It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Friday. Class at Sunnyside Elementary School has finished, and YMCA volunteers are corralling the 7-to-12-year-olds in the cafeteria for crackers and juice.
Balancing one wiry young boy dangling on his right arm and another hanging off his back, Jordan Bumgarner attempts to answer a girl’s question but can only manage a laugh.
Jordan volunteered every day at the school last spring, but this fall his health only allows for a visit.
“The day that I found out I had cancer, that was the hardest day of my life,” he said “Nothing really prepares you for that moment.”
In May, doctors diagnosed Jordan with stage-four gastric (stomach) cancer. He had just finished his sophomore year at WSU.
“When we came home from the May 30th meeting when we found out it was stage four, my dad just came into my room and hugged me and started bawling,” he said. “I still get teary eyed thinking about it because I’d never seen him cry before.”
Jordan first realized he had a problem when he struggled to swallow food. He said he could feel the blockage at the bottom of his esophagus, where later ultrasounds, scans and an endoscopy (a procedure that inserts a camera into the body) revealed a cancerous tumor.
According to the American Cancer Society’s 2013 statistics for stomach cancer in the United States, most gastric cancer cases aren’t caught until later stages because the cells build in the inner lining of the stomach and rarely present symptoms. The average age for people with this type of cancer is 70.
As a healthy 20-year-old with no family history of the disease, Jordan didn’t believe his diagnosis.
“I broke down crying in the room and didn’t want to hear anything else. I was in a zone,” he said. “At the same time, I was thinking let’s get started.”
Melinda Bumgarner, Jordan’s mom, said she remembered how she cried going down the elevator to the car. When they returned to their home in Renton she told her husband John, Jordan’s dad, that she knew their son had cancer.
But for Jordan, the cancer became his motivation.
Melinda said when he started his chemotherapy in the summer, Jordan experienced stomach pain, but that never caused him to waiver from his goal of defeating the disease.
“They couldn’t figure out what (the pain) was,” she said. “He envisioned the chemo was killing the tumor and that was why he was having the pain.”
She attributes part of this strength to the relationship he has maintained with his Hazen High School football coach, Drew Oliver.
When he was Jordan’s age, Oliver said he dealt with cancer too. Attitude plays a significant role in overcoming the disease, and Jordan has never failed in optimism or strength, he said.
“He’s the fighter, the battler, that’s the only option for him to have,” Oliver said. “That’s the only option for me in talking to him.”
He said he values Jordan as a volunteer coach who can lead the younger kids on the field and through life. The young man has natural aptitude for coaching with high integrity, he said.
“He came out on the first day of practice, and those kids hardly knew him, and he hardly knew them,” Oliver said. “Just the way he approaches his daily life, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s chemo, he is the same genuine, excited, enthusiastic kid.”
Melinda said they try to keep the cancer out of the house as much as possible. However, during his chemotherapy treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), they faced setbacks.
Jordan remembered his initial surgery to have the port for the chemo injections installed in his chest.
He also remembered the day a flipped fluid line and a blood clot forced its removal.
“I had a sore neck and thought I’d slept on it wrong,” Jordan said. “I felt really shitty from the chemo, and they had to do a general anesthetic. My body felt so bad.”
Stopping chemo, driving back and forth between SCCA and University of Washington Medical Center and having to later relocate a new port, Jordan’s drive toward killing the cancer hiccupped, he said.
However, a week later he jumped back into his routine of treatment. He said he starts injections on Tuesday at 1 p.m. and ends on Thursday at 1 p.m. The chemo drug has a quick half-life, so he has to have a pump connected to his port for 48 hours.
“The first one, I came home that night and was feeling pretty damn sick,” Jordan said. “It’s like your worst hangover ever, like someone has grabbed hold of your stomach and is shaking it up.”
The doctors prescribe anti-nausea drugs, but he said they don’t always help.
“Chemo hasn’t been hard on me. It’s been hard on my body,” Jordan said. “But I’m not going to complain about it.”
He said during the part of his treatments he spends at SCCA, he interacts with other patients much younger and much older than him. Sometimes he strikes up a conversation with a guy in a Seahawks or Cougar hat. The stories they all share in the hospital keep the connection and support, he said.
A community of support
Ashley Ayers, a junior communication major, said she knows Jordan not only as a friend, but as someone who unfailingly reaches out to others in need. He was the guy that dropped everything to cook her entire birthday dinner for a gathering of friends when she couldn’t.
So, when she and their friends learned of the cancer, they decided to show support by ordering T-shirts displaying the letters ‘TFC,’ Team Fighting Cancer. The shirts are now available to anyone, with the sales going toward a fund for Jordan’s medical bills, and those who buy one can tweet a picture wearing the shirt with the hash tag #cougsfightingcancer.
“My email is so full now of people that want to help support him, people that don’t even know him,” Ayers said. “It honestly has made me have a whole new love for our school.”
Now selling several shirt styles ranging $13 to $20, she said $5 from each sale goes to help him.
Ayers said she loves supporting Jordan, and marvels at the way he has not let the disease change him at all. From conversations, she knows he wants to travel, share his story and live his life.
Beyond the disease
After he meets with doctors during the next month, Jordan said they will decide the next steps toward his recovery, which likely include surgery. He said the scans doctors took in October showed a significant decrease in the size of the tumor and the lymph nodes also affected.
During the surgery, an esophagectomy, doctors will remove Jordan’s esophagus and involved lymph nodes. They will then stretch his stomach up and connect it to where the top of the esophagus previously connected.
“Surgery is obviously something that I have to choose,” Jordan said. “But if January comes around and it’s time to have surgery, I’m going to get it done.”
For now, working with the high school students and preparing to finish his physical education degree at WSU, Jordan continues to feed his passion, defying the cancer that threatens his life.
“I’ve enjoyed life so much more now that I have cancer than I have had in the past, is that weird?” he said. “If you think about each situation like it can be solved, then you’re set.”