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CHASE JAEGER ON BEATING CANCER

13pm // 07.09.2017

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It has been three years since Chase Jaeger was diagnosed with cancer and two years since he beat it. Chase opens up about his battle with leukaemia, hectic heart palpitations and surviving without skateboarding.

Portrait: Dave Read

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No comply 180 into The Pit. Photo: Sam Coady

-- THE SYMPTOMS --
After my 21st I went on a holiday and I wasn’t skating that much. When I was skating it was killing me. It was so painful all the time. I thought I was just unmotivated to skate. I was just a typical 21-year-old partying. I also noticed that whenever I was hungover I’d just be wrecked, so I decided I wouldn’t drink for a while. I took on a chef’s apprenticeship and thought I’d get better, but I gradually started getting worse and worse. I hadn’t skated in, like, three months, and when I did go for a skate I couldn’t breathe. From that moment I thought that there was something going on. I started getting really bad anxiety at work all the time because it was super stressful. I was doing around 60 hours a week, which was intense stress. The head chef was like, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just not used to doing hard work.” It was weird. I had vertigo so bad. I remember walking from my section in the kitchen to the cool room and feeling like the floor was moving. I could never breathe properly. My heart was always beating super fast, and I could feel it in my fingertips. I kind of felt like I had the flu, all of the time. I was always hot and super pale, which is weird for me. So I took a week off work and went to the beach every day, because I’d been inside so much. I did absolutely nothing, but still felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I got paler. Then I started to get a cough. I was always on the net googling my symptoms, but it kept coming up with anxiety-related stuff. My mum has got a super gnarly heart condition, so I thought I had a heart condition. One night I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. That happened a heap of nights in a row. I started coming home from work and I was so hot. Now if I look back, my temperature would have been about 40 degrees, for sure. It just nailed me. So I had vertigo, head spins and anxiety attacks. I’d be reading the dockets at work and they’d go blurry, like double vision. I kept telling my mum and my boss that there was something wrong, because I kept freaking out all of the time due to the anxiety. They were telling me that I needed to calm down and stop stressing. They thought there was nothing wrong. I felt wrecked, so I thought I’d try and go for a skate, but I couldn’t breathe. My heart was going so fast. I was at the skatepark by myself and I freaked out. I was thinking, What is wrong with me? Then I put my hands over my head and felt a lump in my neck and thought, What is that! I went straight home and asked Mum to look at it, and right then she knew there was something really wrong.

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Kinked Smith grind. Photo: Wade McLaughlin

-- DIAGNOSES --
We went straight to the doctors that afternoon. Within five minutes of being in the room, and showing the doctor the lump and telling her how I’d been feeling, she said I most likely had a form of leukaemia. I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, “What? I’m 21, um, no!” And then she said, “Chase, I need to prepare you for the worst. There’s a 50 per cent chance it’s leukaemia, 40 per cent chance it could be HIV, or 10 per cent chance it’s an infection.” I said, “Are you serious? That’s just wrong. What do you mean? They’re two of the worst things you could say to someone.” She said, “Well, I have to prepare you for this stuff.” I think I got super mad. I just thought, This is bullshit. As I was walking out I was saying, “Nah, there’s nothing wrong with me, I feel fine now.” But then I went home and googled leukaemia symptoms, and in my head I was ticking every single box that it had. The doctor organised for me to go and see an oncologist. I saw my specialist, who I still see all the time. The specialist did a blood test, a CT scan, an MRI, and then they did a biopsy on my neck. I was in overnight at John Flynn [hospital] for that. About two days after I went to a specialist in Cooly, and that’s when I was formally diagnosed. He said the tests have come back for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He just walked in, asked me how I was feeling, grabbed some papers and told me the biopsy had come back positive for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He said, “I’m going to refer you to Dr Lee. You go and see him, and then you go from there.” I was just like, cheers, no worries… It didn’t really hit me, but my mum completely lost it. I was saying to her, “Why are you crying? It’s all right.” He just told me so casually, so it didn’t really hit me at first, which was kind of good. So I told all my family and work. My work thought it would just be a cyst. When I went and told the head chef, who had been a bit of an arsehole to me, that I had leukaemia, he just dropped his tongs on the floor and said, “I’m so sorry. I worked you into the ground.” So yeah, it kind of all went from there. I had to get a PET scan, which I would not recommend for anyone to ever get. You have to go and sit in a room with a drip injecting dye into you, and you have to be still to get your heart rate below 60. I was so nervous, so it was hard to do. Then I went and had an MRI and was injected with dye. I was in there for an hour, just breathing, stop, start, holding my breath. The dye makes you feel like you’ve pissed yourself, but it helps them see where all of the cancer is. After that I had to go and get a bone marrow [transplant], which was so gnarly. It was the biggest needle I’ve ever seen. I had to be sedated, and I remember being out of it, but I could feel him pressing on my back, just driving it in. That was probably the scariest part. Then I had to go to Southport to the specialist to see what stage it was at. With Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, if you’re stage three or four, it’s so hard to get rid of. Stage one is your neck, stage two is your chest, your abs is three, and your groin is four. I was at stage two. It was in my neck, and just beginning to grow in my chest, so that’s why I couldn’t breathe. It was the tumour pushing on my oesophagus. My bone marrow was clear, which was good, as the doctors said if it was in there then you’re pretty much done for. Then I was told I would have to do chemotherapy for seven months.

