Jason Garstkiewicz has scored plenty of lacrosse goals in his young life, but the one he scored recently for his Haddonfield, NJ, travel team seems like it counted a little bit more.
In a span of just 10 months he had not only survived cancer, but also survived the loss of his right foot and a good portion of his leg.
“Watching him play that day was remarkable,” said his father, Gary Garstkiewicz. “Being someone who played sports his whole life, watching him play is just what we do, but sometimes you lose the impact of the fact he is doing it with prosthesis.
"He doesn’t look that different than he did before all of this. Scoring a goal that first game was great because it allowed him to see he can do it, can keep him moving forward,” Gary said.
Jason's ordeal started with an innocent looking bump.
On Dec. 27, he returned home from a basketball practice complaining that his right ankle hurt. His parents didn’t think much about it at the time. As a 13-year-old who is 6 feet tall and wears a size 14 shoe, such pains were commonplace.
However, after taking a shower Garstkiewicz noticed a bump on his leg down by the ankle.
“It was nothing crazy, so we thought maybe it was a stress fracture,” his father said.
Soon after, Garstkiewicz underwent tests that revealed the bump was a cancerous tumor.
That was only the beginning of the bad news.
“We went to CHOP (the Children's Hospital Of Philadelphia) for a biopsy and it slowly evolved to not only being cancer, but the best course of action for it was amputation,” said Gary.
“That was almost as hard to hear as the cancer diagnosis.”
Suddenly, a teenager who spent his life enjoying football, basketball and lacrosse with friends was faced with the possibility of having all of that and more taken away.
The family got advice from many in the local community who had endured the same issues. Gary recalled receiving a letter from a man a few blocks down whose godson had cancer in the lower leg. The man told him that repeated surgeries were done to help save the limb, but nothing worked and the boy sadly passed.
He was also told by countless doctors and surgeons that the smartest thing to do was to go forward with amputation.
However, Gary and his wife Pam couldn’t begin to find a way to break the news to their son.
“When it became evident that it was the best course of action to take, my wife and I were struggling on how to tell him that,” Gary said. “Jason had already taken the cancer news pretty well considering the news, and I was at a loss how to tell him.”
Fortunately for Gary and his wife, a doctor at Johns Hopkins brought up the difficult news for them. Jason was understandably shaken, if for only a short time.
“She gave him options and he was a little emotional in the room for awhile, but by the time we got home that night he was on the Internet looking at prosthetics and what people who have them can do,” Gary said. “It was remarkable how easy he accepted it.”
If there was any good news to be found at the time it was that the amputation was several inches below the knee, leaving him an important joint in terms of future movement. Jason had the amputation surgery on March 7 and followed up with two rounds of chemotherapy.
It wasn’t long before Jason was being fitted for an Ossur prosthetic and returning to Haddonfield Middle School on a regular basis. A few months later, he was already eager to get back into some competition. Jason and Gary began playing golf together a few rounds in the summer.
That’s when Gary realized that nothing was going to hold his son back from getting back to the sports he loved.
“I don’t think in our wildest dreams would we imagine nine months into it he would be playing lacrosse again,” Gary said. “Young people don’t get held back by what they can or can’t do. They just want to do this or do that. I was hesitant about him playing at first, not knowing how much he would be able to do, but by that time he was already playing football and Frisbee with friends.”
So Gary and Pam allowed Jason to once again compete in lacrosse—a sport notorious for a level of physicality. In two games, Jason has looked comfortable, confident and happy knowing he is back where he feels he belongs.
Part two of this series is at The Next Step for Jason Garstkiewicz, After Cancer and Amputation