Everything changed for Brad and Julie Custer on June 5, 2014. Their 16-year-old daughter, Jackie, who they took to the emergency room for what they thought was sports-related swelling in her right arm, was diagnosed with cancer. “We were devastated,” Julie recalls. “You know it’s out there and you hear about kids having cancer, but you never think it’s going to happen to you.” The doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital told the Custers, of Canton, that Jackie’s form of cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), is the most treatable type of leukemia. While the long battle wouldn’t be easy, the family was encouraged by that fact. “When the doctor told me I had cancer, I was scared,” says Jackie, now 17. “But I kind of knew I was going to beat it; I’ve always been a fighter.”
Though Jackie says she was most nervous to tell her friends and classmates the news of her diagnosis, she was met with nothing but overwhelming support.
A blood drive in her honor drew the largest turnout ever for a drive held at Jackson High School in Massillon – in fact, the Red Cross had to send more than 200 donors to other locations because it simply couldn’t handle the large volume.
As an athlete and member of the softball and basketball teams, Jackie most missed being able to play – but she never felt like she wasn’t a part of the team.
“I was diagnosed right before basketball was about to start, so the basketball team would come up after practices and sit with me for hours at the hospital,” she recalls.
When she was discharged from the hospital, the team decorated the Custers’ house, so Jackie received a warm welcome when she came home.
“I sat in almost every game of our basketball team; I went to all the softball games,” Jackie adds. “My basketball coach actually let me dress in uniform, and during one of our preseason games, he put me in. I couldn’t really do much, but the other team allowed me to make a layup, so that was really cool.”
Jackie’s parents and her brother, Aaron, 13, were the mainstay of support. Julie stayed most nights at the hospital with Jackie, while Brad brought Aaron after work so everyone could eat dinner together.
The Road to Recovery
Jackie was about one month into her chemotherapy treatment when she was dealt a major setback: she suffered a stroke that affected her speech and movement on the right side of her body. A month after that, she developed a blood clot in her left leg.
While she regained her speech within a few days of the stroke, she was unable to walk for more than a month.
“Right after the stroke, when I couldn’t talk or move, I thought this might be it,” says Jackie, adding that while she’s strived to remain positive during the entire experience, this low point challenged her optimism. “When I started talking again, I knew I was on the upswing.”
After the stroke, Jackie underwent speech therapy and occupational therapies, as well as physical therapy – from which she was just discharged last month. Her treatment included six rounds of chemo, which have ranged from receiving treatments once or twice weekly to her current regimen of once a month.
“Right now I’m in my sixth round, which is maintenance,” Jackie says. “The doctor doesn’t see any more leukemia cells in my body, but they still have to provide chemo in case it comes back.”
Her monthly chemo treatments will continue until Sept. 16, 2016, at which point she’ll be considered in remission.
Now that Jackie’s physical therapy has ended and her maintenance treatments are less frequent, she has a new goal: to get back in shape and rejoin the basketball team for her senior year.
Jackie will be returning to school this fall and has started considering college. She plans to stay close to home for the first year, when she’ll be wrapping up treatments and having follow-up appointments. After that, she’s considering moving away to college.
“After going through this, I’ve been thinking of becoming a physical therapist or nurse – something in the medical field,” Jackie says. “It was a lot to go through and it kind of changed my perspective on everything.”
One thing is certain: Jackie will take her positive attitude anywhere she goes.
“I really am proud of her,” Brad says. “It would be very easy to feel sorry for yourself, but she’s not going to let that happen. She’s bound and determined not to be dragged down by this.”
A Prom to Remember
As part of the annual Prom to Remember event, which gives pediatric cancer patients from Akron Children’s Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic, Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and their guests the ultimate prom experience, Jackie Custer formed a lasting friendship with Cavs star Matthew Dellavedova.
Several athletes – “Delly,” as well as the Cavs’ Anderson Varejo and Joe Harris, plus the Browns’ Brian Hartline – served as escorts who walked patients into the Yellow Brick Road/Wizard of Oz themed prom.
“He was super nice and we’ve kept in touch ever since,” Jackie says, adding that Dellavedova gave her family tickets to the Cavs final playoff game in Cleveland.
“We’re there to try and make them feel good and have a laugh and it was the opposite with Jackie,” Dellavedova says of the prom. “She was the one making me laugh and feeling good about myself. She just had a certain passion for life in general.”
September is Childhood
Cancer Awareness Month.
For more information, including ways to help, visit childrenscancer.org.