Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer
June 13, 2023 // Local

St. John Youth Persevered, Served Through Cancer Battle

Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer

About a year ago, the Woodiel family of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Goshen received the devastating and completely unexpected news that their firstborn son Jack had a rare cancer.

Today, 14-year-old Jack is cancer free and he and his parents, Tom and Amanda, shared their journey of the past year and how it at times tested and strengthened their faith. Despite going through chemotherapy, Jack continued his altar server duties and continued playing basketball.

Denise Fedorow
The Woodiel family stands on the steps of their historic home next to a statue of St. Joseph. The family tried to maintain normalcy through Jacks cancer journey. Pictured in the bottom row are Mary and Irene. Eli and Joe are in the middle row. Amanda, Jack, and Tom are in the back row.

Amanda shared the timeline of Jack’s diagnosis and treatment, saying that it was a routine physical exam for Jack on June 17, 2022, prior to attending Boy Scout camp.

“I would’ve said he was my healthiest kid. They found a tumor bigger than a golf ball in the groin area and sent us straight to the hospital for an ultrasound,” she said.

Amanda called her husband Tom and then they were referred to a urologist on June 22.

Jack added, “The doctors were stumped. They didn’t know what to think. They kept saying the ‘vast majority of these are benign but the tumor is so big.’ And they kept asking me, ‘didn’t you feel this?’”

Jack hadn’t felt it and had no symptoms.

Tom added, “At any rate, it’s a tumor and needs to be removed.”

They were then referred to a pediatric urologist at Riley in Fort Wayne on July 11 and he was also stumped.

“He had his medical team look at it — they were pretty sure it was cancer,” Amanda said, adding they wanted to remove it right away but Jack was due to attend Catholic summer camp in Damascus, Ohio, so they asked to have the surgery postponed a week and it was scheduled for July 29. On Aug. 9, they got the call that the test was positive, it was cancer.

The diagnosis was groinal Rhabdomyosarcona, a rare cancer with only 500 cases annually in the United States. The next surgery was an abdominal lymph nodal dissection, which removed about 30 lymph nodes from the abdomen.

Amanda said the urologist called a member of his team to assist in the surgery. “The first day they could do it was Sept. 8 — the Blessed Mother’s birthday — so we felt good about that. We had someone praying every half hour from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., sometimes 2-3 people per half hour.”

After the surgery, they were referred to who they were told was “the best doctor in the world for this type of cancer.” He’d treated Lance Armstrong. He told the family that Jack would only need one day of chemotherapy and there was a 95 percent chance it wouldn’t come back.

“We were so happy. We were celebrating,” Amanda said. “Then we got the phone call the next day from his assistant saying that the doctor couldn’t treat Jack because he was under 18 so they were referred to another doctor at Riley who gave them the ‘unfortunate news’ a week later that all children with this cancer all over the world are treated the same, no matter what and that meant 20 chemotherapy sessions over 22 weeks.”

They were referred to Memorial Hospital in South Bend so it would be closer. He had an additional surgery to insert a port and had chemotherapy sessions every Wednesday from Nov. 2 through March 29. The last scan was April 12, 2023, and it was clear.

Photos by Denise Fedorow
Altar server Jack Woodiel carries the thurible during Holy Thursday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Goshen. Woodiel continued to serve during his chemotherapy treatments for a rare cancer.

Faith Stories

Jack, who was 13 at the time of his diagnosis, (he turned 14 a few weeks later) shared how his faith sustained him. “I had a very good experience at Damascus,” he said.

He said he didn’t know when he went to the camp that it was cancer for sure. His mom interjected that she tried to tell him, “But the Lord must’ve blocked his ears. He doesn’t remember.”

But Jack shared at a prayer group meeting that he was scared it was cancer. “I just put it out there that I was having surgery and the tumor might be cancer and that I was terrified and needed strength.”

“Throughout the night, the most incredible thing happened. Everyone in the small group was slain by the Holy Spirit and I was knocked out,” he said.

Jack explained the young people were overpowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. “I felt a lot of peace and calm. It felt so heavy I just laid down. It was incredible. I know He’s still there and He’s going to be with me throughout this struggle.”

He said that experience helped him be calmer on surgery day. He also shared the theme of the camp was the Eucharist, something he’s been focusing on more. “He really is there, something that I don’t always give credit to,” he admitted. “And the connection of bodily suffering — His body suffered and my body is suffering now.”

Jack is an altar server at St. John’s and, except for a couple of times, he continued to serve during his chemotherapy treatments. He felt continuing to serve helped him. “I really enjoy serving at the altar, being in the action. The fact that I’m so close to the Lord and can see everything the priest is doing, like washing his hands. Things like that helped me through as well.”

His mom asked if he ever considered not serving since he lost all his hair. Jack responded only for a minute. He was given permission to wear baseball caps at Mass (he’s collected 98) but he said, “In the end, I decided not to wear the baseball cap at Mass out of respect for what happens there.”

Jack was also confirmed last October and he said after volunteering to answer two of the bishop’s questions, Bishop Rhoades turned to Father Logan Parrish and asked, ‘Do you have information about the seminary for this young man?”

Jack laughed and admitted, “I have considered becoming a priest more since this happened.”

Jack also served for Bishop Rhoades during the Mass at the Rekindle the Fire men’s conference.

