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They’ve always made us feel hopeful.
So says Ginny Berents about the sixteen-year long odyssey her son Jimmy has taken at Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology. “No matter how bad the diagnosis was,” Ginny says, “no matter how hard it was for us to hear the news, the doctors at Johns Hopkins always had something positive to add. They always said: We can treat that.”
Jimmy, who is a triplet, was first diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma when he was three years old. After a year of treatment at Johns Hopkins, he was declared cancer-free. Soon after, however, Ginny and Ken, Jimmy’s father, learned their son’s cancer had come back. This time, after Jimmy was given more treatment at Johns Hopkins, his disease disappeared for fifteen years. Everyone was sure he was cured. Then just as he was getting ready to leave for college, he learned the lymphoma had returned. Surprisingly he sees much that is positive in his journey.
“People don’t understand cancer,” Jimmy says. “They have a lot of fear. They hear a diagnosis of cancer and think it’s a death sentence. Actually it’s not as bad as people think.”
Jimmy has good reason to feel this way. He has beaten cancer not just once but three times. He’s learned what it means to be a survivor. And he’s witnessed personally the tremendous progress that has been made in cancer treatment within his lifetime. “So much has changed,” he says. “There’s an entirely new building at Johns Hopkins now devoted to pediatrics. Even the IV poles for administering the medicines are different.” Ginny points out that the first time Jimmy was treated for cancer, he was in and out of the hospital for a year. This time his regimen is lasting only for a few months, and has been administered on an outpatient basis, with far fewer side effects.
“We have better treatments now than we did even ten years ago,” says Dr. Donald Small, Director of Pediatric Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. “The most important difference has been the development of targeted therapy. We used to use drugs that affected the whole body. Now we can specifically target cancer cells, raising cure rates, and making the course of treatment shorter and more comfortable for the patient.”
Jimmy Berents is a vibrant young man, warm, intelligent, with a serious gaze. There’s no doubt that having cancer has been a challenge, but Jimmy sees much that is positive. Being a survivor, he says, has deepened his experiences, giving him insight and perspective on life. He’s forged powerful bonds with others who’ve suffered the same disease. He’s attended Camp Sunrise, the camp Johns Hopkins runs for children with cancer, four times. Once, he recalls, he was sitting at camp with a group of friends when one of the girls said, “I’m glad I got cancer.” Jimmy smiles. “That’s how strong our friendships with one another are,” he explains. “She was glad we had the chance to get to know one another. Without cancer, that might not have happened.”
Cancer has also taught Jimmy the importance of giving back. Recently he has volunteered his time as an ambassador for pediatric oncology, telling his story to journalists, speaking at fundraisers, participating in documentaries. It hasn’t been easy. By nature he is a modest, unassuming person. “Other people,” he says, “are far more deserving of attention than I am.” But anyone who has heard Jimmy speak will tell you that he has a talent for reaching out, speaking honestly and movingly about the disease that has affected his life.
This fall Jimmy will be heading off to Wake Forest University for his freshman year, joining his two sisters who started at their own colleges last year. He plans to major in business and economics. Some people who’ve had cancer as children aspire to becoming doctors or nurses. Jimmy has a different idea. He understands first-hand how important research is—and how necessary it is to find financial support in order for new developments to go forward. “Government alone can’t do it,” Jimmy says, “nor can non-profits. What we need is a third way, a way for businesses across the country to step up and do their part. The last thing doctors and scientists should be worrying about is how to fund their research. They need to be in the hospital caring for patients, or in the laboratory searching for cures.”
The Berents know how special Johns Hopkins is. “There are only a handful of hospitals in the country that can provide the kind of treatment that Hopkins does,” Jimmy says. He remembers once spending some time in a local hospital. “One of the nurses was so proud of a new procedure they were using,” he says. “Well, I thought, they’ve been using that at Hopkins for years!”
“You can trust Hopkins,” Ginny says. “The doctors there are personable. You know they are focused on your child, and your family.” She will never forget the first time Jimmy was admitted to the pediatric oncology ward at Hopkins. He’d just come from nine days at a local hospital and was dangerously ill. No one there had been able to figure out what was wrong with him. “Dr. Small told me that before I put my head on my pillow that night, he would have an answer for me,” she says. She remembers passing by a conference room and seeing Dr. Small sitting at a table with a number of specialists, all of whom were focused on Jimmy. Sure enough, by that night they had diagnosed his disease, and his life-saving treatment began.
“When I came back to the hospital, I felt like an old war veteran coming back to the front,” Jimmy says about his latest bout with cancer. “What I couldn’t contemplate was how rapidly things had changed.” He smiles. “They need to change faster.”
People who donate funds for cancer research should know their dollars matter, Jimmy says. Breakthroughs do come. Treatments do change. He knows. He’s seen it firsthand. Cancer has changed Jimmy Berents, and now, with his dedication to helping find the cures of tomorrow, he’s determined to change the lives of patients to come.
Jimmy was also honored at the Cal Ripken Jr. World Series game, throwing out the first pitch.