Cancer affects millions of people every day and the physical, mental, and financial struggles are heartbreaking. Thursday night in Lawrence, Kan., KU Athletics, former players, and fans come together to help three families fight their battle in the fourth annual Rock Chalk Roundball Classic.
We all live in a community somewhere.
We grocery shop, we buy gas, we walk the streets of downtown on those sunny summer afternoons; we do the things that almost everyone considers to be a normal activity.
What we don't do is look around at the people among us and wonder whether or not they can afford to buy those same groceries. Can they afford to go shopping on Massachusetts St? Can they take their family to the beach or to the park on the weekends and enjoy the outdoors like so many of us?
Of course we are caught up in our own lives. We have our own bills to pay and our own health to look after.
On those special occasions, however, we have the opportunity to come together and help those nameless faces we see every day-the ones who are struggling with something many of us know nothing about.
Thursday night at Lawrence Free State High School in Lawrence, Kan., one of those opportunities will kick off at 6:00 p.m., when Former Kansas Basketball players, coaches, and many more take part in the Rock Chalk Roundball Classic charity basketball game to help raise money for three beneficiaries selected for 2012: Ben and Aiden Turner of Lawrence, Taylor and Tom Gabel of Topeka, and Adam Tallent of Topeka.
"We're thrilled with both the quality and quantity of Jayhawks participating in this year's event," said Event Director Brian Hanni. "It'll be our best Roundball Classic by far. The whole vision is about helping these former KU stars use their platform to give back, and it's been so inspiring to see 30+ guys enthusiastically sign up."
"Even more inspirational though are the stories of our 3 beneficiary families -- stories of courage in the midst of unbelievably difficult circumstances. We've got 3 brave kids we're honoring this year and 2 of them have fathers battling cancer right alongside them. Thursday night will be all about honoring them while having a ton of KU hoops fun in the process."
Honorary coach for both teams: Bill Self
The Blue Team will be coached by: Bud Stallworth (Head Coach), Calvin Thompson (Asst. Coach), Roger Morningstar (Asst. Coach), Jeff Graves (Asst. Coach), and Brennan Bechard (Asst. Coach).
Roster: Jeff Hawkins, Conner Teahan, Lester Earl, Ryan Robertson, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, Darnell Valentine, Wayne Simien, TJ Pugh, Christian Moody, and Ron Kellogg.
The Red Team will be coached by: Scot Pollard (Head Coach), Ozzy Pollard (Asst. Coach/Son of Scot), Charlie Weis (Asst. Coach), David Lawrence (Asst. Coach), and Patrick Richey (Asst. Coach).
Roster: Nick Bradford, Russell Robinson, Sherron Collins, Terry Nooner, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, Jordan Juenemann, Julian Wright, Greg Gurley, Brad Witherspoon, Matt Kleinmann.
Serving as Emcee of the event is ESPN Sportcenter Anchor, Neil Everett.
On a summer day just over three years ago, Adam Tallent was rollerblading in his neighborhood. It was the summer just before he was to start first grade. Like so many other kids, the only thing that mattered is what kind of cereal to eat for breakfast, and when is the earliest possible moment you can head outside and have fun with your friends.
It's a normal life for a normal kid.
Like many people do, especially when attempting to rollerblade, Adam fell, landing on his back, forming a bruise. After a few days, Adam's mother noticed her son was having trouble moving around and walking. A visit to the doctor revealed that Adam had fractured his lower vertebrae, an unusual injury for a six-year-old.
Adam's condition progressively got worse. He starting losing weight at a rapid pace and his movement became so painful and limited that he needed a wheelchair to get around.
A multitude of visits to the doctor resulted in various diagnoses until Friday, April 17th, 2009, Adam and his family found out that he had Leukemia.
Adam's father, a truck driver at the time, came off the road upon hearing the news.
"When he was first diagnosed in 2009, I was an open-road truck driver. He had fallen and broken two vertebrae in his back and I had to come in," his father said. "We took him to Children's Mercy Hospital. They had given him the diagnosis of osteoporosis, scoliosis, arthritis, and then they told us he had leukemia."
"It was hard on us because I was the one working. When I found out he had leukemia, I turned the keys in on my truck. Friday the 17th of that April when we found out, that Sunday the 19th was my birthday and that Monday we took him in and he had his first chemo treatment."
All of a sudden, Adam went from being your happy-go-lucky boy to a kid battling a brutal illness which completely changed his life on an everyday basis.