Jack was also meeting regularly with a group of boys he was confirmed with and they were a big support for him as were so many people in the parish. He said he received lots of medals and Rosaries and a relic of Blessed Carlos Acutis and Blessed Solanus Casey. He shared one time when he had a fever of 100.4 and had to go to the emergency room that he was told if the fever continued more than 24 hours, he’d need to return. He had a fever all day but when he went to bed, “At mom’s suggestion, I placed the relic of Blessed Carlos Acutis under my pillow and in the morning my fever was gone.”

Jack Woodiel holds the certificate he received after completing chemotherapy. Next to it is his framed signed memorabilia as an honorary member of the University Notre Dame’s basketball team and a basketball that guests who attended his recent celebration party signed.

Fighting Irish and Make a Wish

While at the hospital, Jack was asked if he was interested in becoming connected with the Notre Dame Athletics Fighting Irish Fight for Life program and he said sure. He asked about being assigned to the basketball team and he was. They were invited to a Christmas party with the Notre Dame Basketball team and they signed a document making him an honorary member.

They attended a couple of games, went to the locker room to meet players, and a couple of players visited him at the hospital. He was also assigned to the fencing team and attended the one match that is hosted at Notre Dame. They gifted him with all sorts of sports gear.

“They were just the kindest people,” Amanda said.

Jack’s Make a Wish request will be fulfilled this fall. He asked for an extended concrete pad for basketball and an in-ground hoop with nighttime lights.

The doctors said Jack could continue to play basketball if he felt like it. He only missed a couple games the whole season. “He showed such remarkable perseverance,” Amanda said.

When asked what he attributed that perseverance to, Jack responded, “It was something I could focus on. I knew there’d be a lot of changes and I didn’t want this to change.”

After the first chemo treatment he had a game and Amanda wrapped him up in bandages so he wouldn’t damage his port. After that, he wore a heart guard over the port. “Every time we got a new nurse they’d say, ‘You’re the boy who still played basketball. I heard about you!’ and we realized then they didn’t think he would,” Amanda said.

Parents Tested

Amanda and Tom shared the difficulty of seeing their child go through cancer. Amanda said the anxiety before the diagnosis was harder. She said, “Once he was diagnosed, at least I no longer had to have the fear of getting the news that it’s cancer.”

“There were so many people praying. It was so humbling. I didn’t feel alone very much,” she added.

Amanda shared that after the first surgery, she had to bring Jack home by herself. She wanted the family of seven to stay as normal as possible. “I was determined to not let cancer steal any more of our joy than necessary.”

Their son Eli had a basketball tournament in Chicago the day of Jack’s surgery, so the coach took him. Tom and their son Joe went down to Indianapolis for the surgery and after Jack was in recovery, they headed to Chicago. Amanda said the ride home was rough and that Jack was in such pain that he moaned and groaned. She said it was midnight before they got home. After getting him to bed, Amanda said she took a shower and cried, “Lord, where are you? I felt I heard Him say, ‘I am saving his life.’ I held onto that throughout the whole thing.”

As time went on, she looked for what she called ‘hugs from heaven’ by way of a card or text or gift or something outside in nature. “God was very gracious in His consolation during this time. I felt He was near even though it was hard.”

Two other quotes she held onto that were shared with her were, “Jesus said, ‘Honor me by trusting me in your days of trouble,’ and ‘This life is the only chance we have to praise God in the suffering.’”

People were there to help in a myriad of ways, giving magic DVDs and trick balls to occupy Jack during treatments, butchering a pig for meat, giving baseball hats, holding chili cook-off and trivia fundraisers, and much more.

“The true kindness and generosity of the people — the Body of Christ,” she said.

Tom admitted, “I didn’t handle it near as well as Amanda. I was a wreck some days. I stuck with my daily fasting and Rosary. I just stuck with the disciplines of my faith, but I was prone to despair some days, especially in the beginning.”

When faced with that despair, he persevered with those faith practices and kept going to work, even though his instinct was to stay home. Tom is part of a Rekindle the Fire men’s group at St. John. “They’re just a close-knit group of guys who always reached out to see how I was doing.”

He also mentioned the fundraisers held at church. “It was so amazing and very humbling.”

Tom also said he developed more of a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through this ordeal and the Surrender Novena they did together. Amanda said the Surrender Novena was “big for me, too.”

Tom mentioned an emotional time for him was when he stayed overnight at the hospital with Jack after a big treatment. Jack was in the bathroom doubled over with nausea and on the television, the World Series game was on and it was a Stand up 2 Cancer night.

He choked up recalling it. “I was sitting by Jack’s side, feeling totally helpless and here’s all these people in the stadium holding signs, commemorating Stand up 2 Cancer.”

Jack added when thinking of devotionals, he developed a new one to Saint Peregrine. “Before I thought, I’d never identify with that saint!”

When Jack was asked whether he was able to offer up his suffering to unite it to Christ’s, he shared he read something somewhere that said, “If angels could envy us, it would be for two things — receiving the Eucharist and suffering.”

He continued, “My goal, my objective for all this was if one person, I didn’t care if I ever found out who it was, could be converted to Catholicism. Other times I’d offer it for different people.”

Jack said he was sharing that goal with his pastor, Father Royce Gregerson, who “mentioned that he had a friend who was always anti-Catholic and right about the time I started chemo, he was opening up to starting RCIA. Possibly that’s the person?”

The family is grateful for all the support they received and the prognosis for Jack is good. He’ll need scans for five years and has an approximate 90 percent chance of remaining cancer free.

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