Teenage cancer survivor makes his wish come true

Jared Andersen gazed at his name printed on a plaque above the weight room door at Firth High School.

“I guess not everyone my age gets a whole weight room named after them,” said the 17-year-old cancer survivor. “You could say it’s a little extraordinary.”

Firth administrators named the room after Andersen because they considered his battle with cancer and his desire to “pay it forward” extraordinary.

Andersen devoted his 2016 senior project to upgrading the dilapidated facility because lifting weights was a part of his personal therapy. Lifting daily was a favorite pastime that helped him get through the grueling treatments.

“Lifting weights helps up here,” he said pointing to his head. “It helps me understand that if you’re strong mentally, you can be strong physically.”

Pediatric oncologist Jeff Hancock confirmed Jared’s pursuit for a healthy body helped remit the cancer. His blood counts, physical strength and mental agility surpassed most cancer patients.

Andersen’s determination to stay mentally and physically strong through cancer treatments and his desire to improve the weight room prompted community admiration in contributions of more than $100,000.

“He did a very selfless thing,” said Firth High football coach Keith Drake. “He could’ve gotten a lot for himself out of the whole ordeal, but he chose to contribute to his community.”

The news

Andersen first noticed the lump forming in his left hand while lifting weights as a junior at Firth. He dismissed it as “just a cyst” while his mother Brenda Andersen deemed it a “sports injury.”

But the lump grew and tissue samples revealed Rhabdomayosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that develops in muscle surrounding bones. The cancer spread from Jared’s hand into his arm.

“It’s pretty bad when doctors have to tell your mom that you have cancer,” Jared said.

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Members of Jared Andersen’s family gather to support him during one of his chemotherapy treatments.

Six weeks of radiation treatments on his hand and arm were followed by nine months of chemotherapy that spanned his senior year.

Jared questioned if he would live or die, telling himself  he’d be okay but he “didn’t really know.”

Being a part of the football team

When Andersen’s hair fell out from the chemotherapy, administrators allowed him to wear a hat at school so he could blend in.

“I didn’t want people to know — I didn’t want pity from anyone,” Jared said.

Concealing his bald head was easy, but continuing to play football would be more challenging. Jared’s doctors gave him permission to play, but only at the expense of a more rigorous treatment plan.

Doctors removed the port in his chest, which carried chemotherapeutic medicines to his bloodstream, because it prohibited Jared from wearing shoulder pads. Instead, doctors inserted a picc line into his elbow. In contrast, the picc line carries the medicine through a catheter and requires daily cleaning and a painful, monthly reinsertion.

Jared didn’t miss a game while enduring the medical challenges.

“We would take him in for his chemo treatments right after his games, and sometimes we would be at the treatment center all night” said Brenda Andersen.

Though Jared tried to conceal his illness, his peers were aware.

“It’s hard to find anyone tougher than Jared,” said teammate Brodie Cate. “Some of us thought he was crazy when we found out he was playing during treatments, but he didn’t listen.”

Remission

Jared didn’t consider taking a break from sports after football. He continued to work out daily and play spring baseball.

The emphasis on physical fitness contributed Jared becoming “clean” of cancer after 10 months of chemotherapy.

Jared knew chemotherapy weakened muscles throughout his body, which is why he continued to lift weights. The experience was the theme of his senior paper.

“Lifting weights isn’t recommended for cancer patients, but I decided to give it a try,” he wrote. “Weightlifting made my outlook and situation brighter and more hopeful.”

He also wrote about Firth High’s inadequate facilities — the weight room had no heater, was missing several lights and had speakers hanging by cords from the ceiling.

“He would literally go and lift weights with his friends in freezing temperatures inside the weigh room,” said Brenda Andersen.

He decided to embark on upgrading the facility via his senior project, so others would also have the opportunity to benefit from weightlifting.

A community effort

With help from friends, Jared started the remodel of the weight room by hand, removing ceiling tiles and pricing equipment and jump ropes. He realized noticeable upgrades would require thousands of dollars – money he didn’t have.

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Firth weight room before Lift Life updates

That’s when Jared’s mother reached out to Julie Thompson of the Make a Wish Foundation and said her son’s only wish was to help his high school get a new weight room.

Word of Jared’s wish spread to Kirk Calzacorta, senior manager of offline marketing at Bodybuilding.com. Calzacorta was just launching Lift Life Foundation, a non-profit devoted to transforming weight rooms at underfunded high schools with state-of-the-art equipment.

Calzacorta was looking for his first project.

“We had no idea, but here was this foundation in Boise that was doing the very thing that Jared wanted for his wish,” Thompson said.

Calzacorta and his crew visited the Firth weight room and determined it was in an “extreme” state of dilapidation.  They stepped in to help, heading up a project to update the weight room. All told, Lift Life contributed over $100,000 to the project.

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Firth’s weight room now features state-of-the-art equipment.

Jared cut the ribbon for the new weight room in April.

“It was a real tearjerker,” said Calzacorta. “It was very heartwarming to see the end result and how it benefited Jared and the community in Firth.”

Lift Life, Make a Wish and school officials dubbed the new facility “The Jared Andersen Weight Room”.

“I guess you could say it’s my one legacy in life,” Jared said. “At least I’ll be remembered for something, you know.”

Firth citizen can use the weight room for an annual fee of $20. For more on Lift Life, including a video about Jared’s experience, click here.