Jason Shults sat across from his three little girls, watching hot tears cut through their confused expressions.
To see their hearts break before his eyes, to see fear overwhelm them — it’s more pain than a father can possibly bear. The thought of leaving them behind so young, vulnerable and adrift in a sea of grief was more terrifying than the cancer diagnosis he had received earlier that day.
“You don’t really understand the value of time until you’re told you can have no more,” he says.
If cancer was going to pick a fight with him, Shults was going to fight with every cell in his body.
Hiding in his head
The tumor tucked above the roof of his mouth and behind his nose was discovered in June 2012 by Dr. Matthew Old at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center — James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Shults was diagnosed with Stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a type of head and neck cancer so rare that it’s found in only one of every 100,000 people in North America.
Shults needed to get into treatment immediately if he dreamed of seeing his three girls grow into women.
Over the next six months, he endured 33 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy. He shudders when he thinks of the whooshing sound associated with “poison being pumped into my body.” Sometimes he would pass out and hit the floor in the middle of treatment. Weak at home, he would spend days in bed and soothe himself with episodes of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting. A bear of a man, he lost 109 pounds.
But he never lost the fighter within.
Following a surgery in December 2012, Old walked into Shults’ room at The James with good news. Shults, still groggy, sat up in bed and pounded his fist against his chest: “I win.”
He watched his daughters’ smiles break the tears running down their cheeks. To see their overwhelming relief and joy — it was everything he longed to live for.
An artist strikes back
Shults is a senior graphic designer at The Ohio State University. Whenever he finds an opportunity to support The James, he gives whatever he can.
There are the many Wednesdays he has spent volunteering at the hospital. He donates a portion of his pay to the general James Cancer Fund as part of Campus Campaign. For Pelotonia 16, he used his artistry to contribute as a virtual rider.
Shults designed a cyclist’s riding cap as a fundraiser for Team Buckeye. The caps feature the unmistakable helmet stripe adopted by Buckeye athletes. Five sticker-like representations of the Pelotonia arrow are a nod to his family. Under the bill is the rally cry for all Pelotonia supporters and cancer patients alike.
“I went with ‘END CANCER’ because I can’t be any clearer as to where I am now,” he says. “Let’s end this.”
Pelotonia, a weekend-long cycling fundraiser founded in 2008, has raised more than $130 million for life-saving cancer research at The James. Like Pelotonia, proceeds from the cycling cap will support that mission, too.
“I would not be here if not for Dr. Matthew Old, his staff and The James,” Shults says. “I hope this cap funds the last dollar needed to find a cure.”