Middleton Fundraiser Planned for GIST Research

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MTT News's picture
Katherine Perreth
Connor MacLea, was diagnosed at age 17 with gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST). The disease affects a small percentage of people, mainly youth, however, correct diagnoses are now on the rise.

MIDDLETON–The hopes of a mother are pinned on one California doctor, a leader in researching a particularly difficult and rare cancer. To aid his efforts, former Middleton resident Michelle MacLea, (nee Jolin), has devoted herself fulltime to fundraising for research, creating more treatment options and a cure. 

MacLea’s son, Conner, was diagnosed with gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) at the end of his senior year in high school, at age 17. He’s been fighting the disease for over two years.

“It’s a very complicated cancer,” explained MacLea, “and not a matter of if it’s coming back, but when.” 

Currently, the only treatment options are multiple surgeries for recurring tumors or oral chemotherapy. Those whose cancer is inoperable may decide to take part in trials or unproven therapies, MacLea said.

Although the cancer occurs in a very small percentage of people, getting it is like drawing “ a really short straw,” MacLea explained. Youth are primarily affected, there are few existing treatment options and it’s another type of cancer that is generally found too late. “Most of the time it’s metastasized,” she said.

People with GIST seem healthy and can remain undiagnosed. Her son was at the peak of his physical well-being, receiving college offers to play baseball, she said. A mere five months before his diagnosis, he’d had a clean bill of health from a routine physical and blood tests. 

Then, he nearly fainted in the shower, MacLea said. His case is not unusual.

“Kids are walking around living normally, with no idea they have cancer,” MacLea said. In addition, adults can be misdiagnosed, for example with ulcers, she said. Correct diagnoses are on the increase in the United States, she said, as are the mutations of the disease. Her goal is to stop the cancer from becoming commonplace, and have a positive impact on those already suffering with GIST.

“I’m not in denial, I believe two things,” MacLea explained. “The guy we support at University of California San Diego, he’s going to be the guy who solves the problem, and, we truly have an opportunity here to stop this cancer from becoming something like a lung or breast cancer.” 

Annually, those two cancers account for nearly 200,000 deaths in the United States.

MacLea is hopeful, noting researchers have made more discoveries in the past two years than ever before. Her efforts alone have raised about $100,000 she said. And she sees the trend of discoveries only continuing, “moving forward and faster.” 

“One hundred percent (of the money raised) goes directly into Dr. Jason Sicklick’s research,” MacLea said. “They’re not buying desks with it or trash cans.”

As for her fundraising in Middleton, MacLea choked up and was speechless as she remembered the outpouring of support given last year from childhood friends and those who knew her mother, Jean Jolin, as a 15-year teacher at Kromrey Middle School. 

The Jolin family has had connection to Middleton since 1955. Jean and the late Robert Jolin raised their four children in Middleton, and were an active part of the community since 1955, serving on the Middleton City Council in the ’60s and ’70s.

“Our hearts are full of gratitude and we’re eternally thankful for the support we have received from the Middleton community,” said Jean Jolin, grandmother of Connor MacLea.

Even though Michelle MacLea moved away after graduating from Middleton High School in 1979, she said, “I still refer to Middleton as home.” 

MacLea, who described herself as, at first, private about her son’s diagnosis and so emotional that she couldn’t speak about it, is now on a crusade. “It’s important for people to know that even donating $5, people can look back some day, and say, ‘I was part of solving this cancer.’”

Jolin concluded, “My daughter, Michelle, has shown a strength and resolve to move mountains. Her fundraising efforts have been constant and heroic and she is the woman I admire most in this world.”

The year the Middleton GIST fundraiser will be held Aug. 23, 4-7 p.m., at the Middleton Sport Bowl.

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