|Illness: Cancer (Ewing’s Sarcoma)||Athletic Level: NCAA DIII Baseball|
For as long as I can remember, baseball has always been my passion.
I still remember sprinting off my school bus as a kid, running up the stairs into my house and straight to the laundry room. From there I would dig through the clean clothes searching for my baseball uniform, while I could hear my mom in the background saying, “Jack, your game isn’t for another four hours, please get your homework done!” Even on days I didn’t have games or practices I would spend hours outside, throwing the ball into “pitch-back” netting, or hitting off the tee, trying to imitate some of the plays I had seen on TV. My neighbors, my brother, and myself would play home run derby in our backyard by throwing the ball up and hitting it as far as we could into the woods- and sometimes, my house.
Growing up, I idolized New York Yankees shortstop, Derek Jeter. I would watch every Yankees game I could, and I admired how hard he played every single day and how dedicated he was to the game. He is who inspired me to work hard and overcome obstacles whether they be on and off the field. Even when I first started playing, I enjoyed having the ball in my hands and complete control of the game.
As I grew older, I realized that I could continue to pitch into high school, and as time went on, college as well. This wasn’t just because of my abilities, but it was also because of how baseball made me feel. Whether it was a game, a practice, or just playing catch in the backyard, baseball was an escape for me. When I am up on the mound, I feel relaxed and all background noise and distractions seem to disappear.
Luckily, I found the perfect fit with Gettysburg College from an academic, athletic, and social perspective. When I walked on to the Gettysburg College campus as a freshman I was, as most would expect, nervous and a bit lost. The first few days were difficult; everyone was searching for friends and trying to find their social circle. Luckily, I was able to meet most of the baseball team early in the fall, and we all immediately became close. This was important for because it was one less thing to worry about as we started our college journey. We all had each other to lean on for support when facing problems, and to celebrate with when we were successful.
I returned home from school after my freshman year of college, fresh off of my first collegiate baseball season in May of 2017. I was ready to enjoy the summer, work, and play in my summer league. For the last few weeks of school, I had been experiencing some discomfort and swelling in my left knee, but nothing painful enough to keep me out of baseball. I had experienced aches and pains all over my body my whole life, as is natural when playing a variety of sports for fifteen years. I decided to go see an orthopedist after being home for the summer for about a week.
I went in to the appointment thinking that I probably pulled a muscle or had a small structural problem, and the orthopedist sent me for an MRI. When I went to get the MRI I was warned that there could be a lot of causes of my knee discomfort; way down the list was the remote possibility that the pain could be coming from a tumor, benign or malignant. It struck me as almost outlandish. I thought, “I’m eighteen years old and in great shape, there’s no way I have cancer.” Or at least, that’s what I believed.
June 2nd, 2017.
It was my mom who got the call, just a few days after the appointment. There was indeed a tumor behind my left knee, and I’d need to go back to Yale New Haven Hospital immediately for a biopsy to determine if it was cancerous. It took about an hour to drive from my home in New Canaan, CT, up to Yale, and I felt sick the entire time. Truthfully, I didn’t ever want the car to get there because I was scared of what awaited my arrival. But we eventually did arrive and my mom and I walked into the examining room and waited.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock, a knock that echoed through every inch of my body. The orthopedic oncologist entered the room alone. He walked in, looked at me, and he said;
“After looking at your biopsy, we have determined that you have an incredibly rare soft tissue cancer known as Ewing’s Sarcoma. There are treatment plans for this that have shown a possibility for survival”.
I could feel my heart fall into my stomach. One month before, I was out on the baseball field throwing and joking around with my friends, and here I was, frozen in this moment in time, learning that there is a good chance I could be dead in less than a year. Baseball and college in general immediately dropped from my mind as I was shocked and terrified. The doctor said that the road ahead would include intense chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries. The goal was to shrink this large tumor to a size where they could surgically remove it. I was to go through fourteen chemotherapy treatments over the course of six months and additional radiation and other surgeries could be a possibility. The doctor said that my best case scenario was that I would be back to normal by June of 2018, but from his tone, even that seemed like a dream.
On the way home from the hospital I was still in shock and couldn’t speak. I kept telling myself to wake up from this nightmare, but no matter how hard I tried, this mountain still stood in front of me. When I got home, I went right to my room and got in the shower; I needed to snap out of this haze of disbelief. While I was in the shower, reality set in, and I started sobbing uncontrollably for probably half an hour. No matter how hard I tried not to think about the worst case scenario, it still would creep into my mind and send my brain into chaos. I got out of the shower and laid in my bed and began to think about what this all meant for me.
