giving up.”
During his cancer treatment and eight cycles of chemotherapy at the Gibbs Cancer Center, Josey has continued to prove his resilience.
He continued to work at the hospital – he never stopped.
“I’m going to go as long as I can,” Josey said. “As long as the Lord is willing and the treatment is working, I am going to keep rocking and rolling.”
Bearden said Josey has been a role model for other patients during this time. He said it’s great for people to fit their treatment around their lives, rather than fitting lives around their treatments.
“Julian is a stellar example of that,” he said.
Physicians at Mayo Clinic suggested Josey undergo a bone marrow transplant. Josey said he and his wife prayed about it for months and eventually decided to have it done. He spent eight hours in an operating room six months ago.
Today, he says he is much better, aside from the occasional back pain from the surgery. But Josey knows the cancer is not curable. It will be back, he said.
“I have lived a long life and I have been so blessed,” he said. “I am blessed to have (Dr. Bearden), my mate in helping me build this cancer center since its inception. And this hospital has been good to me. There isn’t any doubt about that.”
He says he has a whole lot more he wants to accomplish while he’s here.
“I want to write a history of the cancer center,” he said. “But I also want to see the Gibbs Cancer Center to continue to grow. I want it to become a destination cancer center where people come from far away. I want us to be like the Mayo Clinic.”