Grafton High senior Jacob Wilkin fought Hodgkin’s lymphoma with the same physical and mental toughness he brings to the basketball court — and won
Grafton High School senior Jacob Wilkin called it an “inconvenience.”
His mother Michele characterized her son’s disease as being far more serious. After all, they were talking about Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
But Jacob’s approach to his cancer diagnosis turned out to be key to beating the disease. He didn’t want fundraisers hosted on his behalf or special attention. What he did want is to be a normal teenager and play his last year on the Black Hawks’ basketball team.
“I’ve got so much admiration for that kid,” first-year coach Damon James said. “None of my kids could do what he’s doing and make it through.”
“It’s just a testament to who he is and how far he’s going to go in life because of the resiliency he has.”
Jacob’s basketball season and much more were called into question last spring after he developed a dry cough that plagued him every morning.
Doctors prescribed a nasal spray, then a steroid inhaler, and at one point thought he may have been suffering from acid reflux.
Eventually, Michele requested a chest X-ray be taken. At first glance, nothing looked abnormal.
But when they got home from the appointment, the doctor called. A radiologist saw something in Jacob’s upper left lung.
The next day the family was at the MAACC Fund Center of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin getting a CT scan.
“They’re not going to send you down to Children’s for a CT scan for nothing. I had a lump in my throat,” Michele said.
Within an hour, doctors thought Jacob had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They did a PET Scan, which highlights cancer.
“He lit up like a Christmas tree,” Michele said.
Cancer stretched from Jacob’s chest to his legs.
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma isn’t ranked in stages, but Jacob’s father Bill said doctors them Jacob’s would have been stage 4.
“It all happened really fast,” Jacob said. “They said it and I just wanted to go back home at that moment.”
The family had two treatment options: the traditional route of a few chemotherapy sessions per week gradually declining in frequency, or a newer treatment with 12 sessions that is easier on the body but has less historical data.
Michele wanted the tried-and-true treatment. Jacob and his father Bill wanted to try the new treatment.
“Less time in the hospital,” Jacob said.
“And I don’t blame him,” Bill said.
The family’s oncologist, Dr. Paul Harker-Murray, told Jacob he would never lie to him. He thought he could make the cancer go away, but there were no guarantees.
“We were happy when we walked out of there,” Bill said.
Chemotherapy was every other Monday starting in late July. After his first treatment, he went fishing for hours and got home at 11 p.m.
He didn’t feel sick until the last few treatments. More importantly, a PET scan halfway through the sessions showed no cancer.
Jacob’s only complaint was getting up at 6 a.m. for treatments, earlier than he rose for school. He missed school on Mondays and part of Tuesdays during treatment weeks, but that was all.
“My teachers were great about it,” he said.
Hair loss started after his second session. Michele said she remembered telling Jacob how proud she was of him for how he handled his disease.
“He said ‘Don’t get sappy. My hair is coming out,’” she said.
Jacob decided to speed the process and shave his head.
Treatment slowed him down during basketball since he got tired faster, but he only missed a handful of practices.
Jacob’s closest friends are his teammates, and they became even closer.
James, who called all the players’ families after being hired last summer, told the Wilkins his family was praying for them and would help with anything they need.
“And I never met the guy. That spoke volumes,” Michele said.
James was OK with Jacob missing practice if need be.
“He said just let me know how you feel. Life is bigger than the game of basketball,” Jacob said.
James said Jacob’s character made managing the situation much easier.
“It hasn’t been that tough because Jacob is unbelievable. The kid’s got so much physical and mental resiliency,” he said.
“I’ve got so much admiration for that kid. None of my kids could do what he’s doing and make it through. It’s just a testament to who he is and how far he’s going to go in life because of the resiliency he has.”
Jacob said he is feeling stronger and shooting is coming easier. He drained a critical three-pointer late in the game in a recent victory over Port Washington.
“I’m starting to get my legs back. I’m not throwing the ball at the hoop. It’s a little flick like it used to be,” he said.
Besides his friends and their families, nearly 20 cousins who live in Grafton not far from Jacob’s house have been there to support him.
Offers of meals and help were gracious, but Michele and the family wanted to keep everything as normal as possible.
“Don’t try to make it a bigger deal than it is,” Bill said. “It just makes it worse.”
Michele said she wouldn’t wish her family’s journey on anyone, but she hopes it could help others.
“If Jacob’s story can be an inspiration to anybody, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Michele said.
For the Wilkins, that light came Jan. 26, nearly a month after the final chemo treatment. A PET scan again showed everything was clear.
“It’s a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Jacob said.
Ongoing checkups will show if the cancer stays away. After five years, an all-clear scan would mean it is unlikely the cancer would ever return.
Jacob has already moved on. After graduation, he plans to study business at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “It was just an inconvenience for me.”
Image Information: Grafton High School senior basketball player Jacob Wilkin (center) posed with his younger brothers Ben (left) and Andrew and his parents Michele and Bill Wilkin before a game Friday at Cedarburg High School. Photo by Sam Arendt