CANONSBURG – Jackson Pistner was in the Canon-McMillan High School gymnasium in early December when Luke Blanock walked onto the basketball court to an emotional standing ovation.
Just two days earlier, the Big Macs’ junior forward had a cancerous mass, later diagnosed as Ewing’s sarcoma, removed from his spinal cord.
Never could Jackson or his parents, Richard and Amanda Pistner of Canonsburg, have imagined that less than two months later, 7-year-old Jackson would be facing a similar battle.
On Feb. 1, Jackson underwent surgery to remove a 3-centimeter tumor from the base of his brain. A biopsy later indicated it was a stage 2 Ependymoma tumor, a rare form of cancer that results in various symptoms depending on its location in the brain.
“We were not prepared at all,” Richard said.
Both boys have completed aggressive treatments. Luke finished his 14th – and final – round of chemotherapy July 29, and Jackson completed 33 rounds of radiation in early April. During a recent three-month followup, “Everything looked really good,” Jackson’s mother, Amanda, said. Luke is still waiting to learn whether he will require additional radiation.
To help defray the families’ medical costs, Consulate Retirement Village of North Strabane, 200 Tandem Village Road, Canonsburg, will hold its 2014 Taste of the Town Sept. 17. The event will feature food and entertainment.
Last year, Taste of the Town raised $21,600 to benefit two other Canon-McMillan School District students, Haylee and Abbie LaBarbera, who were born with Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa, a painful, blistering skin condition.
The Pistners knew something was wrong with Jackson when he began to experience headaches and nausea. Within 30 minutes of their onset, however, Jackson would vomit and feel better.
Richard also noticed that Jackson’s “balance and sense of smell were off,” and Jackson would tell his mother he would get nervous when it was time for lunch at school. To help mask the smell, Amanda rubbed Vicks VapoRub on a paper towel so he could hold it under his nose.
Amanda originally thought something was bothering Jackson or that he might be the target of bullying. She encouraged Jackson to tell her what was wrong, but each time he would say, “Mommy, I just feel sick.”
A visit to the pediatrician resulted in a diagnosis of migraines. Even the initial consultation with a neurologist suggested it was migraines as well.
But Amanda gets migraines, and Jackson’s symptoms were not similar.
“I just felt like something was wrong,” said Amanda, who worked in the health-care field until Jackson’s diagnosis.
A CT scan finally revealed the Ependymoma tumor, a rare form of cancer, with about 120 new cases diagnosed among children each year in the United States.
During the five-hour surgery, the surgeon did a complete resection, removing the tumor from the fourth ventricle of Jackson’s brain.
Jackson said, “I was a little bit scared” before going into surgery, and Richard admitted it was the longest five hours of his life.
Eight days later, Jackson was released from Children’s Hospital. After experiencing some soreness the first two weeks, his recovery and radiation treatments went very well.
Upon the Observer-Reporter’s arrival at the family’s Canonsburg home on July 31, Jackson was playing catch with his dad in the front yard.
Luke’s battle with cancer began Dec. 2 when he awoke at 3 a.m. with tingling in his legs and the inability to walk. A few minutes later, however, the tingling stopped, and he was able to walk.
He went to school and attended basketball practice, but later that night, as he was settling in to watch “Monday Night Football,” the tingling began again. Only this time, it was accompanied by pain.
His parents, Kurt and Jan Blanock of Cecil, took him to the emergency department at Canonsburg General Hospital, where Luke was diagnosed with a pinched nerve. But while doctors began to process the paperwork for his release, Luke’s symptoms worsened. He was taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, where an MRI showed a mass in the lower part of his back.
He underwent surgery Dec. 4 to remove the tumor, and less than 24 hours later, the Blanocks learned that Luke had Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that can spread to the lungs, spine, lymph nodes and bone marrow. A few days later, the Blanocks breathed a collective sigh of relief when a second battery of tests indicated the cancer had not spread.
Nevertheless, Luke was prescribed aggressive chemotherapy treatment that involved a two-day inpatient stay, followed two weeks later by a five-day outpatient regimen.
“He’s doing well,” his mother, Jan, said three days after his final treatment. “He handled the treatment well. They gave him anti-nausea medication, and he never got sick. He was able to eat, and he held his weight. It just made him feel worn out.”
Early on, Luke even participated in some sports activities, shooting hoops with friends. As more restrictions were lifted, he played basketball for the Brownson House and baseball this summer.
“The doctors said he had a positive attitude, which was good,” Jan said.
On Aug. 15, Luke will undergo followup scans to determine if more treatment is needed.
Back on track
Luke will return to 11th grade in the fall at Canon-McMillan. He’s always been a good student, but his mother said the family opted out of homebound tutoring during his treatment.
“Actually, it was kind of his idea to go back to 11th grade. He’s fine with that,” Jan said. “He was so far behind. … It would have been really hard to catch up and stay caught up. I think he wanted to do the whole package over.”
Jackson, meanwhile, will attend second grade at South Central Elementary School, and he is excited about returning to school. His favorite subject, he said, is math.
Each family also is looking forward to returning some normalcy into their lives after enduring such a tumultous seven months. “It will be good for all of us,” Jan said.
At the same time, however, they are thankful for the generosity and outpouring of support from the Canonsburg community, where friends, family and neighbors rallied around them. Several fundraisers were held in Luke’s honor, and his classmates started a #LukeStrong campaign.
Richard said the Pistners didn’t have to cook a meal for two months.
“We’ve had so much love and support,” said Amanda, who learned that someone submitted Jackson’s name to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Jackson soon became a Wish child, and in September, the Pistner family will be going to Disney.
“Every day we are grateful for everything,” Amanda said. “We don’t take anything for granted.”
Taste of the Town to benefit Canon-McMillan School District students Luke Blanock and Jackson Pistner will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Consulate Retirement Village of North Strabane, 200 Tandem Village Road, Canonsburg. The event will feature food and entertainment. Tickets are $10 for adults and children 6 and older. Children 5 years old and younger are free. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 724-743-9000 or at the door. Shuttle services will be provided for parking. All proceeds will help with Luke and Jackson’s medical costs.