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SJ Magazine
Tackling Cancer      Gayle Jackson and her son – Philadelphia Eagle DeSean Jackson – turn their tragedy into hope for others

By Marianne Aleardi

Gayle Jackson

Two years ago, Philadelphia Eagle DeSean Jackson’s father, Bill Jackson, lost his short battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a devastating blow to a family just beginning to see their son’s success in the NFL. DeSean and his mom, Gayle, have now started the DeSean Jackson Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer to raise money and awareness of a disease they say is too often a death sentence. Gayle Jackson spoke to us about the foundation and the reasons she wants to help those diagnosed with the disease.

When did you first suspect something was wrong with Bill?   In hindsight, he probably was sick for years, and we didn’t know. About five years before his diagnosis, he started slowing down. But he was getting older, so it wasn’t a red flag. He would lose his voice a lot, and every now and then he would say, “Man, look at my feet.” And they were swollen like elephant feet. The doctor said he was diabetic. Diabetes is the inability of your pancreas to process your blood sugar. I think that was an early sign of his cancer. The doctors can’t say I’m right, but they can’t say I’m wrong either.

In terms of really noticing something was wrong, it was a span of five months from when we said, “Hey, you should probably go to the doctor” to when he passed. He kept complaining about his stomach; he made it seem like it was indigestion. He loved to eat – that was one of his fun things to do – and he wasn’t getting any satisfaction from eating. He kept saying, “That didn’t taste good.” Or, “Man, my stomach.” He started sleeping a lot, and then almost overnight we noticed that he had this dramatic weight loss.

Did your husband get to see DeSean’s success in the NFL?   He did. He was able to see DeSean’s first year with the Eagles. We found out Bill was sick during the playoffs, during the Eagles-Giants run two years ago. It was a blessing for him to see that first year. He had worked so tirelessly to get DeSean to the NFL; he believed when other people didn’t. He would say, “My boy’s going to win the Heisman Trophy. My boy’s going to do this. My boy…my boy…my boy.” People would look at DeSean and say, “Yeah, right.” People thought he was out of his mind. And then DeSean kept achieving and they thought, okay, maybe this crazy man isn’t so crazy after all.
What made you start the foundation?    The idea came from the experience. It happens so fast and it happens so quickly, you don’t have time to evaluate your emotions. You’re doing everything you can to cope and react to what your circumstances are. But after, you realize you just can’t walk away. You can’t act like it didn’t happen. So what do you do? We had to do something. This was our attempt to make a difference and help anyone who might be going through that experience. The foundation gives us something hopeful and positive to focus on. It’s a great way to honor Bill’s memory.

What was the experience like?        Sometimes you go through experiences, and you’re never the same. We struggled as a family. With this disease, you see your loved one literally in one physical shape one day, you go home that night, come back in the morning and see a significant change for the worse. It was a day-to-day battle.   Many times, we would go to the hospital and once they realized he was terminal, once they realized the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer – which has a survival rate of 5 percent – they don’t want to treat you, they kick you out. But you’re so sick. You require care, 24 hour-care, because you have so many medical problems. Any lay person trying to deal with that at home – you can’t do it. It’s too much. You require assistance. You need round-the-clock medical care. But who can afford that? Every day, he was deteriorating. So as time went on, we would leave the hospital, and 12 hours later we’d be taking him back to the ER. They would look at him, determine it was pancreatic cancer and kick us out again. They said he should go into a nursing home, but he was still young and vibrant – that wasn’t even an option. He kept getting so sick, and they kept sending him home. It was just a mess. Luckily, we had DeSean to help. But everybody doesn’t have a DeSean to help.

DeSean Jackson with his mother and late father

How was DeSean able to help?  DeSean reached out to his doctors in Philadelphia, and they said, “If you can get him to us, we’ll take good care of him.” We were in LA, and we needed to get him to Philly.  But we couldn’t put him on a commercial plane, because he was so sick. We needed a medical airplane, which costs a lot of money. It just so happened that DeSean had just been signed by the Eagles and he had a signing bonus. We used his signing bonus to pay for the plane.
What do you hope the foundation will do? I want to raise enough funds – because everything takes money – to enable the doctors to figure this out and find a cure. We need to do that now, so we can turn around the survival rate. Pancreatic cancer is almost like a death sentence. There’s no method for detection, and there are few treatments.

This whole process is evolving. It’s writing its own script. I cannot really tell you I have a formula because I’ve never been down this road. I can just tell you the goal is to find a cure and the sooner we find it, the better, because this is a road no one wants to walk down. The odds aren’t good, but we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to change the numbers.

Do you have other goals for the foundation?   A long-term goal I have – but this is very long-term – is for a dedicated rehab facility for people with this diagnosis. This was one of the first challenges we faced after the initial diagnosis. Bill was still well enough to get up and move around, but he couldn’t get rehab. He was a young 60-year-old. He was in great shape, very athletic. He would swim, run track. He was very vivacious. He would even have a catch with the football with DeSean in the hospital. But he had no options for rehabilitation. He wasn’t even a candidate. They said he wasn’t healthy enough. Who determines that? I’d like to see these patients have a place where they can get rehab.

How do you raise money?   We have a campaign on the website – 10, 10, 10. Take ten minutes to learn about pancreatic cancer. Tell ten friends. Donate ten dollars. That’s ongoing. We also have an annual gala in Philadelphia, and many Eagles players attend. It’s a wonderful event that brings together many people who support our cause.

The foundation is still in the set-up stage. We’re trying to get everything up and running. It takes time to get established. It’s a huge undertaking. And we’ve been doing all this while DeSean is new to the NFL. A lot has been happening, so it’s all taking time. It’s a process.

Are you planning any other special events?   We had a Health and Family Resource Fair focusing on pancreatic cancer when we went home to Long Beach, Calif. DeSean went to high school there. We worked with officials from the City of Long Beach, the police department, library, Boys and Girls Club, and the American Cancer Society, just to name a few. We set up in the park, and we had a doctor who specializes in pancreatic cancer come out for a Q & A session. DeSean came to be with the kids. It was informative and a great day. I hope we can do that every year. This was a start – we got the word out. That could be something we can take around the country.

What would you like to tell families whose loved one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer?   Be as informed as you can be. Know there are resources out there – not many – but they are out there. You need a specialist; you can’t go to a regular doctor. Find a specialist in a special treatment facility. Keep pushing. Rely on your strength and your faith. Reach out to someone who has been down that road before, and keep hope. No matter what people tell you – because it won’t be positive – don’t give in.

Learn more at www.deseanjacksonfoundation.org

In DeSean’s WordsEagles receiver DeSean Jackson spoke of his father during a telethon to raise funds for cancer research: “My dad was a very amazing man. To have a father figure like that in my life, doing everything to help me be successful, you couldn’t get better than that. When I first found out he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was one of the worst days of my life. He was tough. He never gave up on himself. I can remember talking to him after some of the games. And even though he was going through what he was going through, still, you could tell he was happy for his son. Pop fought hard until he could really fight no more.”

[Reprinted by The DeSean Jackson Foundation, December 5, 2012, 1:54 A.M.]


November          2011