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Cowboy Up: Cave Creek, Arizona's Johnny Ringo Talks Facing Pancreatic Cancer, COVID-19, The Ocotillo Fire and Finding Strength in Community
Written By Julia Brabant
Diagnosed: August 9, 2020
Current Status: No Sign of Cancer
It’s no secret that 2020 was a tough year for just about everyone – but Johnny Ringo navigated more hardships in those 365 days than most face in a lifetime. And yet, the Cave Creek, Arizona cowboy and owner of Johnny Ringo’s Carefree Adventures, an Arizona-based Jeep tour company, is not only still smiling, but also sharing his story with the hope of helping others.
A native of Garfield, New Jersey, Johnny spent almost 30 years employed at a paper mill before deciding that working for corporate America no longer worked for him. A huge fan of spaghetti Westerns, which he watched with his grandma growing up, Johnny had always felt attracted to the cowboy lifestyle. He decided to leave his job and his big, beautiful Victorian home in New Jersey behind to realize a lifelong dream.
Johnny left for Arizona in the late 1980s, joining a tour company and learning everything he could about the area from its guides. He learned a wealth of information about Arizona flora and fauna from the guides, many of whom were from Native American families that had lived in the region for generations. He also developed relationships with local business owners and travelers and eventually took over the reins at Carefree Adventures.
His business attracted clientele from all over the world, and Johnny became increasingly active in the Cave Creek community as his company grew. He became president of the Cave Creek Merchants & Events Association, serving as a visionary for local Western events. He also took area at-risk youth into the desert for excursions and adventures, supported local nonprofits like the Scott Foundation, and earned publicity for the community through the adventure company, helping attract more tourists – and tourism dollars – for the town.
“I tried to do what I could to touch a lot of people,” he said. “Maybe that’s why so many are now doing the same for me.”
An Unexpected Diagnosis
Johnny refers to the way he found out about his pancreatic cancer as “Divine Intervention.” Notoriously hard to detect, Johnny’s diagnosis came after three otherwise unlinked interactions.
First, Johnny found himself praying alongside a good friend, Steve, who had long needed a bone marrow transplant. Johnny felt a burst of confidence after praying and told Steve that he had no doubt he’d soon find a donor. The following day, Steve did find a donor.
That same day, Johnny stopped for gas when he ran into an old friend, Liz, who offered her condolences after the Ocotillo fire had torn through Johnny’s vehicle fleet and ranch buildings. While he’d stopped to talk with Liz, another old friend from back in New Jersey, Frank, had pulled into the gas station, so Johnny went to say hello.
Frank, a gastroenterologist, asked him if he was feeling OK, saying he didn’t look quite right. Thinking back, Johnny realized that he had been feeling a bit off. He’d begun to have mild stomach pain and noticed discoloration in his urine. Frank saw yellowing in Johnny’s eyes, a sign of jaundice, so he asked Johnny to follow him back to his house.
There, Frank felt Johnny’s stomach and advised that he go to the emergency room in the morning. The next morning, Johnny went to the emergency room at HonorHealth Scottsdale Thompson Peak Medical Center for a CT scan. After the CT scan, Johnny traveled via ambulance to HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center. After receiving the results of the biopsy, doctors diagnosed Johnny with pancreatic cancer August 9, 2020.
“No – I’m not going to accept that,” he recalls saying. “From that day forth, I never accepted that this cancer was going to take me.”
An Ongoing Fight
“They deserve to smile,” Johnny said. “Can you imagine what they see at work each day?”
After chemo and radiation, CT scans revealed no signs of cancer. Dr. Erkut Borazanci noted that he’d yet to see a tumor like Johnny’s essentially disappear like his had. Because chemo and radiation were so successful, Johnny’s team decided to move forward with the Whipple procedure, a major operation that removes the head of the pancreas, some of the small intestine, the gall bladder and the bile duct. They planned surgery for February 2, 2021.
“I looked like I walked in there by myself,” said Johnny, noting that COVID-19 protocols prevented his longtime partner, Terre, from coming inside the hospital with him. “But I didn’t – I felt like I had God on my right side and thousands of people rooting for me.”
Johnny had begun chronicling his story online via Facebook, sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with a growing number of onlookers.
“I read everybody’s posts to me – everybody’s,” he said. “That’s what gives me strength. I actually wasn’t scared at all going into surgery – I was looking forward to it, and the care I had at the hospital after was second to none.”
“So, I could claim that Johnny Ringo would live forever?” He’d joked. “Where do I sign?”
Joking aside, he did donate his samples and found that doing so gave him strength and a sense of power at a time he could really use it. He entered rehab for physical therapy post-surgery but found the lack of fresh air and strict COVID-19 protocols smothering. He missed Terre, who he could only touch through his window. He recalled the day one nurse “sprung him” from the suffocating environment, taking him outside for a nature walk – something he hadn’t had in quite some time.
“We’re going out,” she’d declared. “Don’t make eye contact with anybody!”
For Johnny, feeling the sunshine on his face for the first time in weeks – and sharing the moment with the kind nurse, who he taught about the cacti and plants they came across along the way – was the best therapy he’d had yet.
A Community Comes Together
Recovering from a Whipple is never easy, but Johnny is finding strength in many different sources. He remembers a particularly difficult day where he found himself standing in the ashes of his old ranch, questioning what he did to deserve so much bad luck.
That night, he felt a sudden need to renew his faith. Born Catholic, he hadn’t spent much time in the church as of late, but he made the decision to return, getting baptized on Easter of that year.
“There’s a reason God saved me,” he said. “He saved me to help inspire others. Never quit believing in ourselves, in God, in our faith and in the power of prayers.”
He also can’t believe how much the entire Cave Creek community stepped up on his behalf. His friends and neighbors all came together for “Johnny Ringo’s Erection Party,” where they helped Johnny raise a new (steel, fire-resistant) metal building he can use when his business reopens.
“I had a smile on my face and tears in my eyes – this is what the strength of community can do,” he said. He hopes to establish something of a tradition in the town and give someone facing hardships a similar surprise next holiday season.
He also takes strength from a particular song – “One Pair of Hands,” by Elvis Presley. Johnny’s late mother had been a huge Elvis fan, and he’d taken annual trips to Graceland as a kid. While sifting through the ashes of his buildings the Ocotillo fire left behind, he’d had a sad realization that his mother’s whole collection of Elvis memorabilia was lost in the wreckage.
“Mom, I just want to find the porcelain Elvis profile,” he’d said aloud to his mother.
Somehow, the porcelain Elvis profile that was a family favorite had survived, and Johnny felt a huge sense of relief when he stumbled across it. After that, he had no need to sift through ashes anymore. He soon heard the “One Pair of Hands” song, and he’s taken comfort from it ever since.
Finally, Johnny thanks Terre, his family and all of the team members at HonorHealth for their dedication and support throughout his journey.
“The doctors and nurses; they’re like family. I’ve been so blessed to have them – they’ve been so honest and shot me straight the whole way,” he said.
“If God took me now, I’ve had a wonderful life,” he notes. “But I have a lot to live for, and I’m not done yet.”
Johnny Ringo now shows no signs of cancer.