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Chase, still smiling. 

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Frontside tailslide. Photo: Tamas Keefer

-- WHAT IS HODGKIN’S LYMPHOMA? --
It’s a cancer in the whit e blood cells. It’s a form of leukaemia. I read so many articles on it when I was sick. I read about heaps of parents that think they’re rundown all of the time fr om stressing and having kids. And then they go to the doctor and they’re at stage four. It’s so gnarly. The symptoms are super light unless you get a lump. In hindsight, you could tell with me when l ooking back at photos. You could see the start of it. And I’m like, wow, how did we not know when looking at this. It’s crazy stuff.

-- DEALING WITH THE NEWS --
I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I just took it on board and thought about what I needed to do next. Let’s go, let’s get it done. I need to get healthy, I need to get rid of it, I need to beat it. I took a positive approach, and everyone around me was super good about it. They were all there for me. I had so much support from everyone. It didn’t hit me until halfway through chemo, and one of those days was just a bad day.

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Boneless into a gritty Brisbane ditch. Photo: Wade McLaughlin

-- CHEMO -- 
I started the first round of chemo on the 20th of September, 2014, at John Flynn. I was getting it every second Monday and was at the hospital once a week before it to get blood tests. If your bloods are low, you can’t get the chemo. Everyone’s super happy in the chemo ward. The staff are the most amazing people. I caught up with the nurse who looked after me on the weekend, as we still hang out. She’s amazing. I couldn’t have done a lot of it without her. The best approach for me was not knowing what to expect. You hear the words ‘cancer’ and ‘chemo’, and they’re just words. But once you’re going through it, all the information just hits you. It hits you really hard.I’d go in, make sure my bloods were all good, and sit in a chair for five hours. At the start I had a PICC line, which was a tube in my bicep all the way through to my chest and into the atrium in my heart. But they put it six centimetres too far into my atrium, so my heart started playing up. Everything went good on the first day of chemo. You get four bags of fluid; three clear, and one is bright red. For some reason when you get the red one you feel like you’re going to vomit. You take medication to make sure you don’t. I felt fine after the first lot, but then I started to notice my heart pounding quite a lot. One day my friend was visiting me. We were just talking, and I went to say something and he was like, what, and asked me if I was all right. I realised that something wasn’t right. I remember thinking, What’s going on?, as I got really light headed. I thought it might have been the chemo, but I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest. I’ve never experienced something so fast. I was like, “Call the nurse, call the nurse,” and I pressed the button. But a minute went by and she didn’t come, so I started having a full-blown anxiety attack. Then she came in, felt my pulse and started freaking out. I freaked out more. Eight doctors came in and put me on a machine. I thought I was having a heart attack. My blood pressure was perfectly fine, so nothing bad was going to happen, but my heart rate was 240 beats per minute. It ended up being some underlying condition called SVT that I had, which is a supraventricular tachycardia. Your heart starts beating really fast and you’ve just got to breathe out of it. I couldn’t breathe out of it because I was freaking out so much, so they injected me with valium, straight into my vein, so I had like a mini heroin overdose I guess (laughs). I went down to intensive care for three days after that. But it happened again because the PICC line was still in too far.

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Slappy crooks gap out while an angry resident hurls abuse. Photo: Wade McLaughlin

