There aren’t many feel-good stories about a bunch of white guys with shaved heads in 2018, but here’s one.
After three rounds of chemo to treat Hodgkins Lymphoma, John DiCuollo —the longtime PR pro for Backbone Media, who is ubiquitously known across the outdoor industry by his initials, JLD—finally came into work without his usual robust coif of dark hair, no doubt the perennial envy of many of his peers.
“I’ve always prided myself in having a full head of hair, so one of my petty concerns was, is my hair gonna fall out?” says JLD.
That morning, in a show of glabrous solidarity, ten Backbone employees immediately stepped into an empty parking lot behind the office in downtown Carbondale and depilated themselves with an electronic razor. Eight guys went full Bic to their domes, and two women side-shaved a “Skrillex cut” across their tresses.
“It was huge, it really meant a lot to me,” says the 49-year-old DiCuollo. “I almost felt a little bit of pressure. Like, wow, they’re going to mat with this—shaving their heads. I was really nervous [about being bald]. Now all of sudden, everyone in office has a shaved head. It was quite emotional.”
During last summer’s Outdoor Retailer trade show, JLD first noticed his neck glands were swollen. The condition persisted, but he attributed it to various external factors: stress; the typical funk brought home from day care by his two-year-old son, Lewis; or, perhaps, the pervasive smoke bank of wildfires hanging over the Roaring Fork Valley as neighboring Basalt Mountain burned.
Unable to ignore it any longer, he went to the doctor on August 21. That visit began a monthlong wave of tests, X-rays, needle pricks, appointments with specialists, and copious but ultimately futile rounds of antibiotics.
Finally, he was scheduled for a surgery to remove a node and perform a biopsy. Three days later, he got a call from a nurse.
“We have a diagnosis,” she said, which was instantly when JLD says he knew it was bad. She said he had Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma.
“It was one of those phone calls where you feel like you’re hovering over your body watching yourself pace around the room,” says JLD.
“I can remember walking around my neighborhood with Lewis. People would come up to talk, and they’d no idea I was bawling behind my shades. All I could think about was, would I still be around for him?”
But, “Once I found out the prognosis was good, my attitude shifted to, we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen,” he says. “There was no other choice.”
After a six-hour chemo treatment, JLD, a notorious ski junkie, went out for a skin up Snowmass.
“I wanted to be a fighter,” he says. “My whole approach to chemo was fuck you, I’m going skiing.”
Alison Osius, an executive editor at Rock and Ice magazine and who was treated for thyroid cancer herself three years ago, says, “I saw JLD’s wife, Jen, on the street, and she said he had come home after the first chemo session and ate half a pizza. We both started laughing. Who does that?”
After four rounds of chemo, a PET scan confirmed the disappearance of all cancerous nodes in his neck. Next, JLD is facing 17 rounds of radiation treatment over the next few weeks.
“I’m gonna do it during my lunch break,” says JLD. According to his doctor, the radiation should improve his chances of the cancer not returning to 95 to 98 percent.
“It does feel like there’s now a little light at the end of all this,” he says. “The most incredible part for me has been just opening myself up to this remarkable kindness from the community—whether that’s the Carbondale community, my family at Backbone, some of the brands I work with like Black Diamond, or just all these random people who’ve been reaching out and coming out of the woodwork to bring me dinner.
“When I get past this challenge, I’m gonna have a whole new approach and try to give some of this kindness back.”