The Luckiest Man

In a county famous for its hiking trails, organic foods and general wellness vibe, the unwelcome shadow of disease looms as the ultimate buzz kill. Few people know, as well as Tiburon resident and seven-time cancer survivor James “Hoody” Quill, the drop-of-the-stomach reaction to hearing those words, “It’s cancer.” Yet having challenged and beaten the odds several times, Quill does not live in fear.

In fact, he says he’s the luckiest guy in the world. And he might be. Part of his story has already been told in a 20/20 television report in 2000, with a younger, stockier Quill telling the audience how he met the love of his life.

It was a Sunday in October 1988 when Laura Danis, a pediatric nurse at Sloan-Kettering cancer center in New York, treated him after he suffered a heart attack during treatment for leukemia at age 23. “I met her on the worst day of my life,” he recalls, “and little did I know it was just the beginning of the best part of my life.”

 At the time of the segment, Quill had survived not two but three cancers, the third one in his thyroid, which thanks to his oncologist was caught early and treated in time for both he and Laura, who were by then engaged, to run the New York City Marathon together that year. And though his doctor said the Quills would never be able to have children, at segment’s end the camera zooms in on a smiling Laura holding Caroline Kramer Quill, their second child, at the baptismal pulpit. 

Unfortunately and fortunately, it wasn’t the end of the story. In the nine years since the show aired, Quill has survived four more cancers and welcomed three more baby Quills into the world.

As to how he is able to not only beat but survive and thrive after his ordeals, Quill credits his excellent health care, supportive family (Laura is now a nurse at UCSF), community and a healthy lifestyle. “Despite the fact that I’m a deeply faithful man,” he says, “when it comes to eradicating a cancer in my body, I’d rather have an excellent surgeon than a prayer group.”

 He spends some time thinking about how to reword that last sentence, then shrugs and smiles. “My family and faith have been key to surviving,” he says, “but most importantly, you’ve got to get yourself in front of the best doctor available.” He learned this lesson on a Friday back in 1983, when his family physician couldn’t look him or his father in the eye to deliver the prognosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Before the words “not much hope” could sink in, Quill’s father had secured a meeting with Norma Wollner, the premier pediatric oncologist in the country.

“By 9 a.m. that next Monday, I was getting weighed in,” he remembers. “Dr. Wollner looked me in the eye and asked me if I was ready to fight, because, she said, ‘Together, we could beat it.’” That experience taught him to take control of his condition. “My dad always said, ‘Go to the person writing the protocol, not the people following it.’ Lance Armstrong ended up in Indianapolis, because it’s known to be the best in treating testicular cancer; if you have breast cancer, go to L.A. Whatever you do, make sure you trust your doctors’ abilities to treat your specific illness.”

Of late, the doctor he is working closest with is fellow Tiburon resident David Eisele, professor and department chair of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at UCSF. Eisele is impressed by Quill’s approach to treatment. “His positive and optimistic attitude, proactive involvement in his care, and strong family support system have helped him face his challenging illnesses,” he says. “He clearly appreciates his blessings and is a most inspiring individual.”

Using the oratory skills he honed as an actor—a vocation he enjoyed in New York, pre-kids—Quill does his best to inspire other cancer patients as a motivational speaker. His message is simple: “Do not give up, and when bad things happen try to get something good out of it.” These days, his voice is soft and raspy, but he still speaks to audiences, with a microphone. For chemo and radiation treatments, he emphasizes sanity. “Do I always go jogging when I should? Do I always make the best food choice? No, but I do the best I can.”

And as a stay-at-home dad, he gets his exercise caring for his five children. Extended family and friends in his St. Hilary School and parish community help out, but at the end of the day, he is responsible for getting each of his kids to his or her afternoon activity, arranging carpools and making sure they’re fed and in bed.

 As the holiday season nears, he contemplates all he has to be thankful for this year. “It’s a long, long list,” he says. Family-wise there is his wife’s enduring love and partnership, as well as the hours his kids logged reading him Harry Potter books while he was recovering from his last surgery, their learning to read lips within a week of his voice box being removed, and their watchful eye whenever he’s around a swimming pool (he breathes through an open hole in his throat called a stoma). “I could drown immediately,” he says, drolly raising his eyebrows for full dramatic effect. Last Thanksgiving he broke his pinkie catching a football thrown by his eldest son, Andrew; this year, he’s going to work on his golf swing, train for next year’s New York marathon and eat pumpkin pie.

Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.