CMU student keeps high spirits despite fighting battle with unknown cancer

Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Thorne Kalamazoo resident and Former CM Life Staff RepoterJeff Ketcham, 22, waits for a blood draw after his infusion Tuesday evening at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. Ketcham was diagnosed with cancer of unknown primary in July, meaning the origin of the cancer cannot be determined. He is currently participating in a phase one drug trial mixing chemotherapy with experimental drugs.

He never imagined he would have landed here.

It is a small home in Plymouth, laden with Red Wings apparel. Memorabilia lines the walls, the items are framed, preserved, valued. The house belongs to mere acquaintances of his aunt. Not close enough to be friends, but kind-hearted enough to take Washington senior Jeff Ketcham in. He only has to pay the utilities every month, another act of generosity for which he says he is grateful.

The owners are currently in Europe, so he has the house to himself.

The most important item in the house is a 2008 championship Red Wings jersey, ordained with autographs by each player. It holds a sacred position above the desk in the main floor office. It would hold a minimum price of $500 but could easily go for more than $1,000.

There's a certain spark to Ketcham's voice when he talks about the jersey. A sight he can't believe he gets to witness something amazing every time he enters through the front door. It's a needed relief, because he almost never got to see it.


This year, he was supposed to be graduating.

A major in journalism, Ketcham refers to himself as a "social person." He reported for Central Michigan Life last April and into the summer, a way for him to meet and experience other people. Yet his heart lies in advertising, which allows his creative side to flourish.

He dreams of working in an ad agency. He plans to go back to school to complete his degree in the near future, but it probably won't be at Central Michigan University.

"I won't know anyone in Mount Pleasant," Ketcham said. "By the time I get back, everyone I know would have completely taken off."


His girlfriend, Gladwin senior Kaitlin Thorne,  uploaded a picture of Ketcham to her Facebook last September. They still find a way to spend time with each other.

He's wearing a cartoon-like hat, shaped like a shark as bulging white eyes burst from the top of the hat, the white teeth protruding down his forehead. His smile is subtle, but contagious. He can pull off the look, because his hairline is noticeably absent.

He's been bald for months now. ----

When Ketcham first learned he had cancer, mid-summer, he couldn't believe it.

"Some days, it is hard to believe; it was completely out of the blue," Ketcham said. "My first week, when I was in-patient, I was out of my (mind). Looking back, it doesn't seem real. It just seems like a dream."

Even though Ketcham has had cancer for an extended period of time, he still makes the trip to University of Michigan's Ann Arbor hospital four to seven days every week for treatment. If Ketcham had prostate cancer, skin cancer or testicular cancer, it would be easier. There are mapped-out medical routes for doctors, with lines of treatment that are more likely to cause the cancer to regress.

But doctors have no firm sense of what cancer Ketcham has. He is diagnosed with unknown primary cancer, which means one cannot identify the source of Ketcham's disease.

"They have no idea," Ketcham said. "They don't know where I have it or where it came from. It's a genuine medical mystery."

Tumor growth is present in two places: one next to Ketcham's left lung, one next to Ketcham's right hip. At the beginning, the growth next to his lung grew at a rate of 70 percent, growing from roughly 4 centimeters to roughly 10 centimeters in just two weeks.

As a group, the median survival is approximately three to four months for patients diagnosed with unknown primary, with less than 25 percent of patients surviving after one year, according to

Treatments for Ketcham were often simply shots in the dark.

Because of this, Ketcham's doctors took aggressive action. Until recently, Ketcham was undergoing a particularly rough version of chemotherapy. Known as Cisplatin, the drug is one of the most aggressive therapies available.

Ketcham referred to it as "the biggest hammer doctors had to hit it with." The treatment took an average of seven and a half hours. While the actual chemotherapy only took an average of two and a half hours, Ketcham's body had to be flushed with saline before and after treatments.

Without the saline flushing out the drug, Ketcham's liver would have been destroyed within mere sessions. The treatment left Ketcham bitterly sick for hours.

The "hammer," for the most part, was not completely successful, although it slowed down the growth significantly. The growth only now stands at only 13 centimeters, 12 millimeters. It failed to make any repressions.

Ketcham is now undergoing a more experimental treatment that has since reduced the growth in his right hip, which was slight to begin with. The growth in his lung, which still stands at a non-lethal size, is stagnant.

----- Jay Gary, a Central Michigan University alum, has been Ketcham's friend since their freshman year at college. By sophomore year, Gary said their friendship flourished. They moved into the same apartment and have rarely been apart since.

Gary spent the entire first week of Ketcham's stay in the hospital at his side. He's been a constant supporter of him throughout the entire ordeal.

Gary, perhaps, would be the ideal friend to have in such a situation. He's not easily phased, nor is he discouraged. His best friend getting cancer didn't change his life, he said.

When Gary learned Ketcham had cancer, the same stubborn attitude defined their relationship.

"In my world, guy best friends talk crap, we give each other a hard time," Gary said. "And I wanted him to know, even with tubes in him, even him getting cancer, things were changing, you don't have to think about that. Things weren't changing between us. Things were the same. They were always going to be the same. " -----

November is commonly known throughout the college crowd as 'No Shave November.' A month to grow one's facial hair to outrageous proportions because one finally has a socially acceptable excuse.

Most college students aren't aware that the event is held for much more serious reasons. It is an awareness movement for prostate and testicular cancer, both of which are now relevant to Ketcham's life.

Before a week ago, he didn't even know that 'No Shave November' had anything remotely to do with cancer.

"It doesn't really change my outlook a whole lot," Ketcham said. "If you're doing it just to be funny, then I don't care. But if you are growing facial hair to raise funds for cancer, yeah, that does mean a lot."

His friends, unfortunately, are unable to grow facial hair.

"Jay could probably only achieve about two hairs," Ketcham said with a laugh.

His laugh soon transformed into a rousing cough, the voice which emerged after, raspy. It would take a sequence of full sentences for it to return to its original state.

He continued to laugh, anyway.


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