In Their Own Words: Jake Taraska
The V Foundation is successful thanks to the contributions of many: donors, corporate partners, our incredible Board and Scientific Advisory Committee and the amazing researchers to whom we award grants. With “In Their Own Words,” we sit down with key members of our team to learn more about their commitment to the V Foundation and their personal desire to put an end to cancer. In this edition, we chat with cancer survivor Jake Taraska.
The V Foundation: What do you remember about your cancer diagnosis? Can you walk us through what that was like for your family?
Jake Taraska: Since I was diagnosed right before my second birthday, I do not remember a lot. I do remember the endless doctors visits, cat scans, therapy sessions, and the constant struggles I faced physically and emotionally during most of childhood. Although I was lucky enough to become cancer free, I still had many obstacles in my way. I had to endure endless hours of therapy just to learn to walk. I spent over ten years in speech therapy, and I had to get past my learning struggles in elementary school.
My parents took me to the pediatrician because my balance was off and my eyes kept rolling back in my head. I was having trouble focusing. The pediatrician diagnosed a double ear infection and gave me a strong dose of antibiotics. My mother kept saying it was something else. I had ear infections before and she felt it was different this time. After 24 hours of antibiotics, my symptoms did not change. My mom took me back to the pediatrician who agreed that something did not seem right, so we went to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Within an hour, they told my mother that I had either a very bad virus or cancer. They took me away for extensive testing and my parents were told the news the next morning by the oncologist. I was operated on two days later to remove the huge tumor in my abdomen. We were very lucky that we caught it in time and the cancer had not spread. The Opsoclonus Myoclonus symptoms actually saved my life. My mother never left my side, however it was really difficult for her to be away from my twin sister during the time we were in the hospital. Luckily, I have amazing grandparents, aunts and uncles who stepped in to help at home.
The next year was probably the most difficult. We had endless therapy sessions and doctors appointments and these were the critical months to make sure the cancer did not return and to see if I could ever walk and talk. My mom stopped teaching so she could stay home and concentrate on getting me better, while learning as much as she could about the therapies I needed. I remember the countless hours of exercises and “practices” my mom did with me to help my balance and my speech.
My parents, and other family members, tell me stories, but I do know for sure that it was the worst experience my parents ever faced. It was the end of 1999. There was very little on the internet and social media outlet support pages did not exist. My parents actually had to go to the medical library at the hospital and read medical books to figure out exactly what Neuroblastoma and Opsoclonus Myoclonus actually meant and what options and treatments we had.
TVF: What things helped you through the toughest times?
JT: The two things that helped me get through the really tough times were my family and baseball. My entire family supported me, helped me, and loved me when I needed it the most. My passion for baseball also helped me because it always gave me the motivation to try harder and get better. My first word was “ball” and my parents made sure exercises, learning, and therapies were surrounded by baseball to give me some incentive to persevere. The doctors never thought I would walk or talk, but through a lot of hard work and determination I am proud to be playing college baseball.
TVF: You’ve been honored at Dick Vitale’s Gala, where he raises millions for pediatric cancer research each year. How cool has it been for you to get to know Dick and help him support this cause?
JT: Meeting Dick Vitale has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. People like Dick are the reason why I am alive today. I have seen firsthand how hard he works and how committed he is to trying to cure cancer. He has raised over $25 million for pediatric cancer over the last 10 years and he is actively begging and pleading for more.
Dick has challenged me and has inspired me to work even harder to help other kids battling cancer. Dick has helped me raise over $100,000 for pediatric cancer and he has helped me start my own foundation, the Jake Taraska Foundation. Jake Taraska Foundation is about creating smiles and creating hope, 1 child a time. The foundation has helped a lot of kids and it would not have been possible without the incredible support from Dick Vitale.
Dick is one of my mentors, an inspiration, and a great friend. His leadership and his passion has a lot more impact on childhood cancer than just from a financial aspect. He has created an incredible legacy that has inspired other people and other kids to be on the same mission that he is on. There are very few people in this world like Dick Vitale and I am thankful that I am able to watch his leadership and learn from him on a firsthand basis.
TVF: What are a few pieces of advice you’d give to a young person who has been diagnosed with cancer?
JT: When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was too young to understand what was really happening and what cancer really meant. However, I now understand the pain and suffering that my parents and family endured during that time. It was dark, it was scary, and it was hopeless. They thought I was going die, or never be able to walk or talk. Now, I am 20 years old and looking back on the things I remember like doctors visits, hospital visits, struggling to walk and balance, and constantly struggling with my speech. It ended up being a positive experience in my life. I have the incredible opportunity to share my story, to encourage other kids during their battle with cancer, and most importantly, to show young people the importance of giving back to the people in need.
The darker a situation is, the easier it is to shine a light in that dark situation. A young person getting diagnosed with cancer is one of the darkest circumstances in this life. However, a young person cannot let a dark situation control their life. That young person has the incredible opportunity to shine a light in that dark circumstance, by sharing their story, encouraging other people during in their battle with cancer, and to show people the importance of giving back to the people in need.
Life is never about the circumstances that you are in. Life is about how you respond to those circumstances. It’s about how can you positively impact people no matter what circumstance you are in.
TVF: What does Victory Over Cancer® look like to you?
JT: One of my favorite quotes is, “Everyone dies, but not everyone lives” by William Wallace. Death cannot be avoided. Death will happen to everyone. Therefore, Victory Over Cancer is not about surviving or not surviving. To me, Victory Over Cancer is doing everything in your power to beat the disease and doing everything in your power to help other people beat the disease. Victory Over Cancer means living life to the fullest and striving to be a light in this world. Whether these people survive or whether they don’t survive is not in their control. However, these people do have the power to fight with all their might and with all their strength to make a positive difference in this world.
When I think of Victory Over Cancer, I think of people like Tony Colton who relentlessly fought against multiple years of cancer and relentlessly helped other kids during their battle with cancer. I also think of a little girl named Alex Scott, who battled cancer at a very young age and all she wanted to do was help other kids battling cancer. Even though she passed away, her incredible perspective and incredible desire to help others started the Alex’s Lemonade Stand and they have raised millions of dollars to help other kids battling cancer.
This is what Victory over Cancer looks like. It’s not about surviving or not surviving. It’s about living a life for a greater purpose and relentlessly striving to be a light.