Tahoe City’s Ty Whisler looks to knock cancer out of the park
July 1, 2017
In many ways, Ty Whisler is a normal 10-year-old boy. He's a massive Chicago Cubs fan, loves riding bikes, playing golf, and baseball — the left-handed pitcher gets a kick out of striking out opposing players, exclaiming "Yes!" whenever he fans a batter.
But a kick to the head during a soccer game on his first day of fourth grade last fall revealed something else for the Tahoe City youngster.
At first, his parents thought Whisler had suffered a concussion, but once they reached the emergency room, they found out it was much more severe.
Doctors uncovered that he had golf ball-sized brain tumor called medulloblastoma, and would have to undergo major brain surgery only a few days later.
"The doctor was like, 'He would've had two weeks.' It's still surreal," said Jill Whisler, who is Ty Whisler's mother, on the diagnosis.
"But we're blessed, that he got kicked in the head. We went by the field at Incline the other day, and he's like 'There's the field that saved my life.'"
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Whisler had shown few signs leading up to the event. As part of a family of five that loves sports and the outdoors, his mother said he seemed irritable and complained of a headache the week before while on a hike at high altitudes along the John Muir Trail, but no one could've guessed the severity of his condition.
After the diagnosis, he was taken to Oakland for the surgery, and then radiation treatments, sending Whisler on a path no child should have to go down. He'd be forced to endure hundreds of hours of pain and nausea from the radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, which has involved weekly trips to Stanford University Medical Center.
His older brother and sister, and parents rallied around him, and around the Whisler family the communities of Lake Tahoe and Truckee helped prop up one of their own.
In nine months, 601 people have donated more than $75,000 to his Go Fund Me campaign, helping to offset the costs of treatments, trips to the Bay Area, and his mother not being able to continue working as a dietitian and nutritionist.
"The Go Fund Me has helped cover my leave of absence from the hospital, and all of the medical expenses," Jill Whisler said. "It's been overwhelming. I can't thank the community enough, honestly it's amazing."
The chemotherapy has been tough on Ty Whisler. His mother said he has good days and bad ones, but continues to take each day as it comes.
"Lots of nausea," she sad. "He describes it like ants in his head — just busy. I thought that was a really good analogy, just constantly a busy head. Sometimes things can be over stimulating for him. He does better one-on-one, when it's quiet."
But through it all, Whisler said his motto has been the same as when the free-swinging hitter steps into the batter's box — "Crush it!"
During his radiation treatments in October, the young Cubs fan went into enemy territory, seizing the opportunity to support his team and favorite player Anthony Rizzo, as Chicago locked up with the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series.
"You have this mask that goes on for radiation, and it pins you to the pad. He made it (look like) Anthony Rizzo — in the Giants' territory down in Stanford," Jill Whisler said. "He got harassed every day. They know they can harass him, because he's a joker kind of kid, so he can take it."
In the end, Ty Whisler would have the last laugh as Chicago went on to win the series in five games, and when the Cubs began the next series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose bandwagon had his former teasers jumped on?
"The Cubs," Ty Whisler said.
When he finally was able to take up his own bat once again, and return to the sport he loves most, things were different.
"We'd just take Ty in and go into the batting cages, and just turn his pitch down, just to feel the bat and to swing," his mother said.
His sense of balance had changed, he had to adopt a wider stance, and the game seemed to him, a bit foreign.
"It was scary," he said. "It feels a lot faster."
However, while playing another of his other favorite pastimes, golf, he actually has shown improvement in his game. No longer able to use an explosive swing, he was forced to slow himself down, which has resulted in better play.
"It's actually helped his golf game," Jill Whisler said. "It's crazy."
Every couple of months, the family would take Ty Whisler to the golf course to play, even if it was for just a couple of holes.
Then on June 7, he was able to play in the opening round of the Truckee Tahoe Junior Golf Tour, firing a 67 over nine holes of play. He'd participate in another round on Tuesday, June 27, teaming up for a scramble-style round with one his friends.
"It was fun, because I was playing with all of my baseball friends," said Ty Whisler, whose nine holes was highlighted by a solid chip onto the green.
Still, the youngster continues to face much adversity.
He only made it to six days of school last year, battling nausea from the chemotherapy while completing his curriculum online.
When he was able to attend, he brought a sense of empathy to his classmates; something his mother said is a blessing through the ordeal.
"He'd show up to his classroom and nail a math problem and the teacher would be like, 'Ty has been here four days of school and he's smoking you, and he's fighting cancer. And you guys can't come up with a math problem?' It puts it all in perspective," Jill Whisler said.
"Empathy and gratitude, I think it's hard to teach kids that — that's the gift of all of this. It's taught them to have a ton of empathy and to be caring, and that sometimes you have to make sacrifices."
Whisler said math is his favorite subject in school, and it's something he uses in his approach to sports and in fighting the tumor, focusing in on visualizing the mass shrinking little by little, dividing it down like a calculation.
"He sits back and watches everything," Jill Whisler said. "He's vey cerebral, very analytical."
Still, Whisler said he doesn't like being around a lot of people, preferring one-on-one interactions. He's also more comfortable with those who are dealing with similar adversity, like at a cancer camp he recently attended where children were able to swim, participate in archery and yoga, and many other athletic activities.
"(It's) better," he said of being around the other children. "I felt safe."
Even then, not many of the children there could relate to exactly what he was dealing with physically and mentally.
"It's hard to find people that have gone through exactly what he has," Jill Whisler said. "He just got back from a cancer camp, but it was mostly leukemia, like blood-born cancer. It's hard to find solid tumor patients."
So, Whisler has found other ways to cope, especially at times when things are most dark. He said music has been a source of inspiration during those times, listening to his favorite artists, and the song "Believer" by Imagine Dragons over and over.
His mother said things are also better when he's occupied by a physical activity.
"When he moves, plays tennis, or plays baseball, plays golf — if he's moving that's like his therapy," she said.
After nearly seven months of therapy, Whisler has battled his way to a milestone. He's down to his final scheduled treatment of chemotherapy.
"Hopefully, Friday (June 30) will be his last chemo dose," Jill Whisler said. "Then we'll get him tested again and see where we're at."
At this point, the family is still short roughly $25,000 of their stated goal on their Go Fund Me Campaign. To help out the Whisler family visit gofundme.com/TyWhisler.
When asked if he had a message to other children who might be going through something similar, Whisler referred to the approach he's had all along — "Keep fighting."