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The Gaes family: Jason, parents Craig and Geralyn, sister Melissa and brother Adam.

Good healer: Jason Gaes maintains his optimism 30 years after writing book

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Jason Gaes is now a 36-year-old man living half a block from the beach in Huntington Beach, Calif.

But residents of the local area may remember Jason as a beguiling 6-year-old Worthington boy who wrote a book about having childhood cancer and was the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary film.

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Thirty years have passed since Jason’s diagnosis of Burkitt’s lymphoma — rapidly growing cancerous tumors in his mouth, head, kidney and stomach. The Gaes family — parents Craig and Geralyn, brothers Adam, Jason and Tim and sister Melissa — had just moved from Storm Lake, Iowa, to Worthington for Craig’s job as a supervisor with the Swift pork processing plant.

When Jason was taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the prognosis wasn’t good, but chemotherapy and radiation treatments began almost immediately in hopes of halting the cancer’s progress. Jason’s treatment ordeal also included surgery, painful spinal taps and bone marrow procedures.

“It seems like a whole different life ago,” reflected Jason in a recent phone interview from his parents’ home in California.

When Jason’s condition improved and he was able to return to school, his teacher gave him a book about another kid with cancer.

“I brought it home, and my mom and I read it,” Jason recalled. “The end of it was written by the mother, and she told how he had relapsed and died. I said to my mom, ‘Why is it that every book and every movie we see about somebody with cancer, they die in the end?’ And she said, ‘Maybe you should write a book.’”

Jason had gotten a tape recorder from his grandmother, and he retreated to his room with it, dictating his story.

“I talked into it, about everything from being bald to maybe dying,” Jason remembered. “And then I played it back to myself.”

When he was satisfied with the story, he wrote it all done on paper and gave it to his mom to read.

“She was doing dishes, so she grabbed it with her elbows and put it on top of the fridge and said, ‘That’s sweet, Jay,’” Jason continued. “She read it when her hands were dry.”

When Jason was declared cancer-free, the Gaes threw a party at a resort in Okoboji, Iowa, using his book — illustrated by his siblings Tim and Adam — as part of the invitation to family and friends. A news station did a human interest story on it, catching the attention of a publisher in Aberdeen, S.D.

“At first we said no” to the prospect of actually publishing the book, Jason recalled. “But then we said we wanted the proceeds to go to the American Cancer Society and that it would be distributed at hospitals. That’s the deal we made, and it happened that fast.”

“My Book for Kids with Cansur: A Child’s Autobiography of Hope” soon gained nationwide and even international attention, as it was translated into five languages. A signed copy of the 1987 edition can still be found at the Nobles County Library.

Jason received an American Cancer Society Courage Award and was among 57 cancer survivors honored at the White House. His story was also made into an HBO special, “You Don’t Have to Die,” which won an Academy Award in 1989 for Documentary Short Subject.

The Gaes family left Worthington when Jason was 12 or 13 years old — sometime in the early 1990s — moving first to St. Joseph, Mo.

“Then dad got another promotion and we went to Marshalltown, Iowa,” Jason explained. “That’s where I graduated high school. When he got promoted again, we moved to Louisville, Ky., for 10 years. That’s where we still consider our home.”

Jason attended the University of Louisville for several years, then went to school to become a golf pro. Most recently he was employed as a seasonal worker at a golf course near Lake Tahoe, Calif.

But while Jason conquered cancer as a child, the long-term effects of the treatments he endured continue to plague him.

“They caused me to have a brain tumor,” he said. “I just had brain surgery No. 6, and I had a little stroke during surgery. I’m not able to work, so I’m living with my folks."

The brain tumor, he explained, was caused by the long-ago radiation treatments.

“It’s not cancerous, but it has cancerous-like qualities,” he described. “It grows like cancer, looks like cancer, but isn’t cancerous. It’s right between my eyes, so my right eye is closed permanently.”

Despite his current medical issues, Jason realizes they are a byproduct of a treatment that saved his life.

“At the time, they might have said there’s a chance in 20 years you may have a brain tumor, but I would have died in two weeks if I didn’t have it,” he reflected. “The options were pretty slim.”

Jason’s twin brother, Adam, is a captain of a boat that services oil platforms off the coast of California, and dad Craig also works on the boat.

Geralyn is employed by a real estate company, managing homes all over the U.S.

“I play a lot of golf and I do a lot of physical therapy,” said Jason about what fills his days. “I’m doing physical therapy and occupational therapy three times a week. … I got my report card yesterday, which said I had improved in every aspect from the first time I went in to now.

“I’ve always been a good healer. I go through a lot of crap, but I seem to come out of it. My name even means ‘to heal.’”

Although he hasn’t lived in Worthington for more than two decades, Jason still keeps in touch with many of his friends from the area, and he remains an avid Twins fan, regularly watching the baseball team’s games from far away in California.

“Right now, I just want to be well enough to go back to work,” he said. “I’d also like to take a trip to Minneapolis to the new Twins stadium and meet up with my buddies from Worthington and anybody else who’s available to hang out.

“Someday, I’d like to meet a nice gal, get married, have children — all that stuff,” he continued, adding with a chuckle, “I don’t know if that will work out while I’m still at my folks’ house.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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