The year was 1948. Twelve-year old “Jimmy”, as was his alias on Ralph Edwards’ nationally broadcasted radio program “Truth or Consequences”, was in a Boston hospital bed battling cancer. “Jimmy’s” wish was to have a television so he could watch his beloved Boston Braves play. During the broadcast, a number of Braves players visited “Jimmy” in his hospital room. What began as a plea for a television raised over $200,000 for cancer treatment and the Jimmy Fund was born. Many years later “Jimmy” revealed his true identity as Einar Gustafson from the Aroostook County town of New Sweden.
When the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953, Beantown’s other professional baseball team, the Red Sox, adopted the charitable arm of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Perhaps no other professional sports team and charitable organization are as synonymous as the Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund.
Much has changed since 1948 in the battle with cancer. Due to new discoveries and treatment options, many forms of cancer have a much higher cure rate. Still, the options available leave many cancer patients weak and vulnerable. There is much work still to be done.
This year’s major Jimmy Fund event takes place on Tuesday, August 18th and Wednesday, August 19th with the WEEI/NESN Radio-Telethon. During those two days, countless people will come on air to share their stories about their fight or a loved one’s battle with cancer. This year’s fundraiser takes on greater significance as cancer has stricken their own. NESN studio host, Tom Caron, has received treatment for cancer over the past year at Dana Farber. Recently, Red Sox manager John Farrell was diagnosed with a very treatable form of lymphoma, which will require him to miss the remainder of the season.
Most, if not all of us, personally know someone who is dealing with or has battled cancer. Cancer can in a small way be likened to dropping a big rock in the middle of a lake. It not only affects the person dealing with the disease but the rippling effects impacts family members, as well as friends.
Cancer has affected a couple of my family members. My grandmother fought cancer and lived into her early nineties. While this was difficult, she did live a full, vibrant life until the end. While everyone’s circumstances are challenging, to me it is much more heart-breaking when a child and their family receives this devastating diagnosis.
After all, kids only get to live one childhood. A youngster’s life should be filled with such concerns as doing well on that test in school, making new friends, and winning that big basketball game on Friday night. Summers spent at the lake, going out for ice cream, riding bikes with friends. Does that girl sitting across from me in math class like me? I mean, does she really like me? Their days shouldn’t be filled with trips to the hospital, treatments that cause them to be sick and lose their hair.
I have watched the countless stories over the years during the Red Sox broadcasts. Kids and adults alike who courageously fight the good fight everyday. These accounts have moved me, and I’m sure many others as well. Until now, it is always been someone else’s story. After all, what can my contribution really accomplish? The war against cancer is so big and my resources are so small.
2015 is different and I will get involved. You see, this year’s Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon holds personal meaning for me. Back in February, I heard the shocking news of Zak Mills, who was eleven at the time. Zak is the son of Penquis Valley High School boys basketball coach Jason Mills. I had the great opportunity to coach with Jason for seven seasons when he was the boys varsity basketball coach at John Bapst. Zak starting tagging along with dad to practices and games when he was three or four and stayed involved when Jason starting coaching at Penquis.
Zak, who just turned twelve in April, is very active in athletics, particularly soccer and basketball. Shortly after Christmas, he was complaining of soreness in his wrist. Dad at the time, like 99.99% of us would probably do, dismissed it to a probable fall during basketball. About a month later when the pain didn’t go away, a bump was found on the wrist. Following a biopsy, a cancerous tumor, osteosarcoma was found.
Rounds of chemotherapy would begin, followed by surgery to remove the tumor, and more chemo. Through the whole ordeal, Zak has maintained a toughness that has been truly awe inspiring. Over the last six months, many of Zak’s weekends have involved stays in the hospital receiving treatment.
Zak was scheduled to have the weekend of August 8th and 9th off and was to attend the final leg of the Mini-Maine Masters golf tournament. The ninety-nine hole miniature golf event brought twenty-four family friends together. Over $1800 was raised to help offset some of the family’s expenses. A setback landed him in the hospital the Friday prior to Sunday’s tournament. As we were beginning the day’s journey at the Pirates Cove course in Bar Harbor, Zak still laid in a hospital bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center. The prospects of him joining us for the final leg in the afternoon seemed dim.
To illustrate Zak’s toughness, he got out of the hospital and arrived at Blackbeard’s in Bangor to meet up with our crew. He had been through a lot and would probably rest in the van. Zak, though, had other ideas. Not only did he get out of the van, he played through our final course. On the final eighteen holes, one of the event’s organizers, former Penquis Valley basketball standout Trevor Lyford, was in my threesome. With the three of us well out of contention for the coveted green jacket, Zak played in Trevor’s spot. Needless to say, Zak beat me.
Initially, Zak was hoping to be ready for the start of soccer season. Unfortunately, his road to recovery has taken longer than originally anticipated. In speaking with Jason recently, he looks to wrap up treatment over the next six weeks, landing back in school by Columbus Day.
While Zak is approaching the end of a along ordeal, recently I was shaken with the news that one of our John Bapst basketball players was diagnosed with cancer. In early July, Jon Bowman started undergoing treatment in Boston for a type of cancer called rio armas sarcomas. In communicating with Jon, the cancer has attacked one of his lungs as well as the bone marrow in his hips. Just a few weeks prior to the diagnosis, I saw pictures of Jon and his father Kevin taking part in the Trek Across Maine bicycle tour for the American Lung Association. I saw a smiling Jon, with that big, wide smile of his, basking in the glow of accomplishment, riding his bike for 180 miles over three days. It was a dose of reality slapping me in the face, how life can change in an instant.
If you’ve ever met Jon, you soon realize what a beautiful person he is. He is short in stature but has the heart of a lion. Despite going winless in basketball last season, he always gave 100% effort on the court and was one of the most positive people you could ever meet. His smile always lights up a room. Everyone in our basketball community, as well as anyone who knows Jon, loves him. He has a long road ahead of him but he will use that same determination to battle and fight this. That’s just who he is.
The morning after I heard about Jon’s illness, I was reminded of the words I spoke to our junior varsity basketball team after a practice this past winter. Coming after another loss, I told the players how proud I was of them in how they stuck with each other during the season. I let them know how honored I was to help them in my small role with the team, how well they represented the school. Then I was haunted by my closing remarks before we parted our separate ways that January afternoon.
I remember telling them there would be obstacles in life which would be much more daunting to overcome than a winless basketball season. It was my hope they could take some of those lessons and apply them when facing future difficulties. Little did I know at the time how true this would be. While it is Jon dealing with cancer, all of us who know and love him hurt.
Looking back on that January day, my words feel so inadequate. While I believe athletics can aid in teaching life lessons, nothing from the court that winter could possible prepare us for this. Losing basketball games pales in comparison, it’s not even in the same league.
You see, when I tune into this year’s WEEI/NESN Radio-Telethon this year, it won’t be just another face, another story. This year the cause of fighting cancer has hit home in a much too personal way. When I donate this year, it will be for the Zaks and Jonnys, people who are much too young to be dealing with these hardships. Please join me in donating, either to the Jimmy Fund, or one of the many reputable charities aimed with fighting cancer. Let there be a day in the future when people like Zak and Jonny can live in a world free of cancer.