Ex-football player tackling cancer
Last fall, after battling a rare from of cancer for three years, Jake McLeod found a couple of distractions that took his mind off the disease. One of them was football. Playing on both sides of the field as a six-foot-three, 230-pound defensive lineman/offensive lineman, he capped his senior year at Duchess Park secondary school with an undefeated season and a P.G. Bowl championship. The Condors were the inaugural winners of Matt Pearce Memorial Trophy, named after their head coach who died suddenly of a heart condition in January 2016.
In late-September, about a month before the Condors went on to represent the North in the provincial high school playoffs, Jake and his father Dan, mother Carrie, and older brother Matthew took off on a cruise to Hawaii.
They were selected for the trip after Jake’s name was submitted to the Children’s Wish Foundation by medical staff at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
They had a great time together and the holiday came at just the right time, after so many trips back and forth to hospitals in Prince George and Vancouver for procedures to save his leg from amputation.
But on Dec. 15, the pain returned and the McLeods got the news they all feared. Jake’s tumours had grown back in several places in his right leg from the knee down and he required immediate surgery to remove them.
“Sure it was a shock but it was just something I knew was going to happen,” said Jake, 17. “It was a little bit of a letdown but I fully expected it.
“It’s a roller-coaster ride, you don’t know what’s going to happen. One moment life’s going fine, the next moment you need to go to Vancouver – something’s wrong with you.”
His doctors had warned him of that likelihood when they diagnosed his condition, known as soft-tissue sarcoma (fibromatosis), an aggressive form of cancer which affects just one or two out of every million people in the world. Considering his age and the location of the cancer, the average time for his tumours to grow back following surgery is just three months.
Jake joined the Condors junior team in Grade 9 and in his four seasons playing football the team dealt with more than its share of tragedies. Four of the players lost their mothers – three to cancer and one because of a heart attack – while Pearce’s death left Condors running back/safety Colburn Pearce without a father.
“These boys are really good friends, they’ve been to more than one funeral for each other’s parents and they’re like family,” said Carrie McLeod. “If he could play, they would find a way to let him play. You can’t ask for a better support network if you’re teenager fighting a really rare battle.”
Jake, who turns 18 on Oct. 31, graduated in June from Duchess Park and now attends the College of New Caledonia, studying computer network electronic technology. He works part-time at Starbucks in College Heights and volunteers for the Canadian Cancer Society as part of Team Diller at the annual Run For the Cure in May and also helps out at the Inside Ride to Conquer Cancer in October.
“If I’m still alive and can do things I’m going to do that until I can’t anymore, I’ll still try to do what I can,” he said. “I know (losing his leg) is an inevitability but I can’t be put down by that, I still have to keep moving forward.”
Jake first complained about leg pain and the fact his pant leg was getting tighter when he was 14. He was diagnosed in 2014 and was given 50 bouts of low-dose chemotherapy. At 15, he had 28 radiation treatments but the tumours continued to grow. Nearly unable to walk due to swelling, with the tumours blocking the flow of blood in his leg, he had his first surgery when he was 16, needing 87 stables to close the wounds, but it didn’t stop the cancer from returning. The largest tumour he now has runs from his calf to mid-thigh and is 30 centimetres long and 10 cm in diameter.
“These tumours get very angry when you touch them and the minute you do a surgery or biopsy they get angry and grow a lot of times,” said Carrie. “But they’re so rare, there’s no traditional clinical trials because people aren’t responding the same way.
“Unfortunately it’s incurable right now and we have no way to get them to stop at this point, so he’s one of the very few kids to have personalized oncogenomics (POG) treatment, which is targeted gene therapy.”
POG has proven effective in fighting some types of aggressive cancer. Jake just returned from Vancouver, where he was given cryoablation treatment, in which a super-cooled gas is injected into the tumours. He’ll have that every three months.
“We’re trying to avoid amputation because even if we amputate, another tumour will come back for him,” said Carrie. “Fibroblasts, which are how some of these tumours react, are like scar tissue for us and it heals. But in his case it keeps coming back and creating new tumours.”
Jake is the only minor under the care of the B.C. Cancer Centre of the North at UHNBC and unfortunately for him, an MRI exam nine months in March 2016 failed to detect the tumour that showed up last December. Rather than express anger that it wasn’t diagnosed earlier, Carrie said he gave his doctor a hug and told her,” You’re just the messenger, you didn’t give me my cancer.”
Jake has had his moments of depression and anger dealing with his life-threatening condition but says there’s no point in dwelling on the negatives and moping about what’s happened to him.
“I just keep moving forward because I know I have to, there’s going to be no end to this and there’s no point in stopping,” he said. “You know you have more treatments ahead of you and it’s going to get worse and you have to stay strong and keep telling yourself that this can’t beat you, you’re better than this.”
This weekend the Northland Dodge Prince George Senior Baseball League is organizing two fundraising events at Citizen Field for Jake to help him and his family pay their travel expenses while he’s receiving medical treatments in Vancouver. Many of those costs are not covered because he’s treated at Vancouver General Hospital rather than at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
The league’s home run derby starts at 7 p.m. tonight at Citizen Field and the all-star game is on Sunday at 2 p.m. Jake hasn’t played much baseball in his life but says he’ll probably take a few swings to try to clear the fence tonight. Admission is by donation. There will be a silent auction at the ballpark.
“It’s really exciting to see people getting together like that to do fundraising and everything,” said Jake.
“A lot of things aren’t covered just because there isn’t a lot of funding for kids my age. Right now I don’t think I’d be able to everything on my own.”
Jake McLeod, left, gathers at home plate at Citizen Field with his mother Carrie and Paul Wilson of the Northland Dodge Prince George Senior Baseball League. The league is donating all proceeds from its home-run derby tonight and from Sunday’s all-star game to the McLeod family to help cover their travel expenses while Jake is receiving his cancer treatments in Vancouver.