"During that time he was a 7-year-old healthy boy who never had to go to the hospital for anything, and to see him go downhill so much and so fast--it was tough. He didn't get up anymore, he didn't go play and run around anymore, he would just sit in a chair and watch TV and go back and forth to the bathroom. He didn't do a whole lot of anything, he was just lifeless. Then to see him go through that and actually get diagnosed to after about the third month of chemo, he became a different kid again. He actually started going out and at least get up and out of the bed and look to go outside and be a normal kid again."
"It changed my way of looking at life all the way around," dad said. "My hope and inspiration was to see him doing what he is doing now. It's just different, and at that time when he was diagnosed, I didn't know what we were going to do or where we were going to be because for about the first 6 months, it was one time a week we were going to chemo and after that it was once a month. I think all in all over the last three years and three months, we have spent a good 3-4 months in the hospital."
During his treatments Adam found someone to share his experiences with; his grandfather, who was going through cancer treatments of his own in Georgia. Often times, both of them would go through treatments at the same time.
"My father passed away with cancer last year, now with this one [Adam], seeing everything he has gone through, it's been tough. He and my dad were actually really close and sometimes they would have treatments on the same days, even though my dad was in Georgia. When my son was on his way home from his treatment, he would call my dad and check on him to see how his went."
It's been a long three-plus years for the Tallent family. Adam is on his way to recovery and is just a week away from his last chemotherapy treatment. Chosen as one of the beneficiaries for the 2012 Roundball Classic, Thursday night is a night of bittersweet celebration for Adam and his family.
While everything he has gone through has been life-changing, Thursday's charity event is a chance to look back on that time and celebrate Adam's brave fight.
"Thursday night is a chance to sit back and reflect on what he has gone through and what has happened. I've got three other kids and to have a child battling cancer and fighting to live, as a parent it's unsettling and it's hard to watch because you're helpless and there is nothing you can do. "Now that we are at this point, I really don't know how to act. I am scared and nervous but happy at the same time because I know a lot of it is over, but I know the best chance for it to come back is within the first year. You just adapt to it and you do as much as you can do with the kids and keep them as healthy as you can."
"To see a kid like him and the steps he has taken to get to this point, that's my hero right there. That's the only way I can describe it."
For the Kelli Gabel, the feeling she felt on May 13, 2009 upon finding out that her daughter Taylor was diagnosed with cancer is as sinking now as it was then.
"As a mother and coming from my perspective, it was probably the worst day of my life."
"You hear the world cancer and it just breaks your heart, especially when it's just a kid," Kelli said. "We found out May 13, 2009 that she had a lump in her neck. She was in fifth grade at the time and ironically they had a breast cancer awareness thing for girls and they taught them how to feel for that. Even at that age, she found a lump that wasn't right. We start checking her out with doctors and they checked for several things. It took about a month and in the end she had a lump removed. We found out it was Hodgkin's and she went right into chemotherapy."
What made it even worse-Taylor went in for her first chemotherapy treatment on June 3rd-her birthday.
Taylor would spend the next four weeks facing radiation. Just like so many, it becomes a life-altering situation in which, as a parent, helplessness settles in. In Taylor's case, life seemed to go from one extreme to the next.
Over the course of the next three years, Taylor would go from being over the hump, to being diagnosed yet again. The constant treatment was hard not only on Taylor herself, but her family as well.
"In December of that year we got the good news that she was in remission. No evidence of disease is what they call it now. She went on her Make-A-Wish trip and when she got back we had our first 3-month check-up and they found spots on her scan. They were very small so the doctors wanted to wait until they were a little bit bigger before they would do anything about them."
"In October of 2010, spots had developed on her arm so she went into surgery again. That surgery in 2010 is when we found out that her cancer was back. At that point she went into chemo. All of her chemo was done at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. We would spend three or four days there. She went through weeks of treatment and radiation, and then a bone marrow transplant in February of last year. In May at her first check-up, they found a mass around her pancreas. They started taking the steps to address that and at the same time, they found more spots. Again they were too small to biopsy so we would make our monthly trips to Kansas City. They would give us 6-8 weeks before surgery."
Facing yet another surgery, this time to remove spots in order to perform a biopsy, Taylor and her family could only pray for the best. Having gone through so much already, it was hard to fathom having to start all over again.
"May 9th of this year she had the surgery to remove and biopsy the spots and we found out that her cancer is back again."
When talking to Kelli, it was clear that the news of the cancer returning was as a deflating as one person can imagine. To see your child go through something only to have to go through it again is something no person should have to endure, and for Taylor, to go through the physical and mental toll of what cancer does is a heartbreaking scenario.
