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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Former Gonzaga big man Jeremy Eaton brings toughness, positive outlook to cancer battle

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 19, 2021

This is how Jeremy Eaton recounted his first doctor’s appointment in 10 years:

Dec. 15: “The doctor starts pushing across my abdomen and says, ‘You have a CT scan at 9 a.m.’ I’m like, ‘Why, I don’t feel that bad,’ thinking this is going to cost me a couple grand.”

Dec. 16: “Next morning, get the results. She says, ‘You have stage four rectal cancer and it’s moved into your liver, kidney and lungs.’

“I just looked at her and said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ And I said, ‘Am I dead?’

“She goes, ‘No, I’ve called the oncologist at the Cancer Center at Saint Alphonsus (Regional Medical Center in Boise). You meet with him in three hours.’ She knew the right people to call.”

Those two days turned Eaton’s world, and those close to him, upside down.

Eaton, a 6-foot-11 forward on Gonzaga’s 1999 Elite Eight team, spent the next few weeks undergoing tests. Or, as he says in his direct manner, “poking, prodding, biopsies. December was a long month.”

A recent biopsy was the first time he’d ever been in a hospital bed, despite collecting the customary bumps, bruises and stitches from his basketball and rodeo careers.

Eaton recently finished his first week of chemotherapy. Doctors told him his cancer is inoperable, but there’s optimism other treatments could control it and slow the spread.

There’s a catch in his voice when he recalls having to tell his son, Sy, and his parents back home in Benton City, just outside of the Tri-Cities.

“The hard one was to sit down with my son, he’s 19,” said Eaton, who had been feeling lousy for about a month before making an appointment. “That was tough. And calling my folks was tough. I kind of sandbagged with them until I was at home. I told them they were doing some testing because I didn’t want to tell them over the phone. It was a tough conversation.”

Helping hands

Eaton, 44, lives in Nampa, Idaho, and operates a one-man fabrication shop. As luck would have it, he was planning to get medical insurance by Jan. 1.

His sister, Kendra, took the initiative, setting up a GoFundMe page to help offset medical costs without telling Jeremy, knowing his pride and legendary stubborn streak would protest. As of Tuesday morning, $49,600 has been raised.

Calls have poured in from Eaton’s longtime friends and GU teammates and classmates. Family and friends have been delivering meals to Jeremy and Sy, who is living at home to help his dad.

“This came out of nowhere and we’re all kind of shell-shocked,” said actor Eric ‘Big Ed’ Edelstein, the play-by-play announcer for Zag games on GUTV during the Elite Eight season. “We’ve all been talking to him. He sounds like the same old Jeremy, making jokes, making me laugh, and he’s bound and determined to beat this thing.

“He’s so optimistic, he’s the same guy. He gets the gold medal for being stubborn, and I’m hoping it gives him an upper hand with this fight.”

Edelstein is helping organize The Spokesman-Review’s Zoom fundraiser for Eaton, featuring players from the 1999 team and previous seasons. The event is being planned for early to mid-March.

“Every single person on the Elite Eight team said yes within minutes,” Edelstein said. “Axel (Dench) in Australia, Quentin (Hall) in the Bahamas, Richie Frahm couldn’t have said yes quicker.”

Eaton played at Walla Walla Community College for coach Jeff Reinland before becoming a Zag from 1997-99. Sy was set to play for Reinland this fall, but his plans changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Eaton’s diagnosis.

Eaton redshirted at GU in 1998 before averaging 11.7 points in 1999.

GU head coach Mark Few, who has been deeply involved in raising money for cancer research in the Inland Northwest, said hearing of Eaton’s cancer was “awful news.”

“Hopefully money we continue to raise will eventually get it to where we won’t be having these conversations,” said Few, an assistant coach on the 1999 team. “Jeremy was a heck of a player. He’s one of those guys that could play on this team – big, skilled and knows how to play.”

Eaton’s pro career took him all over the U.S. and overseas with stops in Iceland, Lebanon, Holland, Germany, Hungary and Australia. He even suited up with Hall for one game in Holland.

Treatment and outlook

Eaton estimates he’s lost 30-35 pounds, and doctors believe his body has been battling cancer for at least 18 months.

He received three different types of chemo in his first week of treatment, two administered at the hospital and another via a slow-release, two-day process.

“They give me a ball that looks like a lemon and I have a port in my chest they plug it in so I pack it around for two days,” Eaton said. “Three days total each time and I go every two weeks.

“They’re being really aggressive and loading me up, and I told them to. Your body is just off, like I want to eat but my stomach is a little off. So I eat a little bit. It’s going to be rough.”

The first cycle is three months. Sy accompanies his dad at appointments and “knows everything every doctor tells me,” Eaton said. “He’s been phenomenal.”

So has Saint Alphonsus, Eaton said. He was up front about not having insurance, and administrators told him not to worry and that support was available through endowments and grants. He has signed up for Medicaid and expects that will help when he’s approved.

Eaton attended the reunion of former Zags in Phoenix when Gonzaga made the 2017 Final Four. He hopes to do the same in Indianapolis in a few months.

“A lot has to happen for me with my treatment and how that’s going,” Eaton said. “They should do well. I want them to do well. I feel like we started it 21 years ago. I feel like somebody needs to finish it.”

The first few months of treatment “kind of lay out our time frame,” Eaton said bluntly. “They’ll monitor everything and check the toxicity levels and make sure I’m accepting it. Is it shrinking? Has it stopped progressing?

“They’re hoping because my body was so strong and resilient fighting it, hiding it, whatever you want to call it, that’ll work in my favor. Because of the treatment and my age, they feel like five years could be attainable, but who knows, some brilliant guy, I wouldn’t (care) if it’s some stupid guy, might come up with a cure.”

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