A Cyclone fight: Pollard family battles cancer


Photo Courtesy of the Pollard family.

The Pollard family spends Thanksgiving at the Blank Children’s Hospital. From left to right: Thomas (14), Maggie (11), Jamie, James, and Annie (13).

Alex Halsted

It has been a nine-year journey filled with many highs and many lows, but they have battled each step of the way hoping it will one day be a smoother ride.

“I call it the roller coaster ride,” said ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard. “The ups are really exciting … and the downs are really depressing.”

When Jamie’s son James was born, the birth certificate read that he was 10 pounds at birth, but in reality he was just 3.5 pounds. James was born with a 6.5-pound germ cell tumor attached to his backside.

At 14 months, James had a recurrence and battled it. For the next five years, he was cancer-free. While his monitoring period was over, doctors made the decision to continue looking after him for one more year.

In the fall of 2008, several months after his monitoring should have ceased, doctors noticed James’ cancer cell markers were up. By the end of 2009, James had another operation for cancer of the same type of tumor, but one with a different biology than the first recurrence.

For the past three years, the Pollard family has fought the disease and after another operation in the spring of 2011, they thought it might be over. In October though, it was determined that for the fourth time, James had cancer.

“They can’t explain why it continues to come back after he’s had all of this chemotherapy,” said his mother, Ellen Pollard. “For some reason, his tumor isn’t going away, so it’s really out of the books. It’s outside the lines.”

At a young age, it was difficult for James to understand his situation, difficult to comprehend the challenges. As he grows, the battle he faces becomes more real.

“I think it impacts him more now than it did when he was younger,” Jamie said. “His first question when we told him this time was, ‘What if the treatments don’t work? What happens to me?'”

A touching gesture

As his hair began to fall out, Ellen insisted upon shaving James’ head. He wasn’t happy, but complied and went bald.

When it was time to go to school the following Monday, James insisted upon wearing his Cyclones hat to cover his newly shaven head. When he arrived, he was surprised by what he saw.

“He went to school and he wanted to wear his hat at school,” Jamie said. “When he got there and saw the other kids had shaved their heads, he didn’t wear his hat. He said, ‘I felt like they shaved their heads, so why should I have a hat on?'”

Jamie and Ellen were touched by the gesture of a handful of James’ classmates and said it meant more to him than the boys could ever know. Two of those children were Charlie and Sam Hoiberg, the 8-year old twin sons of ISU men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.

“They said they wanted to do it to make James feel better about his situation,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously any kid that goes through it — when they have the hair loss — if you can have other kids that do it with them, that will help.”

Attitude and faith

Germ cell tumors are rare, accounting for just 3 percent of all pediatric cancers. Even more rare is a recurrence of the cancer.

It has been a difficult battle for the Pollard family, but they have continued with each bout.

“Faith has been a big part of it because at some point you have to realize you aren’t in charge and you can’t control everything,” Jamie said. “We have a saying in our family, ‘What God wants, we want.'”

What the Pollard family wants is for James to be cancer-free. For now, as James continues his fight, his parents said the focus is on staying positive. At least one person who has spent time with James has taken note of his demeanor.

“You’d never know what he’s going through just because the type of kid he is and the way he’s taken this thing head-on,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got as positive of an attitude as anyone I’ve ever seen — he’s just a neat kid.”

And while James might have been born unhealthy, Jamie said his strength in one key area has made all the difference.

“I used a line several treatments ago that said, ‘James was born with unfortunately not very good health genes, but he was also born with very good conviction and attitude genes,'” Jamie said. “His attitude is probably the reason he’s still with us.”

A lesson learned

When James asked his parents what would happen if the treatments didn’t work, they knew he was understanding; they knew he was “connecting the dots” after many years of being in and out of the hospital.

What the family has learned and come to understand, at the same time, is that there are many children just like James who fight vigorous battles.

“The kids that go through this are tough as nails — they have to be,” Ellen said. “It’s really sad and there are too many of them.”

Throughout his nine years, both James and the Pollard family have received well wishes from many within the Cyclone family. They have also received support from those outside Ames.

Many schools in the Big 12 Conference have sent James memorabilia, including hats and jerseys. Jamie said those gestures have meant a lot to him personally and have played a part in changing his outlook.

“I’ve said all along that James is a vehicle that was given to us from God to help us be better people,” Jamie said. “I’m more sensitive to stories and situations that I hear about that are happening to other people because of my own experiences with James.”

When Jamie was in the athletic department at Wisconsin, he met a man named Steve Malchow. Now at Iowa State, the two continue to work together with Malchow as a senior associate athletic director.

At the same time Ellen was pregnant with James, Malchow’s wife, Barb, was pregnant with their one and only son, Bryce. In the past nine years Malchow said he has seen a lot out of James and has used him to teach.

“We point a lot to our son to look at James — who has been dealt a real challenge in life — and yet he attacks every day with a smile,” Malchow said. “He’s tough, he’s happy and he lives life to the fullest. It’s a great lesson to adults or kids.”

The Pollard family has learned a lot from James too. Both Jamie and Ellen said James has taught them to put things in perspective and to take one day at a time.

The Pollard’s don’t dwell on why it is their family or why it is James who has had to fight this battle. Instead, they just hope and pray that after nine years and four long fights, James might be cancer-free.

“We tell James all the time that God chose him,” Jamie said. “The reason he chose him is because he knew he was tough enough to be able to get through it.”