And I Lived to Blog about It

Cancer has been the recurring theme of his life for 35 years, but Peter Lawson ’83 has survived, cockroachlike, and become an online purveyor of hope and humor.

Author: Peter Lawson ’83

Pete Lawson

Since 1987, I’ve battled cancer six different times, which has given me a unique insight into long-term survival. I’ve also been a healthcare executive my entire career, so I know the caregiver side quite well. With that level of life and work experience, you could say I didn’t just stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. When folks ask me how I’ve made it this far, I always tell them to stay positive and use the proven mix of faith, family and great healthcare. The first being the most important — if you don’t have faith in God, it’s kind of hard to have faith in your own recovery. 

Surviving 35 years of cancer is quite a feat, regardless of how you measure it. I’m proud of that, but I’m not entirely sure how or why it worked out this way other than sticking to those fundamentals and sharing that perspective as often as I could. Over the years I’ve thought about writing a book, but I couldn’t find the time or confidence to write something interesting. A year ago, however, I decided to start a blog, The Irish Cockroach, at my lowest point — after clearing lymphoma, I was almost simultaneously getting diagnosed with esophagus cancer. Why not start at the bottom? There’s nowhere to go but up. 

Pete, it’s obvious that God has a plan for you. I share your journey with many of my clients to give them hope. You continue to show us all that through faith all things are possible! Happy Easter from our family to yours.” Teri Costabile on Easter

There are a lot of illness-survivor blogs out there, but I don’t like the tone of any of them. Some remind me of the attention gathering comments on the Maine Coon (MC) cat Facebook pages I follow. “Hey, my MC’s nose just fell off, is that normal?” Other blogs focus purely on how awful their suffering is. I think to myself, “I already have cancer; your story of suffering doesn’t give me hope to help me turn my corner.” With that in mind, my only goal for the blog was to help one person, make them less afraid of their diagnosis and give them hope when they felt hopeless. The challenge today, however, is reaching people with short attention spans already saturated with information overload.

“Pete Lawson’s Irish Cockroach blog has been a huge help to those in my personal network who have been affected by cancer. In particular, my brothers-in-laws are experiencing the difficulties of dealing with leukemia. Pete’s insights and humor have provided a salve to their stress and uncertainty. Pete has truly helped them brave the daily struggles and stay focused while they endure the severity of the treatment. Pete’s efforts have not only made a difference, but truly saved a life . . . and a family.” Chris Walsh, ND Regional Director of Development

I grew up in upstate New York in an Irish heritage house filled with the classic cultural caricatures of mischief making, laughing, sarcasm, verbal jousting and storytelling. The Adirondack Mountains are desolate in the winter and we didn’t have cable, so we spent our days telling irreverent stories about people as a form of entertainment. No one was exempt so you had to be fast on your feet, and be able to give and take verbal hits. That upbringing formed my edgy humor and love of storytelling. For example, when people ask how I’ve survived so long, my pat answer is, “I’m like a cockroach, I’ll even survive a nuclear war!” So, it shouldn’t surprise you that my family renamed my boat, “The Irish Cockroach,” when I was in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery.

“Pete, thank you for this! I, too, chose Mark as my oncologist when in Naples based on your recommendation and from the very first visit, I knew I was in the right place! The gift of Jameson wasn’t too bad either! Thank you for being such an inspiration to others! I still have your SURVIVOR t-shirt!” Rhonda Young on Doctors

Lawson Family
The Lawson family. Photos provided

My family’s sarcasm prompted me to include self-depreciating stories on the blog as a way to lighten other people’s loads. It was a bit of a risk given how everyone is so sensitive on social media, but what the hell, I’m a contrarian. One of the first posts was called “Hair” with all the requisite humility that comes with chemotherapy. That was followed by “Humor,” which mixed my CAR-T transplant oncologist with my second-grade teacher Sister Theophane. Shortly after, I started developing a writing rhythm and a growing audience with posts advertised on Facebook every Wednesday at noon. More people began commenting about how the blend of personal stories and recovery made them feel better about their own challenges. More importantly, they began sharing the posts with their family and friends suffering from cancer or other setbacks.

“Pete, your personality (and positivity) shines through your writing and makes me laugh. My only regret is my Naples job stint was way too short and I didn’t get to work with you very long. Here’s a Guinness Draught raised to your continued health!” Steve Clifton on Clear Directions

I didn’t realize the impact it was having until one Wednesday, when I was at a clinic visit at the University of Miami, I missed the noon Facebook post. I was driving back on I-75 around 2 p.m. when my friend Dayton Dedrick texted me saying, “Aren’t you doing your post today?”  I had forgotten all about it! So, I pulled off the highway and published the post from my phone. Dayton, who is a lymphoma survivor from my hometown of Ticonderoga, told me after, “I read your posts each Wednesday when I’m waiting for my immunotherapy. They help me get through my treatments.”  

I can easily say that I’ve leapt over the low bar I set of giving at least one person the light of hope. The numbers are large and growing. After only one year, the blog has reached more than 30,000 views and almost 9,000 unique visitors. It’s not at Kim Kardashian levels, but it’s a start. More important to me are the comments from strangers or old friends who express that the blog has helped them. Meeting strangers and friends alike in-person who tell me they read the blog faithfully, never comment on them, but share them with people they know who need it — that resonates most with me.  

You are certainly a voice of reason Peter. I wish you well always and think of you and Diane often. Though I have never been through what you have, health-wise, I totally agree that nature is the answer to peace and reducing anxiety. I have great faith in God (made all sacraments at St. Mary’s) but they go hand-in-hand, as it is His work that brings us that peace. Most of us are guilty of too much technology in our lives. Your wisdom is appreciated and did not fall on deaf ears. God bless you.” – Louann Morett-Jaquish on Peace

As for me, I’m still in treatment for esophagus cancer knowing full well this type of cancer is not a walk in the park but a difficult foot race — and I’ve never been much of a runner. The blog has helped me reflect on recovering from personal setbacks when all seemed lost. 

An unexpected benefit is that it has built my family a storybook, one that will add some color to the future fading photographs of me, so maybe my grandchildren and their children can continue giving people hope with a little laughter tucked behind it. Slainte!

Peter Lawson, creator of The Irish Cockroach, was born and raised in the rural Adirondack Mountain town of Ticonderoga, New York.  After graduating from Notre Dame, he received a master’s in healthcare administration from Duke University.  He married his wife, Diane, in 1986 and they raised three sons, all Notre Dame graduates — Devin ’12, Dillon ’13 and David ’13.