So I was finally out of intensive care and on the cardiac ward getting chemo, thinking life’s shit. I was laying on my bed and I stretched out, and when I moved, the PICC line irritated my heart. It went off again, but it wasn’t going as fast as the last time so I kept calm. My mum’s cardiologist came in to see me and tried to assist with my breathing, but it wasn’t helping so he gave me Adenosine, and it took my heart rate from 180bpm to 60bpm in one second. He explained that it was going to feel like I was dying of a heart attack. I didn’t think I could handle much more of this shit, but he gave it to me and I passed out and woke back up in a second. It was the weirdest thing ever. Then they pulled the PICC line out. After the first round of chemo I was only at home for four days before I had to get it again. The second time they kept me in overnight just in case, and I had to take a bunch of heart medication, but it was all pretty good after that. After the second round of chemo I had sinus problems. I felt like I was going to spew, but not from food or anything. The thought of getting chemo again makes you feel sick. One of them really messes with your lungs. You’re not allowed to run or exercise heavily, so you can’t breathe properly. Just getting up from your bed to walk to the toilet makes your heart beat out of your chest. You can’t eat properly because you don’t have an appetite; you feel like a truck’s hit you. You feel like you’re dying. I felt better when I was sick than when I was getting chemo. I’d get chemo on a Monday and feel absolutely disgusting and bedridden until Friday. I would go to the beach on Saturday and Sunday and get back into rhythm, and then on Monday I would go to the gym and just walk on the treadmill and use the rower. I would try and do small stuff to sweat it out. I couldn’t eat crap food. If I ate junk food I would feel like I was going to spew, so I cut out all sugar.

-- STATE OF MIND --
I took it really well. I was surrounded by good people. There were two other girls doing chemo at the same time as me. We would all talk and find out what was going on with each other. Both of them lost their eyebrows and hair within the first month, and I still had mine. My doctor was wondering why my hair hadn’t fallen out. It got to the end of my chemo and I still had all my hair and he couldn’t understand why. He looked up other studies of people with my type of cancer and found that only one out of 430 million people keep their hair. Even my mo stayed there strong. It was a bit blond. Hair would fall out in bits. It was like you’d just patted a dog. I remember being in the shower and I pulled some out and thought, Here we go, it’s starting to fall out, but then it stayed. They told me to stay out of the sun, but I went to the beach and got so sunburnt all the time. I thought if I looked all right I was going t o feel better. Instead of looking pasty, and bald as, I had my hair and was t anned all of the time. I felt so bad for the girls. They lost their hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, everything. I was just sitting there with this dirty mo and a grin (laughs).

-- NO SKATEBOARDING --
I would fall asleep every night and dream about skating and wake up jolting. I would sit at home and watch skating all day. I’d watch every skate video I owned, every YouTube clip coming out, and I’d check all of the skateboarding websites. When Precinct [Skate Shop] opened I’d sit in there and talk skating with people. It was good to talk skating. It was annoying to sit at home and not skate. I just wanted to get back into it.

-- FINISHING CHEMO --
All up, the whole process took a year, but the chemo went for about seven months. The last lot of chemo was pretty funny. We had a party. I got cake, streamers and party hats. It was pretty good. It took a while to get used to not getting the chemo, because I got into the rhythm of feeling wrecked. About two or three weeks after the last lot of chemo I started feeling really good. I went to see the doctor and he said I could start skating in about two weeks from there. The first time I skated I was so scared. I went to Tweed bowl. I rolled in, pumped around and nearly fell three or four times. I got out of the bowl and couldn’t breathe, and thought, Holy shit, this is going to be a long road. I just felt so weak and unbalanced. After I’d been back into skating for about a month I went out for my first lot of drinks, which was pretty funny. I bought a six-pack and thought I’d be trashed. I was feeling good, and my friends were making sure I was having a good time. Then we went and bought a carton and got pretty on it.

-- HEART ABLATION --
My heart, all day, every day, had extra beats. It would skip a beat and then kick start. My cardiologist said because it wasn’t beating in the right rhythm, the heart would just take another electrical pulse somewhere else, so that’s why the extra beats were happening. It was so annoying. I’d just be lying down and constantly feel a palpitation. I couldn’t sleep on my left side because it was so bad. When I got back into skating, I was skating at Nerang with Julian [Lee] and it started doing it, which had never happened before while exercising. I was finally back into everything and started filming for my Welcome to Precinct part. I went back to see my cardiologist, and he said they were ready to do the ablation. He said they’ll go through my groin and put a cord all the way up into my heart – I guess they tickle the part that makes it do that – and scrape the electrical pathway where the extra rhythm is coming from. They said there was going to be an 80 per cent chance that I’d wake up with a pacemaker. Right before I went in they asked if I wanted a magazine to read, and handed me a Slam, so that was good as it helped take my mind off it. The chick that came out before me had just had an ablation, and she was screaming and vomiting. I just thought, Are you kidding me? Apparently her ablation didn’t work. When I woke up, my friend, who was the nurse, said I started ripping my gown, looking at my chest to see if there was a big scar there. I was freaking out, and my heart was going so fast. I ended up grabbing the nurse while yelling, “Do I have a pacemaker?” She reassured me that I was all good, that I didn’t have a pacemaker, and that they did the ablation in under an hour, which is amazing. I calmed down. When they go in through your groin they go through your main artery, so you have to keep your leg still for 18 hours. If you get up and it bleeds out, you only have three minutes until you’re dead. If it swells up it can cause a haemorrhage. So I had to get up and hop to the toilet with the nurse. I went to the toilet once, laid back down and looked at it, and it was the size of a tennis ball. I called the nurse, who then came running in and pretty much dived on top of me to hold it. She just ripped my undies off. So I was lying there in the nude, she was on top of me just holding my groin, pushing it down. She asked me if I was all right, and I’m like, “I’m fine, darl. Whatever you need to do.” (laughs). I couldn’t skate for three weeks after the ablation; couldn’t drink, couldn’t really do anything. Ever since then it’s been super good. The only time I really get any extra beats is if I do shots when drinking, but I don’t even drink that much now. I try to steer away from that.