As if things for the Gabel's wasn't hard enough, Taylor's father Tom starting experiencing trouble in October of 2011.
In October of last year, he started having trouble with some things, so we went to the doctor and they tried to figure out what was going on," said Kelli. "They tried to look for smaller issues first such as bladder infection or kidney problems. At the end of November, early December doctors found a tumor on his bladder so they went in and they removed it."
"It came back positive for bladder cancer."
Tom would join his daughter Taylor in the fight against cancer with Kelli now needing to help take care of the both of them.
"I don't even have the right words to say how I've felt other than I don't function very well. I don't sleep; I worry all the time about one or the other of them. We have a 22-year-old who moved back to finish up school at KU in the fall because I couldn't do it by myself anymore."
While Taylor had not yet been re-diagnosed with cancer, Tom was beginning to go through treatments (a much stronger chemo treatment). Because the two now shared the unique bond of dealing with cancer, they would begin to connect on an entirely different level, while also share some frustrations for the very same reasons.
"Unfortunately for him his chemo hasn't gone as well as Taylor's. She had the obvious hair loss and some of those things, but he has had several stays in the hospital and he had a blood clot in his leg from his ankle to his groin which forced him to stay in the hospital for five days."
"To a certain degree it has brought them closer because they can relate to each other a little more. She's been there and sometime I get frustrated because I am trying to do something and I just need him to do it but I know he can't. Like when I was mowing the grass, something that he used to do, but he just couldn't do it. I'll get frustrated but Taylor will say, "mom, he doesn't feel good," so there is a little more compassion there between the two of them but on the other hand, there can be a little frustration too because she did it, so she feels like he should be able to do it too."
With both Taylor and Tom facing chemotherapy treatments, it's hard to find the energy and courage to celebrate something which has caused so much pain, yet Thursday night in Lawrence, the Gabel's can take one night; one time before they have to put on their fighting gloves yet again, to come together with newly-made friends to fight for a cause which affects so many around the world.
The Roundball Classic not only helps those who have been selected as beneficiaries, such as the Gabel's, but children and adults from all walks of life who need assistance in fighting cancer.
"What they have put together with this benefit, whether it be for us or somebody else, has been absolutely amazing. It's a culmination of our friends and family, as well as others who attend coming together to support one cause and helping us and the other families who financially struggle. It's financially strapping-we definitely don't live the same lifestyle we did three years ago. We aren't able to do things they we used to do and receiving the help through this fundraiser is going to take care of a lot of the medical bills that we don't have the money to pay and take care of many other things that we aren't able to do right now."
"The friends that we have made through all of this and the good people like Brian [Hanni] who have done this fundraiser for us and other people, is unbelievable. It's hard to put into words how I feel. People have come out and really gotten involved with the cause. There is a lady that works with my dad who wanted two tickets, so he told her that'll be $14 and she wrote the check for $50. It's amazing how people want to help others. I always donated before this when someone needed help but I never realized how hard it was and how it would directly impact me and my whole family."
April 17th of 2010, Aiden Turner woke up from his afternoon nap with a high fever, belly pain, and he had trouble walking down the stairs. His father, Ben, rushed him to the hospital where, after blood work, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
To date, he has been fighting cancer for two years, with a scheduled year and a half to go. He takes daily chemo at home, monthly chemo at the CMH Oncology clinic, and regular spinal taps to make sure the Leukemia hasn't come back.
In August, he'll be starting Kindergarten at Langston Hughes Elementary School, and he loves soccer.
Aiden's father Ben, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer, has recently finished a six week chemotherapy treatment and surgery, and he is doing well.
According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO), each year in the U.S. there are approximately 12,400 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age who are diagnosed with cancer. About one in 300 boys and one in 333 girls will develop cancer before their 20th birthday. In 1998, about 2500 died of cancer, thus making cancer the most common cause of death by disease for children and adolescents in America.
Whether you or someone you know is fighting or has fought cancer, the Rock Chalk Roundball Classic and the celebration of these beneficiaries is sure to be an eye-opening event. The battle that is fought every day isn't an easy one, and the help these beneficiaries will receive from Thursday night alone will serve as a life-changing experience no matter what road lies ahead, thanks to the outreach and support from those in the KU community and to Brian Hanni, who has worked tirelessly to make this event become what it is today.
For Aiden and Ben, Taylor and Tom, and Adam, fighting their illnesses goes beyond the hospital bed. With the help of former Kansas basketball players, coaches, and fans who attend Thursday's charity game, these families will gain something more than just the money donated.
They will gain support, and will gain friends.