GILFORD — Jesse Thompson remembers the day his son John Bradley was diagnosed with the disease that took his young life. Knowing now what he does about the rare form of cancer, he realizes that the several doctors who sat across the table from him and his wife, Alison, must have known that there was little hope for their son, yet they had to deliver their finding in a way that would embolden the family for the fight ahead.
And fight they did, first for their son’s life, and even after that was lost, they fought for the lives of others who face the diagnosis of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.
It didn’t take long for the Thompsons to realize that they weren’t in the fight alone. Their support didn’t stop after John Bradley passed on April 9, 2014. He was seven years old, and fought for his life for ten months.
“We have daily reminders of John,” Jesse said. “Our community has been incredible from the day we were diagnosed until today. We have wonderful support and that’s a testament to our community.”
Jesse responded to his family’s tragedy by founding a New Hampshire chapter for The Cure Starts Now Foundation, dedicated to raising funds for research into DIPG. If a cure can be found for DIPG, the foundation believes, it could reveal a weapon against cancer in all forms.
Since its founding, the NH chapter has raised more than $1 million, and more than $100,000 of that has come from an annual hockey game hosted by the New England Wolves, an Eastern Hockey League organization based at the Merrill Fay Ice Arena.
The 5th Annual JBT Game, hosted by the Wolves, will take place on Saturday, Feb. 20, beginning at 5:45 p.m. The New Hampshire Avalanche will be the visiting team.
Everything this year has been difficult and required adaptation, said Andrew Trimble, general manager of the Wolves, but he said it’s been worth it. Travel restrictions, combined with the closing of other junior hockey programs around the country, have benefitted programs like the Wolves, he said, as this year’s teams have rostered players that would normally be in more elite echelons. Meanwhile, the Wolves have limited their play to other teams within the state, which has meant that players have gotten to know one another very well over the course of the season.
“Every game’s a battle, it’s been really fun watching these teams compete against each other,” Trimble said. While the on-ice action has been fun, he said, the off-ice challenges have been significant. “It’s been a lot of work. We’ve changed the schedule it feels like a hundred times, but we’ve gotten through it and gotten to this point,” he said.
State guidelines allow for in-person spectators, but only one per player, and that translates to a max capacity of around 50 fans, all socially distanced and wearing masks, Trimble said. Those same precautions will be in place for the JBT game on Saturday, which is usually a raucous night at Merrill Fay Arena.
Thompson said that sports, including hockey, were important to John Bradley, and that the Wolves were eager partners to help join the Cure Starts Now effort.
The first JBT game featured information tables in the lobby and foundation merchandise for sale. It was the following year, when the shoot out event was added, that the event began to build a buzz.
Joe Spicuzza, who works with the Wolves as an assistant coach and helps with administrative duties, saw his first JBT game last year.
“It was amazing,” Spicuzza said. “Last year was so much fun, the electricity, the stands were filled with fans, we definitely had some talent, or characters, who were competing in the shootout last year. The set up was really cool,” he said.
This year, Spicuzza will be among the six competitors in the shootout, which will take place between the first and second periods. The contest includes some well-known locals, some more seasoned hockey players, and even one mystery contestant. Each contestant will have a certain amount of chances to score one-on-one against the goalie, but those who raise a little extra can gain bonus pucks. Aside from the mystery shooter, other entrants include Ron Lien, John McKenzie, Brittany Hart and Neil Ravin. The goal will be tended by one of the Wolves.
Members of the public can visit bit.ly/2M5Quh2 to contribute to one, or many, of the shooters. The site also provides links to watch the game, and the shoot-out, live. Trimble said one of this year’s challenges has been how to provide virtual access to the team’s fans, with the result that video production values this year are better than they ever have been.
Organizers are hoping to raise $15,000 with this year’s event. So far, the tally is a little more than $6,000. Spicuzza said he is hoping for a late surge in giving.
“I have three children, all boys, all involved in hockey,” Spicuzza said. “I just want to do something for the family, for the community, for this awesome cause. From what I understand, the donations are way down this year because of COVID. Cancer isn’t stopping because of COVID, we still need to raise money for pediatric cancer research. I wanted to do my part, have some fun and entertain some people along the way.”
Spicuzza said his 15-year-old has been schooling him on trick shots, and he said he might have something to pull out of his sleeve during the shoot-out. “I’m not the most skilled, I’m a 54-year-old dad, but I’m going to give it my all to entertain.”
Seeking a path to victory
Events such as the JBT game can be a mix of emotions, said Thompson. It’s nice to see his son’s memory honored, but it also serves as one more reminder of what was lost. That loss, though, serves to underscore the reason why the game is held in the first place.
DIPG, which takes between 200 and 400 children each year between the U.S. and Australia, according to The Cure Starts Now Foundation, involves tumors which are inoperable because they grow on the brain stem, which is critical to basic body mechanics. If researchers can find a way to halt DIPG, the same tools are thought to be likely to be effective against other cancers.
“We do what we can to raise those all-important funds so the doctors and researchers can find that home run cure against cancer. And we’re getting close, we’re getting closer with each fundraiser,” Thompson said.
Indeed, a paper published this month in Nature Communications reports startling findings by researchers in Australia, who used a combination of two drugs in animal studies, which were “spectacularly effective in eradicating the cancer cells,” according to lead researcher David Ziegler, from the Children’s Cancer Institute and Sydney Children’s Hospital. The research was funded by 23 organizations, many of which were named after individuals. The Cure Starts Now was one of the funders.
“We’re sending money out all over the world,” said Thompson. Since most of the organizations are powered by bereaved families, there’s nearly no overhead costs, meaning that the money raised goes almost entirely into scientific progress.
The progress might not have been fast enough for John Bradley, but his family, and community are doing all they can to find a cure for the next child.
“At some point, we’re going to get there. We’re going to keep fighting until we do,” Thompson said.