Small Survivor

Cancer Survivor Jacob Ralston

Jacob Ralston is a typical 8-year-old boy in most ways. He enjoys swimming, hanging out with his two dogs Sampson and Moses, and playing video games. And he loves the Steelers. Looking at the adorable blond-haired, blue-eyed, soon-to-be third-grader, you’d never guess that he’s overcome more in his young life than most adults—and he even manages to stay on the honor roll.

When Jacob was just 2 years old, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which occurs primarily in the bone or soft tissue. His parents first knew something was wrong when Jacob complained about a pain in his back. A few days later, his mom, Susan, put him down on the floor after changing his diaper, and he collapsed.

Jacob’s father, Jim, remembers hearing the word “cancer” like it was yesterday. “I was holding him, and I almost dropped him because I started hyperventilating,” he recalls. “It’s something you’re not prepared for.”

Doctors recommended surgery within a day to remove the tumor on Jacob’s spine. After surgery, Jacob’s treatment plan included 14 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. After doing lots of research and talking with Jacob’s oncologist, Jim and Susan decided on a combined regimen of chemotherapy and proton therapy, which targets only the tumor and not surrounding healthy tissues.

Before Hampton University’s Proton Therapy Institute opened in 2010, the closest center was the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Jacob endured 25 days of treatment here each morning, and because there were few side effects, he was playing in the park by the afternoons.

Jacob has been off treatment for five years now and will wear a back brace for the next 4–5 years. He proudly lifts up his shirt to reveal a Steelers logo on his brace. “I was the one who found it,” he says.

Since Jacob’s experience the Ralstons have become huge proponents for proton therapy, and they started the Pediatric Proton Foundation in 2009 to educate and advocate for proton therapy and to assist other families in need. “Up to 3,000 children that are diagnosed—the majority of them would probably benefit from protons,” Jim explains. “Children have so much to gain from it.”