Fighting the Beast: Oleksiak fights melanoma

Josh Oleksiak surrounds himself with family at the “Fight the Beast“ fundaiser. Photo from Josh Oleksiak ‘15

Josh Oleksiak surrounds himself with family at the “Fight the Beast“ fundaiser. Photo from Josh Oleksiak ‘15

Oleksiak poses with Devin Gardner, Michigan’s quarterback. Photo from Josh Oleksiak ‘15

Oleksiak poses with Devin Gardner, Michigan’s quarterback. Photo from Josh Oleksiak ‘15

Miranda Rysiewicz  ’15

Photo Editor

Cancer is a word that everybody fears, especially when it is affecting somebody you love. At the end of Summer 2013, Josh Oleksiak ’15 got news that would forever change his life.

It started with a mole on the top of his head that just was not right. When he went to the doctor, they removed it to do a biopsy and he left with three stitches. Little did he know that this was only the beginning of this battle. Three days later he got a call frompositive for Melanoma (skin cancer).

The next step in his battle was a complete left neck dissection, where they took 110 lymph nodes from the left side of his neck and only five lymph nodes from the right side. They also took a two-inch diameter circular patch of skin from his scalp where the mole was located. This five-hour surgery left him with 150+ stitches, 30 staples and the best sleep of his life, he said. He stayed in the hospital for 10 days after the surgery. During those 10 days, he was alternating morphine in his IV and Norco pills every two hours to help ease the pain.

On the tenth day, Oleksiak had surgery to get a skin graft. The doctors took a piece of skin from around his collar bone and placed it over the two-inch area where the mole was taken from his scalp.

Feeling well enough, he came home from the hospital the same day. Oleksiak was home for eight weeks. Unfortunately, the cancer came back in his upper left neck. Because of this, he had to undergo another surgery to have it removed. He spent three more days in the hospital after this surgery.

He then started radiation treatment. This was hardest part for Oleksiak, he said. He did five sessions that lasted 30 minutes each, two times a week. This is the highest dose of radiation treatment.

After finishing radiation he started another kind of treatment called IL-2, a biological therapy. It is the only FDA approved immunotherapy treatment for melanoma and kidney cancer. It works to boost the immune system, helping the body fight the cancer. This put him in the hospital for most of the month of February 2014. He would spend one week in the hospital with a port in his neck and the next week at home.

The IL-2 treatments did not work as well as the doctors hoped that it would. He then started taking a daily medication called Tafinlar which blocks the key proteins in cancer cells from spreading in the body.

In the beginning of August 2014, he started another medication called Mekinist to take along with the Tafinlar. Mekinist stops the growth of Melanoma tumors. While continuing on these medications, Oleksiak goes for regular checkups every six weeks or so. He is also still on both Mekinist and Tafinlar.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is a part of the University of Michigan Health System. To help make children in the children’s hospital smile, they invite athletes from the University of Michigan come visit and interact with the kids. Oleksiak would have never imagined that he would create such a special bond with one of these athletes.

The night before Oleksiak had the skin graft, the quarterback for the University of Michigan’s football team, Devin Gardner, came to visit Oleksiak for the first time. He and Oleksiak immediately formed a special bond. Gardner made Oleksiak smile for the first time in months. Gardner became a friend, supporter, role model and mentor to Oleksiak. Gardner continued to visit Oleksiak during his stays at the hospital and brought Oleksiak a little bit of Michigan gear each time he visited. Gardner even came to one of Oleksiak’s baseball games over the summer to watch him play.

Along with Gardner, Oleksiak says his family and God are what help him fight this battle.

On January 24, the whole community came together to put on the “Fight the Beast” fundraiser for Oleksiak. Premier Lanes rented out the entire bowling alley for this event. Along with bowling, there were baskets being raffled off, live music, food, and a 50/50 raffle. The fundraiser had a very good turnout while raising money to go to Oleksiak’s family for medical bills.

On May 31, there was a walk put on called Faces of Hope. This was a 5K run/walk to benefit Oleksiak and LCHS senior Sean Korpal, who is battling Leukemia.

Another fundraiser, that the community has held that involves Oleksiak is the Gold Out football game. On September 26, the LCN Varsity Football Team played Stevenson High School. They encouraged students to wear gold in recognition of childhood cancer.

“God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers” could not describe Oleksiak any better. No matter how hard things got, he has not given up and has remained positive through his whole fight, with an entire community supporting him through every step.