But as I pondered the situation, I began to gain a little perspective. I started telling myself that I could fight for one year, beat this, and get back to my normal life. At the start of my treatment, the doctors told me that after twelve weeks, they would do follow-up tests to determine if the treatments had been effective in shrinking my tumor. It was something to look forward to, but still, my brain was in survival mode, and baseball still seemed too far to reach…
There were often times throughout high school and my freshman year of college where I didn’t want to wake up early and go lift or run, but I knew that I had to in order to accomplish my goal. When I’m on the mound, I’m always trying to beat something, whether it’s working to gain an extra mile per hour on my fastball, get more movement on my curveball, or to outsmart the hitter. This mentality helped me stay focused and motivated and do whatever it took to beat the odds. On top of my athletic motivational factors, I also had such a strong desire to be back to doing normal things at school with my friends and teammates.
Not being able to play baseball for a year was tough, but even worse was not being able to just be with my teammates on and off the field. During my treatment I had a very strong support system;. my mom, my two brothers, and my girlfriend were by my side every step of the way, doing everything possible to make sure that I was comfortable and kept my spirits high. My mom would drive me all the way to the hospital and back for all of my appointments, procedures, and treatments, I truly could not have gotten through it all without her.
Being an athlete definitely aided in helping me mentally battle this disease. I have always been a competitive person, and as I began to process everything about my diagnosis, my fear turned to a competitive fire. As time went on, I told myself that I was not going to let cancer take me down. Where my mentality from sports helped me the most was dealing with the painful aspects of my treatment. Receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments is one of the hardest and most unnatural things the human body can go through, and I would be the first to admit that I underestimated how much I would be affected. I went into my first treatment thinking of myself as physically fit young man who would be able to handle these treatments. I was wrong. My treatment plan was an even more intense version of other chemotherapy treatment plans because of the incredibly aggressive nature of my cancer.
I lost my hair and a large amount of weight less than a week after going through my first treatment. As time went by and I received more and more treatments, I really began to feel the effects on my body. There were days it was hard to walk up a small flight of stairs or to even get out of bed. I was weak and skinny, and I didn’t feel like an athlete anymore. Getting up to go to my next appointment, my next test, or my next treatment was one of the hardest parts. I knew I was just getting up to go do things to my body that would make me feel weaker and skinnier. But it was part of my fight, and I was willing to do anything it took to win.
In late August, the time had come to see if the treatments had been working well enough to remove the tumor. After getting the scans, I nervously awaited the results, thinking to myself that there had to be some sort of progress after all that I went through. I was sitting in my hospital bed getting one of my chemotherapy treatments and one of my doctors walked into the room. She told me that my results of MRI had come back.I had so many quesitons, but before I could think, I instantly asked if the tumor was operable. Her response was something I’ll never forget.
“Well, there is no tumor. The treatments seemed to have completely eliminated it.”
I was speechless. The doctor told me that I would have to finish out the rest of my treatment plan to ensure that the tumor was completely gone, which I had fully expected, but pending the completion of my program, I would be done in December. After the doctor left, I sat alone in the room, and I began to cry. The tears hurt more because of the fact I was receiving chemotherapy at the time, but I didn’t care; this was a hard fought victory. Once I pulled myself together, I grabbed my phone and called my mom, girlfriend, and pretty much everyone who had been in contact with me over the course of my journey. I knew that I wasn’t done, or even close to done, but for the first time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
As I write this piece, I’m back at school and back to my normal life, and as of January 2019, I have been cancer free for one year. I am back on the Gettysburg College baseball team, and am enjoying starting the 2019 season with my teammates. I don’t know what the future holds for me after graduation, but I do know one thing; I am going to enjoy every minute of everything that I missed so much while battling Ewing’s Sarcoma. If I could give any advice to anyone going through something similar, it would be to surround yourself with people who love you and care about you.
Even after all that I went through, I still consider myself lucky because I was surrounded by so many people who cared for me and gave me strength to win this fight for them. Just like any athlete needs their team to win, I needed mine to overcome this obstacle. To every single person who supported me throughout this journey- of which there are too many to list, but they know who they are- thank you for everything. To those still fighting, keep your head up, trust your team, and find the light at the end of your tunnel. You can do it.
Jack Havard is a student at Gettysburg College, studying Organizational Management, and minoring in Business and Economics. He is a rising junior, and a pitcher on the varsity baseball team.