Shelby boy battles rare form of cancer
By Sarah Wojcik
November 19, 2013
SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Twelve-year-old Justin Townsend was looking forward to starting middle school at Shelby Junior High School and meeting up with his large group of friends from Monfort Elementary, not expecting to be struck with aggressive stage IV brain cancer during the first weeks of class.
On the evening of Sept. 23, Justin’s family took him to the Troy Beaumont emergency room after a bout of debilitating headaches, according to his cousin Jason Townsend, an assistant principal at Jefferson Middle School. Medical staff found what appeared to be a tumor in a brain scan and transported him to Royal Oak Beaumont that night.
On Sept. 24, Justin underwent a nearly nine-hour surgery at Royal Oak Beaumont that doctors said removed part of the golf ball-sized tumor.
“That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to witness, when a doctor comes in and tells parents and their family that their 12-year-old son has brain cancer,” Jason said. “Tears (was our reaction). Once you move past that, trying to figure what the next step is.”
Currently, Justin is residing at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and undergoing radiation and radiation-intensifying drug treatments. His mother, father and 19-year-old sister, a Macomb Community College student, all put their lives on hold to be near Justin and will stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Memphis for the next few months.
“They didn’t give a prognosis, but basically what they told him at St. Jude’s is the outcome doesn’t look great,” Jason said. “For seven straight days, I went and saw him every day at the hospital. There’s not a minute that goes by that I don’t think about him.”
Roy Townsend, Justin’s father, said what really shook the family was the rapid growth of the tumor. He said doctors confirmed that the signs would not have taken months, but developed within days and weeks.
“He was playing softball in July and, in September, we were laying on the table,” Roy said. “It was 22 days (from when he started getting headaches) to the point we had to take him to the hospital.”
Roy said St. Jude doctors said only up to 50 percent of the tumor had been removed and that they could not go in for more because of its location in Justin’s brain stem.
Despite the serious nature of his diagnosis, Jason said his cousin is in very positive spirits, albeit a little more tired. The couple of times Jason brought up school, he said Justin reiterated, “I am in school. I am a seventh-grader.”
Kim Twarowski, the seventh-grade counselor at Shelby Junior High School, agreed with Jason, saying, “He’s cool. He’s maintaining a good spirit. He and his dad both have the same sense of humor, and he’s going with the flow.”
She said the students at the junior high school teamed up to make Justin cards and videos, and that staff members also teamed up to make him pillow cases.
“We’re just trying to keep him as included here as possible and send all of our well-wishes,” she said. “Our kids also need support — they’re not sure what’s going on, and they’re scared for him, too.”
Jason began organizing a fundraiser at The New Rink to help cover Justin’s medical bills and the family’s travel expenses, but he said it grew into a more communitywide collaborative event.
“The facility holds 2,000 people. Our school feels they can get about 500 from our school alone,” said Shawn Pelicke, father to one of Justin’s friends, who is helping the effort to spread awareness of the fundraiser.
Besides Justin’s diagnosis, Roy said the other thing that chokes him up quicker than anything else is the love and support of his family and the community.
“We came up with one slogan through this whole thing: PST — Positive, Strong, Together,” Roy said. “If we can say those three words, we’ll beat it.”
The fundraiser will take place from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4, at the skating rink, located at 50625 Van Dyke Ave. in Shelby Township. The cover fee is $10, and $5 of every ticket will be donated to Justin’s family. Raffles, door prizes and a silent auction will be included.
The family also has an account on www.gofundme.com — Justin’s account can by found by searching “48316.” For updates on Justin, visit Roy’s blog at www.caringbridge.org and search “Justin’s T Journey.”
After everything, Roy said he would donate any extra money back to St. Jude’s or the Ronald McDonald House.
“I have never been more impressed with an organization than I have been with St. Jude’s, and it’s only been a month,” he said.
About the author
Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik covers Shelby Township and Utica for the Shelby-Utica News. Sarah has worked for C & G Newspapers since 2013 and attended Oakland University. She won a first place 2013 Excellence in Journalism award for open government reporting and a second place 2014 Excellence in Journalism award for a series of explanatory stories from the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
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