Burlington Catholics rally for cancer-stricken youth

Clockwise, from top left, Christine, Bill and Megan Larkins wear hats in solidarity with Jake Larkins, bottom left. Jake was undergoing chemotherapy treatments around the time this photo for the family’s Christmas card was taken.

By Celine Klosterman

BURLINGTON — When Jake Larkins came home one day this past fall to find a stack of religious education students’ handmade get-well cards waiting for him, he was taken aback.

“I was just surprised they were doing something for me. I didn’t think they knew,” the Burlington High School sophomore said.

But word — and gestures of support — spread quickly after Jake was diagnosed Oct. 15 with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the tissue in lymph nodes. Since then the religious education community at Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington has made a blanket for the 16-year-old, sold wristbands and raised $680 for his family by raffling a handmade afghan.

“It makes me feel really good that I have people who feel bad for me and want me to get better,” said Jake, who was confirmed last year at Ss. John & Paul.


He and his family began noticing something was wrong last spring and summer, when the athlete began tiring easily during games of soccer and golf. In July, a back-to-school physical showed he was anemic. But after he didn’t respond to iron replacement therapy, doctors ordered more tests.

In late September, surgeons removed a lymph node from Jake’s shoulder to do a biopsy. About a week later, the Larkins heard the diagnosis.

“He had it in his chest, neck, armpit, abdomen and spleen,” said Christine Larkins, Jake’s mother. He was plagued by fatigue, and chemotherapy treatments left him feeling even worse.

But he showed a positive attitude, said Mary Edwards, director of religious education at Ss. John & Paul. “He’s just always optimistic. You never see him without a smile, even through all of this.”

But knowing that he and his family could use support, religious education volunteers and parents began stepping forward.

“I just felt awful that such a young man had this illness,” said Shelly Strawhacker, mother of three religious education students. So after hearing about a prayer shawl ministry at St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, she suggested students make a no-sew blanket for Jake in his school’s colors, silver and purple. “I know when you don’t feel good, sometimes a blanket feels good,” she said.

Later, catechist Tom Grogan and Jake’s 13-year-old sister Megan began helping to sell $3 black wristbands with the words “For Jake’s Sake.” The teenagers’ aunt, uncle and cousins in New London created the wristbands. “They sold like hotcakes,” Tom said, though he didn’t track how many were purchased. “…Jake is a popular kid, a good kid. When people wore the wristbands around, it just really showed their support.”

Tom’s effort was inspired by his own family’s history. His uncle whom he was named after died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma the year Tom was born, and a sister-in-law is a survivor of the disease. News of Jake’s diagnosis “hit close to home,” Tom said.

The news also made Reva Scully think of her family. A grandmother of four, the religious education volunteer said it broke her heart to see a young person suffering. So she donated a pink throw she crocheted for the raffle. “Every little bit helps,” she said.

Christine was moved by hearing about fellow Catholics’ generosity. “I was checking my e-mail, and a message with the religious education newsletter said they were going to hold a fundraiser for a young man this year. I thought, ‘That’s wonderful.’ I opened up the newsletter, and realized it was for my son,” she said, tearing up.

Her family will use the money for gasoline and other expenses involved in traveling to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics weekly for radiation treatments, which continue through April. After eight chemotherapy treatments, Jake said doctors have found no visible cancer cells in his body; radiation will help ensure they don’t return.

The survival rate of people with Hodgkin’s lymphoma is around 90 percent; the disease is one of the most curable forms of cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Christine thinks her son’s success in fighting cancer is thanks in part to family and community members who’ve been praying for him. “They’ve really helped support us.”

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