Young boy battles brain cancer with help from the Stanford men's basketball team

Expect the unexpected. A lesson most of us don’t learn until adulthood. Ty Whistler learned it at age 10.

“He actually got kicked in the head playing soccer,” explains Jill Whistler, Ty’s mother.  “He was a goalie, got kicked in the head, had concussion like symptoms.  So we put him into the ambulance took him to the hospital and they found a tumor.  So a kick in the head saved his life.”

“The next day we were told two days later we had to be in Oakland for brain surgery,” adds Ty’s father Alan Whisler.  “So it happened so fast.”

The diagnosis?  Medulloblastoma – an extremely rare form of brain cancer.  The treatment?  An aggressive clinical trial offered at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.  

“It's rough.  And it's scary.  Really scary,” says Ty of the experience.

“Ty just couldn't move, couldn't run, couldn't do the things he's done in the past,” adds Alan.  “He got so tired with the radiation, chemo, meds he was on.”

“I’m a very active kid and it was hard not exercising,” says Ty.   “All I wanted to do was, ‘Mom can I get out of the hospital bed?’ Nope.  Alright, I'll wait until tomorrow.”

“It's the worst thing you could ever imagine is watching your child suffer honestly, says Jill.  “Watching them have no control to fix it and watching the pain, it's been tough.”

“Seeing your little guy fighting for his life, it's very hard,” adds Alan. “But you have to stay strong. For him.  He has up and down, very emotional days.  Some days are very good.  Some days are very tough.  Never a bad day.  Just a tough day.”

It was on one of those “tough days” last winter, Ty had another run in with the unexpected.  But this time, in a good way.  A very good way.

“On this random day in the hospital, these four dudes came in inside the hospital room and it was so crazy,” explains Ty.  “They just gave me this ball with all these autographs on it.  I said, ‘What are you guys?’  They said, ‘We're the Stanford basketball team.’"

“The players came in and they sat next to him and it was love at first sight,” adds Jill.  “He slept with a ball every night for a week he just sat there and snuggled with the ball.  He'd get mad at the nurses who wanted to put in at IV he'd be hanging onto the ball, the signed ball.  It's meant a lot to him.”

“It was right then we knew there was gonna be a relationship,” says Ty with a smile.

That relationship has evolved into something truly remarkable.   Every time Ty comes into town for medical treatment, he gets the royal treatment from the Stanford players.

“I think they are very inspiring, he says.  “It's unbelievable hanging out with these guys because they are huge giants and I am little.”

“It always makes it more fun, whether it's playing 1 on 1 with him after practice, having a nerf war in the gym, it lightens the mood and it's a much better environment when he's out there,” adds Stanford senior Dorian Pickens.  “He's fun loving, always joking around, always teasing us.”

Jill adds, “They don't even realize how powerful the healing aspect has been for Ty letting him believe in himself, stand back up again and fight.”

Neuro-oncology nurse practitioner Samantha Ingeric has been working with Ty during his treatment.

“He goes to practice, he goes to his chemo,” she explains.  “He goes to the team dinners then he goes to his radiation.  He gets his labs and he brings the team with him to get his labs.”

Those labs now take place every three months to determine the status of Ty’s tumor – most of which was extracted last year.  It’s a recurring “hold your breath” sort of experience for the Whisler family.  At his most recent appointment – outstanding news.  

Scans show the tumor has shrunk since October. Sure enough, a couple of surprise visitors stopped by to share in the moment. 

“It almost brought tears to our eyes,” says Pickens. “He got great news about the scans, being with his family.”

“It was so special it just shows how great they are,” adds Stanford senior Michael Humphrey.   “That they'll allow people like me and Dorian come into their lives.  They're helping us out more than we're helping them so it's amazing.”

But the surprises didn’t stop there.  The next day, the Stanford team informed Ty that he would be the honorary captain for the follow day’s game against Oregon.  With Ty on the bench, Stanford’s 35-point win turned out to be its biggest in Pac-12 play in 16 years.  Apparently a little inspiration goes a long way.

For the Whistler family, the unexpected is now routine.  For the Stanford basketball family, in a season that would typically be defined by wins and losses, the most important result is a “Ty.”

“He's in our hearts every game, every practice, every time we take the court he's in our thoughts,” says Pickens.

“He gets it.  He gets it.  He gets it,” says Jill.  “He's so grateful for each day.  I have never seen a kid so enthusiastic about school, sports, you know "today I did good it was great!”

“There's still some stuff going on but still we're very positive,” adds Alan.  “We're always looking - it's gonna be good news.  No matter what's gonna happen it's gonna be good news.”

“Everyone's like, ‘Gosh you’re so positive,’” says Jill.   “I'm not gonna say today he got sick 10 times, he could barely stand up.  No, today he actually woke up.  Today he got to take a bath.  That's a good day.

You have to focus on that stuff.  If you sit and dwell on all the other stuff that's going on, it doesn't matter.  Grateful for today.”

Ty sums it all up.

“You just… You just keep fighting.”