When Michael was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, it was Jack who helped save his life
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
Growing up, hockey bonded Michael and Jack Billings.
The brothers played together in the backyard and eventually were on the same Oak Lawn Saints team out of Oak Lawn Ice Arena.
The Billings boys now share an even closer bond in their 20s. But it’s not primarily due to hockey.
When Mike was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on Sept. 20, 2018, it was his younger brother, Jack, who stepped up.
Mike — who was born with Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, which is a lifelong disease that affects every organ in the body — needed plasma and was in search of a match.
“We had a little scare like two years ago and I got tested for my bone marrow,” Jack said. “I was a positive then and then once he actually got the leukemia, I kind of got all the tests done and they saw that I was the perfect match, which is pretty rare for a family member to be an exact match. We got pretty lucky there. He didn’t have to wait or anything.”
The cancer diagnosis at such a young age was tough for Mike and his family.
“I thought that something like this wasn’t going to happen until later, in the future — in my 40s or 50s,” said Mike, who was 27 when cancer struck. “I was surprised. Shocked, oh yes. I’d just been through surgery for a hematoma on my hip and had just gotten back to my active self and then I find out that I have this medical problem that I pretty much have to fight through. Now I have to fight through this new medical problem and miss more hockey.”
After getting diagnosed with cancer, Mike’s Chicago-area doctors recommended he receive treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which has specialized doctors and nurses who work with Schwachman-Diamond syndrome patients on a regular basis.
“It’s just scary,” Jack said. “There’s not much more you can say. I know we’ve gone through a lot as a family and my mom’s probably the toughest lady I know. She’s been there every day since he was diagnosed. It’s incredible. I don’t know how she does it. Obviously, it’s being a mom, but every day she’s with him whether it’s at the hospital or wherever.”
With Mike and his mom, Terri, in Seattle, Jack was 2,500 miles across country at school at Niagara University in New York. After leading Division III Salve Regina to the national championship game in 2018, Division I schools recruited Jack and he signed with Niagara.
Since this is Jack’s transfer year to sit out, he isn’t able to play with his team. That has freed him up to travel back and forth to Seattle almost at will. It helps that Terri Billings is a flight attendant and Jack can get free airfare to visit his brother.
“We kind of saw it as a sign from God that I’m meant to be here,” said Jack, who is a junior at Niagara. “It just so happens my brother was diagnosed with leukemia and I just can’t play, it works out. I don’t have to be here, and I can be with him as much as I want, and the coaches and all my teammates have been great and understanding and they’re happy that I’m able to leave and be there for him.”
Mike underwent rigorous treatment in an attempt to kill off the cancer. Every day for four months before the transplant, Mike did inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy. Then it was high dose chemo for six days before the transplant, which turned his skin black and gave him sores all inside his mouth.
Jack flew out to Seattle early in the new year to prepare for an apheresis procedure on Jan. 9 that would give Mike the plasma his body needed.
Mike feels blessed it was his brother who was able to benefit.
“Jack’s cells are going to live in me forever,” Mike said. “It means we have a tight bond and a strong connection.”
On the day Jack donated the plasma through an extensive process, Mike was away from the hospital resting. The next day, Mike received the transplant.
“It was three or four weeks later that mom texted saying his numbers are going up and his numbers look good and stuff like that,” Jack said.
Five days after the transplant, Mike came down with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). It’s common for leukemia patients to get GVHD as Mike’s body tried to reject Jack’s cells, so doctors had to monitor it closely.
“We were texting and he was like, ‘Let’s go,’” Jack said. “He goes, ‘I’ve just got to get past this GVHD.’ I said, ‘You getting cancer, that’s nothing.’ He goes, ‘I know, I’m a hockey player.’ It was pretty cool to hear that. He’s a hockey player and we’re the toughest around.”
On Feb. 11, Mike got word that his cancer was gone. His family was elated. Mike texted everyone he knew.
“It’s all a huge step forward,” Jack said. “When you hear those words, ‘cancer-free,’ it puts a smile on your face. It’s probably the best news you’ve ever heard.”
Two weeks later, Mike was discharged from the hospital and is currently undergoing outpatient treatment. He’s living in an apartment with his mom and has to go back and forth to the hospital every day for appointments. Mike said he has to stay in Seattle and be healthy for 100 days after the transplant before he can head back home. The first week in March marked the halfway point.
Even when Mike was going through the fight of his life, Jack always saw his brother have great spirits and remain optimistic in every situation.
“He’s my hero, he really is,” Jack said. “It really opens your eyes to see your brother in the hospital for four months and how he just never complains. It’s incredible how every day he just goes and he fights, he battles, he lays down and sleeps. But you never hear, ‘This is stupid. I’m done. I’m quitting.’ You never hear a peep out of his mouth. Just so much respect for him and the way he fights.”
It wasn’t easy for Mike to not let his guard down, but he surged through. He said he wasn’t alone in the fight.
“There are people waiting for me at home,” Mike said. “I remind myself of this. I remind myself that I am not done yet and I don’t want anything like this to take me away yet. Also, people are cheering for me back at home. And I want to get back and see them.”
When Mike gets home, he anxious to skate with his adult hockey team, Shooters, which plays in Morgan Park. Doctors have told Mike, who plays goalie, he can start playing games again in spring 2020, so by January he’s planning to be back on the ice.
“If I can stop pucks, I can fight cancer,” Mike said. “I can take big hits and get back up. You know the saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — that is really true. I’ve gone through surgeries, through this cancer. I can still get back up.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
Categories: Hockey Headlines