OTTOVILLE, Ohio - As families around the world spend this morning exchanging and opening presents, the Wehri family will enjoy a quieter sort of gift.
Just two months ago, the family of four learned its youngest member, high school sophomore Jason, had Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that attacks the body's lymphatic system. But the diagnosis has barely slowed the pace for the 6-foot-8 teen, who just turned 16 on Dec. 10.
Even though he receives chemotherapy every two weeks to treat the cancer, he remains active. Not only does he play basketball for the Ottoville High School Big Green, he's back in the starting lineup, said his coach, Tom Von Sossan. Ottoville, in western Putnam County, lies 85 miles southwest of Toledo.
It is an outcome the people in Jason's life didn't consider at the end of October, when they learned about the cancer right before the start of basketball season.
"The team was pretty shocked," Mr. Von Sossan recalled. "The first couple of days of practice weren't too upbeat. The kids were pretty down, and I was pretty down myself."
Jason had started feeling rundown last summer during a basketball tournament in Louisville. The lymph nodes in his neck would swell, and he often felt tired and cold. At first, his doctor thought Jason had an infection. But when it didn't go away, the teen went through several tests, including a biopsy of a lymph node. Upon hearing the diagnosis, his mother, Joyce Wehri, immediately thought the worst.
"To me, cancer was a death sentence," Mrs. Wehri said in the family's tidy home.
"We came home and looked at a Web site," Joe Wehri, Jason's father, said. "It must have been the worst Web site out there. It was so depressing."
But it turned out the cancer had not advanced far. Doctors implanted in Jason's chest a medical port, similar to that used by Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong during his cancer treatments in the late 1990s. Jason would need regular chemotherapy treatments for several months. The device would make accepting the chemotherapy easier on Jason's body.
"We're thankful things have progressed so Jason's treatment isn't so brutal," Mrs. Wehri said, adding that her son's prognosis is excellent.
That's not to say it's always easy. Mr. Von Sossan keeps a close eye on Jason to make sure he doesn't overdo it, and has excused him from some drills.
"It's a long season," Mr. Von Sossan said. "When you're healthy, it can be a long, draining season."
For Jason, there have been other changes. "They say the biggest thing with this is, don't get tired," Jason said. That means he may play ball, but late nights with friends are out.
"He doesn't have much of a social life," Mrs. Wehri said.
Jason gave a gusty sigh. "I know." He rolled his eyes, suddenly very much a 16-year-old boy listening to his mom talk about him.
One of the people in his life who does not treat him much differently is his older brother, Jarrod. The college freshman came home the weekend the family got the news, and took his brother back to his school in Indiana for a brief visit, just to get him out of the house for a while. But mostly, the two brothers wrestle and exchange affectionate insults the way two jazz musicians might trade riffs. The jibes keep both grounded.
"It helps that he acts normal," Jarrod said.
Jason's not above milking his medical situation, however good his prognosis.
"One day, we were wrestling and I smacked him, and he reared back," as if to hit me, Jason recalled. "I said, 'You wouldn't hit a kid with cancer, would you?'●"
The entire family laughed, snug in the warm kitchen.
So for Christmas, the Wehris will celebrate another holiday together.
"It's just going to be a normal Christmas," Jarrod said, and smiled.
Contact Vanessa Winans at:
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