Jake Deehai’s battle against cancer comes full circle with Dance Marathon

Megan Swindell

It was a small, plain white room. His parents situated themselves onto children’s chairs as he waited atop the exam table.

“I haven’t talked to my parents about that day since.”

Jake Dehaai, freshman in political science, was still, fixated on the table he was seated at, as he verbally painted an image of the pediatric oncology exam room that had changed his life forever.

“I was diagnosed the summer between fourth and fifth grade, so I was 10,” Dehaai said. “It all started in the spring of fourth grade when I couldn’t breathe of out my nose; my parents thought it was allergies.”

Dehaai solemnly animated the rest of the diagnosis journey in somewhat of a trance-like state. He explained that his parents brought him to an ear, nose and throat doctor where a CAT scan discovered a tumor in his brain.

“I had surgery at the beginning of June, and they told us that everything was fine; A-okay,” Dehaai said.

For procedural purposes, the CAT scan results were sent to Mayo Clinic for a biopsy, which brought Jake and his parents to this small, plain white room. Here the family was informed that the tumor found in Jake’s brain was malignant.

“I was 10, so I didn’t really understand,” Dehaai said. “I mean, I understood what cancer was, but I didn’t know what malignant meant, so I asked my parents after the doctor had left the room.”

Dehaai had a rare form of bone cancer in his brain called chondroblastic osteosarcoma.

“The gravity of the situation didn’t really set in at first. Life was just sports and friends to me then,” Dehaai said.

Chemotherapy then began at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, and Dehaai remembered losing 20 pounds in the first four days.

“It really didn’t set in until the chemo,” Dehaai said. “I woke up three days later confused. Apparently, I wouldn’t have conversations throughout those three days; I was conscious but just not aware. From the first day of chemo until the day I was let go, which was the next May, I was always tired.”

Both the University of Iowa and ISU Dance Marathons were a part of his road to remission. While Dehaai underwent chemotherapy in Iowa City, he was able to visit the University of Iowa Dance Marathon where Greg Rice was dancing especially for him.

“I was a dancer for seven years because I went to medical school,” Rice said. “In Iowa City, at the time, Dance Marathon sponsored 300 children. Every member of the leadership team was paired with a family to make sure Dance Marathon was taking care of them and that they were taking advantage of all that Dance Marathon had to offer, if they wanted to.”

In Rice’s senior year, he was an executive member of the moral committee. That year he assigned himself to Jake because they were from the same hometown and school district. 

“We got really close because I was working in his unit at the time. We would hang out and play video games,” Rice said. “Ironically, for his birthday, I bought him a video game from the company that I now work for.”

Rice was not involved with the Dehaai family at the time of Jake’s diagnosis, but after they met, he was there until the end of Jake’s  treatment. 

The following year, while in remission, Dehaai made his first appearance at the ISU Dance Marathon.

“At that point, the defining moments of treatment weren’t as important as the fact that it was done,” Dehaai said.

In addition to the support of Dance Marathon, Dehaai said the reinforcement from his family is what makes them who they are today.

“If I had the choice to go back and have it again, I would,” Dehaai said. “I know that my family wouldn’t be able to function the way it does now without it. It brought us closer together.”

Not only did his battle against cancer bring his family together, but the community also became closer through their support for Jake. At his school the teachers and parents organized an event to shave heads in support of Jake.

“The amount of support from our school for Jake was tremendous,” said Steven McCarville, freshman in interdisciplinary studies and classmate of Dehaai. “Our librarian even shaved her head.”

McCarville and Dehaai were not as close of friends at that time as they are now. The two are now even in the same fraternity.

“[His having cancer] made me realize what kind of guy he was,” McCarville said. “We were there for him and he was there for us in that he made an effort to be a part of everything organized in support of him — a two-way street of support.”

This Friday, Nov. 9 marks the end of Dance Marathon’s Dancer Appreciation Week with “For the Kids Friday.”

Dehaai celebrated the week as a dancer this year. He is in full remission and has checkups only once a year.

What started as an act of support through shaving his head for a classmate with cancer will come full circle this January as Dehaai and McCarville dance together at the ISU Dance Marathon in a celebration of Dehaai’s life and a night of giving back for the kids.