Scuba Steve is #scubastrong while fighting cancer diagnosis

GULFPORT -- Steve Johnson's friends haven't seen him wear tennis shoes since ninth grade.

The 31-year-old, who South Mississippians know as Scuba Steve, had to put away his beloved Chaco sandals and buy a pair of Yeezy 350 sneakers. But the footwear change wasn't for fashion's sake -- he's wearing them for support, for he can barely walk without crutches.

For the last seven weeks, Johnson has been in radiation therapy daily for treatment of stage three colorectal cancer.

The laser beam, which goes through his body to help shrink the tumor doctors found in early August, began to irritate his skin after two weeks of treatment.

On Thursday, it was hard for Steve to stand up from the couch of his Orange Grove home without help.

"It feels like somebody is stabbing me with a knife," Johnson said. "You're scared to drink. The radiation burned everything down there."

Johnson's boxer shorts stick to the wounds, so putting on clothes has become painful. If he tries to walk, the skin in his groin area begins to stretch, causing unbearable pain.

The chemotherapy he also undergoes puts blisters on his hands and feet, adding to his discomfort.

Johnson is used to being at festivals selling his T-shirts, hugging every friend who walks by. Scuba Steve misses that more than anything, as he spends most of his day hanging out with his friends, who have visited him everyday since he began treatment, or watching TV.

The diagnosis

In November 2014, Johnson found blood when we went to the bathroom, so he went to the doctor to have it checked out.

"They thought it was an internal hemorrhoid," he said, because he wasn't experiencing any pain.

By March, he started feeling some pain. By July, it was unbearable.

While he was working a booth at Crab Festival in Bay St. Louis, a customer begged him to go back to the doctor, so he went the next Monday.

When doctors performed a scope, they found irregular tissue and lots of blood. Johnson said he fainted.

"When I woke up ... they said we found a tumor," he said.

The cancer had spread right, reaching his lymph nodes. Doctors told him it's a hereditary disease that usually affects men in their 50s or 60s.

"It affects the digestive track, it affects the restroom, it affects sitting," Johnson said. "It's a really aggravating cancer."

Bouncing back

The road has been rocky for Scuba Steve since his diagnosis, but he said he's fighting his diagnosis and has a tremendous support system.

When he posted a selfie in the hospital earlier this week, telling his Facebook friends of his diagnosis, he received about 1,000 text messages, 3,000 messages on Facebook and more than 3,000 e-mails.

His friends and followers began posting photos with Johnson, using #scubastrong to create a thread on social media.

Friends, old and new, visit him every single day. His mother, Karen Johnson, takes care of him. She helps give him medicine and feed him. Whatever Johnson needs, his mother is there.

"I always thought I would be taking care of her, but it's the other way around," he said.

Cancer treatment has killed his appetite, and he's lost 30 pounds since his diagnosis.

"Everything you eat, you throw up. It just doesn't help with nutrition," he said. Johnson said his diet consists solely on chicken noodle soup, water and Pop Brothers popsicles.

Johnson said doctors will be able to remove the original tumor with surgery if radiation shrinks it enough, and the tumor can perhaps dissipate completely from the treatment.

He meets with an oncologist next week.

"Since I have cancer that we can cure, we're not just going to put a bandage on it," he said.

A warm embrace

Johnson has been selling T-shirts since 2008. He began selling polos out of the trunk of his Tahoe on the side of the road.

His grandmother was his only customer, and the vehicle was repossessed. Then, his grandfather helped him build shelving in a storage unit to store product.

Finally, he began printing shirts with the original Scuba Steve logo, as well as some with a screen print of his face, and media picked up on his business plan. From there, his business took off.

If you bought a Scuba Steve shirt, chances are you got a big hug.

And if Johnson saw you again, he's going to remember your name.

He's taken a break from his business for the past three months so he can get better, but he misses it.

"I'm just laying low, letting everything heal and getting better," he said. "I miss seeing my customers."

But Steve has made new friends at treatment. He enjoys making the older people who are undergoing chemo and radiation therapy laugh or smile. And, when he can, he still gives out warm embraces.

He said he'll miss the other patients while he lets his burns heal.

"My goal (at treatment) is to uplift older people, really sick people," he said.

A special shirt

Johnson said the Peter Anderson Festival is his favorite event in South Mississippi, but he'll have to miss it this year. But his supporters will be selling Pray for Scuba Steve shirts at a booth at the festival.

People who want to purchase a shirt to help Johnson can do so at the Scuba Steve website.