The first semester of senior year is usually challenging for high school students, but Jake DeCarolis faced an additional hurdle in September 2015 when what he thought was a headache turned out to be a brain tumor.
For the next six months, DeCarolis juggled homework and college applications around surgery and chemotherapy at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Now he’s close to finishing six weeks of proton radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital, and not once has he wavered from his goal: graduating on time.
On June 4, draped in his National Honor Society sash, Jake received his diploma with the Leominster High School Class of 2016 – one week after his last scheduled radiation treatment.
“I’ve found courage in me I never knew I had, and strength that didn’t come out until my diagnosis,” DeCarolis says. “More than anything, I’ve just tried to take things one day a time.”
DeCarolis was seldom able to attend school this academic year due to treatment and related fatigue. Still, entering the year ranked sixth in a class of 388, he excelled in advanced placement physics, calculus, and English with the help of tutors who came to his home. He was also able to continue the electronics classes he’s taken for four years with an eye toward a career as an electrical engineer.
Jake and his family credit their care team, led by primary oncologist Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, for partnering with school staff to make this happen.
“From the first day you could tell Jake was a fighter,” says Kieran, director of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. “Jake had plans and was not going to let this treatment stop him.”
The family did their part too. Mom Joyce resigned from one job, took a leave of absence from another, and dad James drove them to the Longwood Medical Area in between his shifts as a postal carrier. Younger brother Sam, a sophomore, took Jake’s place tutoring fellow students in the Peer-Initiated Tutoring Program Jake helped start last year. When friends held a dodgeball tournament to help defray the family’s medical cost, nearly 20 teams of kids, as well as Leominster High staff, took part. Jake watched on from the bleachers, with a bald head and a broad smile.
His radiation treatment has not been as fatiguing as chemotherapy, so Jake was able to attend school more often this spring – and even made it to his prom. “It was great to be there, and I surprised a lot of people,” he says.
“Sometimes there are individuals you meet who touch your life forever, and Jacob is one of those people,” says Carol Robison, Jake’s guidance counselor at Leominster High. “He persevered, first determining his health plan then getting right back to focusing on his course work, with only a slight interruption academically — maintaining his own rigorous personal and academic goals.”
Between it all, Jake worked with Robison to complete his college applications, writing his essay on the experience that defined his senior year. He concluded it with these reflections:
“If my diagnosis has taught me anything, it is to appreciate life. My battle with cancer is far from over; however, my passion and drive to be successful is only growing. My triumph is not a question, but an imperative.”
Jake was accepted into his first choice college – Fitchburg State University – and plans to start classes in September.