Jane Cavanaugh gazes into her kitchen, where a framed photograph of her late son Jake sets on the counter, wondering what he would say if he could witness the impact of The Jake Cavanaugh Turkey Bowl.
“Oh gosh, it might have a cuss word in it,” she says.
She knows her son wasn’t perfect, but she takes pride in knowing that Jake showed perpetual empathy.
Life gave Jake Cavanaugh every reason to resent it. As a 16-year old Blue Springs High School student and football player, Jake came home from practice complaining that his leg hurt. On Feb. 4, 2005, Jane and Curt Cavanaugh were summoned to the doctor’s office where they were told their son had a sarcoma on his hip. Days later, an MRI confirmed that it was osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
Over the years, the cancer metastasized to his lung. A hip replacement and partial femur surgery, four thoracotomy surgeries and treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston commanded Jake’s body, but never his attitude.
“He would be humble, and he would want to deflect the attention away from him ” Jane Cavanaugh said. “He liked attention in a different way. You know, he liked attention when he was out having fun, but he did not want attention because he had cancer.
“That’s why he always wanted us to help other people. Like when we were in Houston, he always wanted to help other people because I think that made him feel (better). That’s just how he dealt with everything — wanting to help others.”
Jake died on Dec. 23, 2010. Since then, Jane, his father, Curt, and his sister Ali have inherited his insistence on helping others to cope with his absence. And so, the Jake Cavanaugh Foundation came to be.
One of the foundation’s main fundraisers is the Turkey Bowl, which was founded as a free tournament by brothers Justin, Luke, Jordan and Clayton Whitworth in 2007. Then, there were four teams. On Saturday, 18 teams will play.
The Whitworths, along with friend Eric Silkwood, renamed the tournament for their friend and to help the Cavanaughs to help as many cancer-stricken families as possible.
“When Jake was sick, we decided to ask players for donations and we ended up making around $500 to help the Cavanaughs, which wasn’t much, but it was more than we expected,” Silkwood said. “Since the Cavanaughs have been a part of it, we have been able to raise over triple that.
“But it’s also great to get all of Jake’s friends out there to have a little competition for a good cause. As Curt Cavanaugh says it, “We’ve got three goals: have fun, help families and remember Jake.”
Three families will benefit from the foundation and Saturday’s Jake Cavanaugh Turkey Bowl at Blue Springs High School: Nichole Polen and her daughter Bailey Bennett, the Borcherts and the Wochners.
Bailey Bennett was first diagnosed with nueroblastoma, a form of cancer that usually grows in nerve tissue of young toddlers and infants, when she was 22 months old. Today she’s 8 and continues to battle the disease.
Her mother, Nichole Polen, cares for Bailey on her own. The Cavanaughs have raised over $3,000 for Nichole and Bailey by directly paying some of Nichole’s bills with the money from last year’s Turkey Bowl.
“They are just — I mean from the moment that we met — are the sweetest, most heartfelt family I have ever met,” Polen said. “I feel like I’ve known them for years, even though, like I said, we haven’t. We haven’t known them since (last year).”
In the short time Polen has known the Cavanaugh family, Jane and Curt have helped make her and Bailey’s life just a little bit easier in a multitude of ways, whether it has to do with Bailey’s ongoing battle with Stage IV cancer or not.
Bailey wanted to keep the family cat, but Nichole was growing tired of the cat having babies. Nichole knew Curt was a veterinarian, so she called Jane and asked if Curt could spay the cat for them.
“They’re just amazing like that,” Polen said. “It had nothing to do with any fundraiser or anything. They’re just there when you need them.”
For the Cavanaughs, lending a helping hand is never a one-time occurrence. Fifteen-year old Jonas Borchert and his family are proof of that. Borchert is fighting Ewing’s sarcoma. The Borcherts benefitted from the Jake Cavanaugh St. Patty’s Day Celebration in March and will again receive part of what is raised at the Turkey Bowl this year.
Amy Wochner went to the emergency room in October 2012 because she felt lightheaded. She discovered she was pregnant at age 41.
She needed surgery a few days later to remove fibroids that blocked the opening to her cervix. Her husband, Colby, said a doctor came out from surgery with a somber look on her face.
“And I said, ‘What’s wrong? Is the baby all right?’” he said. “She looked at me and said ‘the baby’s great’ and all of this good news, and then she said, ‘but your wife has cancer.’”
Amy could have saved her life with a hysterectomy before her battle with cancer even began — at the expense of her unborn child.
“Amy says, ‘No way in hell you’re killing my baby,’” Colby said. “‘I’m going to be fine. God will bring me through this. We’re going to carry this baby, then we’ll have it, and then we’ll treat me.’”
Doctors said Amy wouldn’t survive if she carried the baby, who was growing directly on top of her tumor. But Amy had already lost a child. Her son Tommy Volz died of Crohn’s disease at age 16 in 2008.
“It’s only gotten harder, but at that point, I thought this was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Colby said. “I’m thinking my wife is gonna die, I’m gonna be a single parent, what now am I gonna do?’”
Amy’s water broke a little over three months into her pregnancy. Again, doctors urged her to let them deliver the baby. In all likelihood, the baby would not survive, but Amy would.
She refused. Amy gave birth to a daughter, Lydia, on April 20.
As it stands now, Amy is still battling Stage IV cervical cancer. Both she and Colby are out of work and living with Amy’s sister, caring for Lydia, now seven months and healthy.
The Wochners are trying to raise $30,000 for Amy’s treatment. While the Turkey Bowl won’t directly help Amy because Jake’s foundation is intended to help children, the Cavanaughs are taking direct donations and promoting Amy’s GoFundMe website.
“I love getting her story out there,” Colby said. “For one, I hope to God that it makes women more aware of how important going to their women check-ups (is). Amy was one of those women who did not go (in) for her check-ups.”
At 8:45 a.m. Saturday, hundreds will gather around the 50-yard line at Peve Stadium for a prayer.
The first two Jake Cavanaugh Turkey Bowls started with a prayer from Joey Butler, the late pastor and Blue Springs High School football chaplain. Butler died Nov. 18 at 51 after a two-year battle with renal cell cancer.
This year, Joey’s 22-year old son Ty will follow in his father’s footsteps. Then the football frenzy will ensue. If just for one day, touchdowns stop the tears, smiles will mask the scars and, ultimately, goodwill will take the place of grievance.
Jake is woven into the hearts of his family and friends year-round, though. Reminders of him are ever-present in fundraisers and foundations — even on the walls of his own basement.
Those walls are Eric Silkwood’s time capsule. He set up a studio in the Cavanaughs’ basement to paint, orginally to create art to auction off at the annual Jake Cavanaugh St. Patty’s Day Celebration. But Jane loved Silkwood’s paintings so much that they decorate her home.
For Silkwood, the Turkey Bowl and paintings serve as a peaceful reminder that his friend is never truly gone.
“Painting relaxes me and it’s nice to be surrounded by ‘art’ from all my friends, and sort of see how everyone had changed over the years,” Silkwood said. “And it always reminds me to make art because I love doing it, and we have always loved doing it even if it was just splattering paint.”