For a young cancer survivor, another challenge tackled
Jack Manning represents everything that the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge stands for.
For half of his life, the 16-year-old Norfolk resident has displayed serious dedication to fund-raising to find a cure for cancer, and served as a mentor to those who have it.
It’s a disease that has impacted his life immensely; he’s lived it, he’s fought it — he lost a large portion of his left leg to it and now wears a prosthesis — but it’s an obstacle that won’t define him or limit his aspirations.
Since 2010, his father, Vincent, and uncle, John, have ridden the 192-mile route in his honor, while Jack, his mother, Elizabeth, and brother, Matthew, have cheered them on, offering support and words of encouragement along the way.
But for this weekend’s installment of the annual bike-a-thon, Jack won’t be on the sidelines, he won’t be holding up a sign or calling out to his father and uncle; he’ll be riding beside them, helping to raise money for adult and pediatric care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
It will be a feat that’s not only impressive in that he is a cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg, but also because he is a teenager who will be riding mostly among grown men.
“It shows strength of character and his determination to accomplish something,’’ and the two-day PMC ride “is very hard,” said his father.
“I mean let alone a 16-year-old . . . anybody to try to go out and ride 192 miles is a tough challenge.”
But Jack is willing to tackle any challenge that comes his way, and pedaling his way from Sturbridge to Provincetown will pale in comparison with the struggles that he has overcome.
In 2006, Jack broke his left femur while kicking a ball in a soccer game. After doctors examined the X-rays at Norwood Hospital, he was sent to Boston Children’s Hospital, where it was confirmed that he had a tumor in his leg. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
“It’s devastating to hear that your child has cancer, and it just opens up a world of unknowns,” said Vincent.
“Unfortunately there aren’t immediate answers, you’re having to wait hours and days for test results to come back, and so in the meantime, you’re prepping for the worst and hoping for the best.”
The diagnosis left Jack baffled and confused, he said, recalling that he “didn’t really understand what it was. I wasn’t thinking it would be anything long-term.”
He went through three months of chemotherapy, until doctors decided they would have to remove a portion of the leg. They performed rotationplasty surgery: A section of his leg from mid-thigh to the shin was removed, and then his left ankle was rotated and attached to his thigh, and now serves as his knee joint.
He then went through four more months of chemotherapy before the road to recovery began. After a year of physical therapy, in which he relearned how to walk, run, and maintain balance, Jack returned to the baseball diamond, which served as a haven for him.
“It definitely shows how strong he is,” said Elizabeth Manning.
“He’s always been very competitive since he was little, before he got sick, so it definitely helped him get through this and get back into sports, and be so successful at everything.”
Now heading into his junior year at Roxbury Latin School, he serves as a pitcher and third baseman for the Foxes, and plays linebacker for the football squad. He plays town basketball in the winter, is an avid snowboarder, and, of course, has developed a passion for biking.
Jack began training for the PMC with his father in the early spring, starting off with 10- to 15-mile rides, and has worked his way up from there.
Billy Starr, founder and executive director of the PMC, says Jack’s perseverance and his family’s compassion perfectly represent what the event is all about.
“It is a typical story in how the PMC can help elevate everybody’s role in an individual struggle,” said Starr, who established the fund-raiser for the Jimmy Fund at Dana-Farber in 1980.
“I mean, what could be more normal than to ride your bike? It’s a great statement for Jack to be able to make.”
Last year, the PMC raised $39 million, accounting for approximately 60 percent of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue.
Over the last five rides, the Mannings have raised well over $50,000; as of Monday, they were well on their way to meeting this year’s goal of $17,200, according to the Team Jack page on the PMC website.
Elizabeth says the support “has been amazing, and we’ve been so grateful for it. We just get contributions from people we barely know or don’t know or haven’t heard from in years, and people who can’t afford to give us money.”
One of their top supporters on multiple fronts has been Jack’s prosthetist, Mike Amrich.
Amrich has known the family since Jack was diagnosed eight years ago, and rode for the team last summer. He is no stranger to the disease, either; his twin sister, Michele, died of thyroid cancer in 2008, the same illness that his wife Shelagh is currently battling.
“He is just a really strong-minded and just a great kid,” said Amrich. “When I first met him he had no hair, he was a frail small boy. . . To watch him get stronger and healthier has been great.”
Not only did Jack gain back his health and strength, he has served as a mentor to other kids battling similar cancers. On occasion he will travel into Children’s Hospital and speak to patients.
“Usually they just like seeing what I can do because they’re worried,” said Jack.
“But I just tell them that they can do whatever they want; they just have to go through all the steps. The physical therapy is very important.”
And now he will further serve as an inspiration, as he takes on the biking challenge on Saturday and Sunday. He will ride on the four-member team, along with Dave Kaple, a family friend and triathlete from Arizona, and his uncle and, of course, his father.
“We’ve looked forward to it the whole year, so I’m glad I can share it with him,” said Jack. “He’s wicked good at it, too. I’m a little nervous he’s going to be way ahead of me, but it’ll be fun.”
But his dad will be by his side the whole time. He’s been awaiting this moment, and plans to spend every second of it with him.
“I can’t wait to watch him experience the PMC through his eyes and just being a part of it,” said Vincent.
“For the past four years, he’s been at the rest stops, at the finish line, and helping raise awareness and cheer and support us, but this year he’ll be there, and I just think it’s going to be an energizing and uplifting experience for him . . . one that I think will have a positive impact on him and everyone around him.”