“Never give up…do whatever it takes. Don’t ever start something then quit.” These words inspired Jake Simmons when he learned he had Leukemia at the age of 17.
“It was one of the first things my dad taught me how to do…to fight for life,” said Jake. At the time of Jake’s diagnosis this advice had a distinct meaning to him, because his father had died of the cancer mesothelioma (most commonly caused by asbestos) when Jake was only 10 years old. His father’s inspiring words, and his example to fight and never quit is what gave Jake a determined will to beat his illness.
Jake is now 22 years old and lives in Cleveland, Ala. He reflects back to January 2010, his junior year in high school, when he was first diagnosed with leukemia, which is the most common cancer in children and teens. Leukemia involves the blood-forming tissues in the body, including the lymphatic system and bone marrow.
At the time, he was a typical teenager who loved to hunt and fish, and live life to the fullest. “I never had any health problems growing up. I rarely went to the doctor,” he said. “The weekend before I was diagnosed, I went deer hunting with friends. I woke up at 3 a.m., and toted a tree stand and my rifle through the woods. I was going up and down hills with no problem, and even hunted for 3 days. Now that I look back, I was tired a lot and just thought it was related to everything I was doing.”
Before his diagnosis, Jake had frequent nosebleeds and noticed red spots under the skin on his foot that kept coming and going (called petechiae). The Tuesday following his hunting trip, he noticed a large bruise on his arm, and developed a nosebleed that would not completely stop. The next day, his mother took him to his family physician, where he was examined and took a blood test. That same evening, his doctor called his mother instructing her to take him immediately to Children’s of Alabama’s emergency room where the staff was waiting for him to arrive. Jake’s white blood count was extremely high, and his red blood count and platelets were so low that the doctor was afraid Jake would bleed out if injured. When arriving at Children’s, the appropriate tests were taken, and confirmed that Jake had leukemia. Children’s oncologist Dr. Christy Bemrich-Stolz was called in right away to see Jake.
“She was on call and came right in at 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning; they got her up out of bed, and she came right over,” he said. “The first time we met, we joked back and forth and developed a great relationship. We became friends. All of the doctors were like family to me.”
Jake had one more deer-hunting trip scheduled for that winter, but could not go because of his illness. Although he was very disappointed, he promised his oncologist that he would be ready to hunt opening day of the next deer season. In November of 2011, he kept his promise. He was not only well enough to hunt on the first day of the season, he even shot a 220-pound eight-point buck a few minutes after sunrise!
Jake’s fight with leukemia has been a successful one. Although his bone marrow biopsy contained 92 percent cancer cells when first diagnosed, his cancer had decreased to 40 percent after 10 days of treatments. A little over 2 weeks later, his cancer was completely undetected. By the end of February 2010, slightly more than a month from discovering his life threatening disease, Jake was in full remission! With the instruction of his oncologist, he continued treatments for three and half years to make sure his cancer was gone. Today, he sees his oncologist every three months.
“I don’t have a single complaint about any of them (the Children’s staff). They are all great! They are a part of the reason I am still here. They helped me stay positive and joked around with me. I was in the right place with right doctors, the right nurses and the right community to come together to help me with everything,” he said.
Jake’s fighting spirit and positive attitude not only comes from his memories of his father, but also from his maternal grandfather, who passed away due to multiple health issues just months before Jake became sick.
Jake remembers, “I wouldn’t know that he was hurting, because he would still laugh or come up with a joke. He never showed it.” His grandfather’s sense of humor shines through Jake. In speaking about his diagnosis with leukemia, “I could either be mad or upset or be positive. No matter what, I still had it. It was how I wanted to take it that would make the difference.”
Jake is currently on scholarship at Jacksonville State University. He is now a senior, and plans to graduate in December of this year with a Criminal Justice degree. He aspires to be a Game Warden.
Jake likes to help others who are facing the same challenges he did with his cancer. His determination not to quit now encourages others. “I feel that I didn’t go through everything for nothing, if I can help others fight their disease,” he said. His best advice to those who may go through the same obstacles he experienced…“Stay positive. Look at me; I am living proof that cancer is not a death sentence, that it can be beat. God has a plan.”