MAYWOOD, IL – As a baseball catcher, Pierson Gibis was used to aches and pains. However, one afternoon in the fall of 2016, 16-year-old Pierson struggled to throw a baseball and knew something was wrong.
"I started to get this different, shooting pain in my back," said Pierson, of Wauconda, Illinois. "I kept playing through it until it got to the point where I said, 'I have to go to the hospital.'"
Doctors at his local emergency room performed an MRI that showed Pierson had lesions on his spine. He was transferred to Loyola Medicine by ambulance that day where doctors told Pierson and his family that he had a rare form of cancer.
"It was the end of life as we knew it," said Jan Gibis, Pierson's mother.
Pierson underwent months of treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that develops between the connective tissues and is diagnosed in just 400-500 people each year. In Pierson's case, the cancer had spread throughout his body.
"He's a warrior, for sure," said pediatric oncologist Eugene Suh, MD. He faced each new hurdle and was a role model, not just for the other patients but for the physicians, Dr. Suh said.
During treatment, which included radiation and chemotherapy, baseball continued to help Pierson cope. From his Cubs-themed room on the inpatient floor of Loyola's pediatric unit, he cheered on the Cubs during their 2016 playoff run. He was able to make it home from a blood transfusion to see Game 7 as the Cubs captured their first World Series title in 108 years.
"It was unbelievable," Pierson said. "I could go on about it forever."
When Pierson finished treatment, he returned to the baseball field and participated in a spring league in Wisconsin, where scouts were able to watch him play.
He was working out near home when two teammates came up to him to tell him he had been drafted by the Cubs. "I said 'Good one, that's funny,'" said Pierson, now 19. "Then they showed me their phones and my name. It was unbelievable."
One of the first people Pierson reached out to with the news was Dr. Suh. "He sent me a screenshot and I replied back 'I'm so proud of you. You can do anything,'" Dr. Suh said.
Pierson will play baseball in the fall at Madison College in Madison, Wisconsin, as he hopes to improve his conditioning and future prospects for playing in the majors. The Cubs have told him they will keep an eye on him.
"I don't want this disease to define me," Pierson said. "Guys like Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, they had cancer but no one talks about them like that. They talk about them as All-Stars on the Cubs. I want to make a name for myself like that."
Loyola’s pediatric oncology team is specially trained in the treatment of children and provides care in a compassionate, family-friendly environment. Cancer types that develop in children are often different from the cancer types that develop in adults, and therefore require different treatment plans and approaches to patient care. An interdisciplinary team of doctors at Loyola's children’s hospital and the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center has specialized training and experience caring for children with cancer and blood disorders