-- LOOKING BACK --
It was gnarly during chemo. If I had a temperature over 38 degrees I had to go to hospital in case of infections. I had to stay in hospital twice for a week-and-a-half because of fevers. You get sick so easy. It messes your head up. Say we were doing this interview and I was going through chemo, I could be in the deepest story and suddenly forget what I was talking about. That would make me so frustrated because I couldn’t remember at all. There’s so many side effects. I remember the day that it all hit me and I lost my shit. I couldn’t stop crying. I rang my mum to vent, and she said, “It’s about time you bloody cried. You haven’t showed one spec of emotion.” I guess I had put on such a happy face for so long as I didn’t want others to see me down, but I was just over it.

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Boardslide around the bend and pop out at one of the Gold Coast’s finest drug rehab clinics. Photo: Wade McLaughlin

I hit melting point. I also think because I hadn’t lost my hair and didn’t look too sick people would tell me I was breezing through it. I just thought, You don’t breeze through chemo. No one does. There were heaps of good days. I would go to the beach with my mum, and hang at home with my dad as he’s retired. He’s the funniest person in the world. I got a bit gnarly with TV. I watched all of Seinfeld and Friends in one month. All of Sons of Anarchy. I reckon I watched nearly the whole IMBD top 250 movie list, besides the crap ones I had already seen. And all of Gossip Girl … I was running low on shows to watch (laughs). I had a lot of time at home, so I started planning my overseas trip – the trip of a lifetime, I guess, and it was. That kept me positive, as I couldn’t wait to finish chemo to go on that. I finished chemo on the 9th of February, 2015, and then filmed my Welcome to Precinct part and got fully back into skating. Precinct were so amazing. They helped me with everything.

-- RESULTS --
On the 15th of March, 2015, I went to the doctor to get my final results, and I got the all clear. That was the best thing I’ve ever heard. It was on a Friday afternoon, so I immediately got 40 of my closest friends together and met at the Surf Club and had a celebration dinner and beers. We had a massive night. I think that was the first time I’d drank since the ablation. I started having an anxiety attack before I started drinking because I didn’t know what was going to happen. My heart scared me more than the chemo. If that goes, you’re done.

-- PROGNOSIS --
I got a test yesterday, which was my sixth time. When I finished chemo I had to see the doctor every three months for the first year. It’s now been a year, so it goes to four months, then six months, then a year. And after five years I don’t have to see [the doctor] for another five years. There’s only a one-to-three per cent chance this type of cancer ever comes back. The doctor was so positive and relaxed about everything. He gave me his number and said to call him if anything ever happened. My nurse, Mandy, she’s crazy. It’s like she’s on cocaine all the time, but she’s sober clean. She’s just so loud and so funny. She helped me so much through everything.

-- NEWFOUND DRIVE --
I remember when I was trying to film my ender for the Precinct part on the bump to bar, trying to Smith it. I missed it 10 goes in a row, and copped my chin on it so many times. I started cracking the shits and was ready to give up on it. Then Trent [Bonham] said, “You beat cancer… you can Smith this rail!” I ran up and did it that shot. So yeah, I definitely have way more motivation to skate. In all honesty, I think [cancer] made me a better person. I was a little shit back in the day, that’s for sure. I give way more people the time of day now. But, if there were people that I didn’t like and I used to give them the time of day, I don’t now. I just want to be happy and live to the fullest. I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t think I’ve given up on a trick since I’ve been back. I won’t stop skating until it’s done. I just try and make the most of it now. On the days that I’m struggling to get a trick, and can’t get motivated, I’ll just think to myself, You did chemo, you can get this trick. It kind of gives me a second wind. I still get scorpioned all the time, though (laughs). All the time.

As told to Trent Fahey in Slam Issue 211, Winter 2016.