Jack’s journey

Jack was a normal 10-year-old boy. He enjoyed playing hockey, downhill skiing, riding his scooter, swimming, camping, hiking and playing with his friends. In the summer of 2014, we realized a long-time dream and relocated our family to Canmore, Alberta. It was a bit of an adjustment for our sweet Jack, but over time, we thought he was settling in fine.
jack-riverIn the spring of 2015, Jack started to seem different. He was experiencing unexplained pains and was very sad and tired. We organized an appointment for him with Alberta Mental Health, but couldn’t get in until early August. He finished his school year and in an effort to boost his mood, we kicked off the summer with a celebratory mountain bike ride on one of our local trails. This ride was followed by trail-hikes with friends and more mountain-biking as we headed into the holidays. Jack finished each outing but seemed more tired as the days progressed and each activity became more of a challenge for him to complete.

Shortly after Jack’s 11th birthday in July 2015, we ventured off on our annual summer camping trip, which included travel down to Montana and Idaho. Soon after we left Canada, Jack developed massive pain in his back. We debated turning around and going home, but felt the pains were related to his mental health. We tried to manage the pain and kept encouraging him to be active in an effort to help manage his mood. He persevered but we knew he was struggling.

hiking-mountainsAfter two weeks away, we arrived back in Canmore to find that Jack’s back pain was not going away. We arranged a doctor’s appointment for the next day. The doctor checked Jack over and then sent him for a back X-ray and bloodwork at the Canmore Hospital. Meanwhile, we waited for the results but suspected the pain was more related to his mental health. That evening Jack said to us, “I hope they find out what it is, but at the same time, I hope they don’t because I think it might be something serious.”

The next day, the phone rang and our lives were changed forever.

jack-hospitalJack’s X-ray showed a collapsed vertebrae and the results of his bloodwork were also concerning. The doctor had already contacted the Alberta Children’s Hospital as he suspected it might be leukemia and we were told to take Jack there right away. It was so difficult pretending that things were fine so as not to alarm Jack, while at same time, feeling like your whole world was falling apart.

Jack was admitted into emergency at the ACH and eventually we met with the hospital’s oncology team. They told us that based on his symptoms they suspected Jack was battling leukemia, but they wouldn’t know definitively until they had the results from a bone marrow test scheduled for the following day. Jack was terrified of cancer and had fainted earlier that year at school at the Terry Fox Day presentation. We knew we had to be cautious with how much information we shared with Jack and how we shared it with him.

jack-hospital-2It was a terrible 24 hours before the bone marrow biopsy. I stayed with Jack in his room and Mark was able to get a bed at the hospital since the Ronald Macdonald House was full. Our friends graciously brought us food and arranged care for our dog back at our home in Canmore. We tried to keep a positive outlook, but Jack was scared and tired and it was so very difficult not knowing what was to come. They prepared Jack for the biopsy and he was terrified. It is so hard to see your child wheeled away from you, and as special as our health care workers are, they were still strangers to him. The oncologist came to see us during the biopsy and explained that it was challenging to get a bone marrow sample, so they were pretty sure that it was leukemia. Eventually they were able to confirm that evening that our precious boy was in fact battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

We were all in a daze and Jack was definitely upset. The days following were filled with questions, surgeries and the start of chemotherapy treatment. Jack didn’t want to hear anything about what was going on with him and we watched as he began to sink into depression. The nurses, doctors and other health care professionals were amazing and they tried hard to lift his spirits but nothing seemed to work. He struggled to move as the collapsed vertebrae caused him so much pain. We were terrified to bring him home, as we didn’t know how we were going to move him through our stair-filled house. We were terrified as we learned this new cancer language and tried to figure out our new normal. We were all so scared and didn’t know how we would get through all of this.

But we did get through. And Jack’s spirits rose when he finally was able to come home.

jack-hospital-3It’s been a year of ups and downs though. As the initial shock of the diagnosis wore off, there were many days filled with anger, sadness and loneliness. We felt like we were either at the hospital, on the road driving to or from Calgary, or at the gas station filling the car up. It was not the life we envisioned for our 11-year-old boy. He desperately missed going to school, going to a movie or playing with friends. He wanted to play hockey and go swimming. All of this now had to be put on hold.

We tried our best to keep things as normal as we could for Jack. His school enrolled him in online classes, so we started teaching him at home. We took him to hockey practice and his dad held on to him, while he finally gained the strength to skate on his own again. And we took him skiing. We pointed out all of the adaptive skiers on the hill and we told him, “Look at those people with no legs and arms. It’s not stopping them. Cancer doesn’t have to stop you.” And it didn’t stop him. He skied 35 days over the winter, even though at times, he was receiving chemotherapy four days a week! It was the perfect place to be because we could manage his contact with other people —a big concern when your immune system is compromised by chemotherapy. He loved the freedom of being on the mountain and racing down the hill. Skiing was our lifeline.

jack-skingOur other lifelines were the activities Jack was able to do and the celebrities he was able to meet because of organizations like Kids Cancer Care. Just when we were finding that his mood was low, an activity seemed to present itself, which would completely boost his spirits. The biggest night of his life happened on October 30th, 2015. It was the only day that Jack’s beloved Montreal Canadiens would be playing in Calgary for the season. We contacted Kids Cancer Care, and through their contacts, they were able to facilitate a meeting with Jack’s favourite players from the team. As we were leaving the Saddledome after the game, Jack said, “I’m kind of glad I got leukemia, because if I hadn’t, I would never have met the Canadiens!”

jack-hockeyIt’s truly amazing and inspiring to see and meet so many wonderful people dedicated to providing these wonderful opportunities to children like Jack. We have gone to a night at the theatre, ridden the Polar Express, learned to snowboard and cheered on our local hockey and football teams.

And then there is Camp Kindle. Amazing Camp Kindle. Jack’s first camp experience was this past summer, about a year after his initial diagnosis. It was his first sleepover camp and it was nothing short of amazing. After we picked him up, we heard stories continuously for two hours and I don’t think the smile has gone away from his face since! It’s a magical place where childhood cancer warriors can go and be kids and their parents can rest easy, knowing their precious children are safe.

jack-polar-expressTo date, Jack has had over 80 chemotherapy injections and has taken well in excess of 300 pills. Jack’s cancer treatment will be complete in December 2018. It is a long time to be on treatment. He can’t swim in the ocean or lakes and we always have to be aware of his environment. We’re also unsure of what the long-term effects will be on him — how the medications will impact his physical and intellectual growth and his interactions with others. But Jack knows that it’s important to keep fighting and try to raise awareness of childhood cancer. He likes to say, “Cancer. You messed with the wrong guy!” His words are so true. Cancer has not stopped our kid. Cancer has not stopped our hero, Jack.

–Cheryl, Jack’s mother


Jack’s photo gallery