Jake Johns was a freshman when he received a call that would change his and his family’s lives forever. He was at OU’s Relay for Life event in April of 2016 when he was told by his immediate family his dad was diagnosed with cancer.
“Hearing the word cancer is something you hope you never hear. I was honestly shocked”, Johns said of his reaction to learning of his dad’s sickness. The path Johns had with his family’s upcoming battle ran side by side with his relationship with Relay for Life.
Jake had a bond with his father Ray Johns that was unbreakable. Their relationship had formed through spending hours together fishing in upstate New York and countless whiffle ball swings in the backyard. The Johns’ family moved to the affluent Dallas neighborhood of Highland Park from Connecticut when he was in middle school. It was his father who helped him get through some difficult times during this process.
“He was there when I had trouble with school, sports, grades or girls and was behind me when I was succeeding in every aspect of my life”. The elder Johns like using negative moments as teaching points for Jake and his younger brother, Sam.
“He constantly would get on me about being a gentleman and doing the right thing. He made sure I was growing up to be the best person that I could be”. So as Jake Johns was less than a year removed from seeing his dad in the stands at sporting events, he was left in shock that his role model had been diagnosed with a disease that has taken so many before him.
It was at the beginning of Jake’s sophomore year, that his dad’s health began to really decline, due to his blood cancer. Before this, he’d been confident that everything would work out, as his father and the rest of his family remained in high spirits.
After returning home every weekend in August and part of September of his sophomore year, the already dreary outlook took an even worse turn. When the previously positive doctors started to worry, the older Johns son realized that things weren’t well.
“He had fallen into a coma and was on a ventilator the last couple weeks of his life. When the doctors told my family to prepare for the worst, that’s when it really hit me”, Jake said. “We were all around his bed and got to watch him take his final breath, which was an experience I would never trade away”. Ray Johns passed away on September 18, 2016.
Preceding the death, Jake had dealt with the horrible situation remarkably well, according to friends. He didn’t cry once during his dad’s battle with the deathly disease.
“Jake was really tough about the situation. He handled the situation about as well as you could imagine”, said Justin Reinking, a friend and pledge brother of Johns. But following Ray Johns’ passing, his son was left questioning everything.
“I didn’t understand why it had to happen to our family”. Jake was angry that he would never be able to create more memories with his hero. They wouldn’t be able to fly fish together in New York anymore, or play catch in the front yard.
Knowing how losing someone close to him impacted him, the Texan wanted a way of sharing his story and helping others cope with losing loved ones. This is where things came full circle between Jake and Relay for Life.
Relay for Life is a nation wide event that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants walk around a track for hours at a time, to signify that “cancer never sleeps”. Often times, those involve walk in honor of someone who is fighting or who fought cancer. Jake became a member of the Relay executive committee and wanted to use the organization as a way to help others who are experiencing similar pains and emotions to what he dealt with.
“I want to continue to be a source of comfort for those who are struggling and coping with a loss of a loved one. I understand what it is like and want to be there and give back to those directly affected”, said the current OU junior. The relationships that he’s made through the organization, alone, have helped with the closure process.
Ending cancer is his ultimate goal, however. He understands how difficult and far off this may be. But he has confidence in the organization which he’d shared his emotions.
“My goal in Relay is to ideally cure cancer for good. Although that is a far shot, I want to do everything in my power to raise as much money as possible”. In 2016, Jake helped OU’s Relay for Life raise over 200 thousand dollars for the American Cancer Society.
“Jake has really turned what was a bad situation, into a positive. He really wants to fight cancer and he uses Relay for Life as his platform to do that. He doesn’t want others to go through what he did. This is something he is really passionate about. He really wants to help others out and I respect the hell out of that”, said Reinking.
Through both financial and emotional support, those same people who surrounded Jake Johns when his phone rang with the devastating news about his dad in April 2016 are now the ones helping him with his fight to end the disease that killed his father.
“I’m still mad about that I had to lose my dad so early. But instead of complaining about it and letting it ruin my life, I want to use it as a motivation to cure cancer. Relay for Life has given me that opportunity. I don’t know if I’d be in as good of a state right now if it weren’t for Relay. It’s really helped me recover”, Johns said. This is a battle that seems far from being defeated, but it will take people like Jake Johns to make it a possibility.