YORKTOWN – Two days that stand out on the timeline of Jason Ornelas’ life – the day he was diagnosed with cancer and the day the teen was told he was clear of the disease.
“Finally. That’s all I could think about. I’m finally cleared,” Jason, 17, said.
Last summer, Jason was undergoing his first round of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with metastatic osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.
More than a year after his diagnosis, Jason is getting ready for normalcy.
“That was a hard day,” said Jason’s mother, Karen Casten, about the day Jason was diagnosed with cancer. “I prayed for those months after for everything to be cleared.”
Jason was diagnosed in June 2018 after his left arm popped and went limp during basketball practice. The teen underwent surgery to remove the tumor and replace the lost tissue, but that was just the beginning of his battle.
For eight months, Jason and his mother’s lives revolved around hospitals and treatments. They would spend three weeks at a time at the Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, where Jason received his treatments.
Some of the days in treatment were OK, Jason said. The better days were when his family and friends were able to visit him in San Antonio. Some days, he said, were more difficult.
“I would just be curled up in a ball. There were times at the hospital when I felt like an old man,” Jason said. “I would sit in bed for two or three days, then get up and walk around, but I still wasn’t able to do much sometimes.”
Jason was a varsity athlete in football, basketball and baseball before his cancer diagnosis. He was unable to play any sport last year, which was heartbreaking for his cousin, Christopher Johnson, also an athlete, to see.
The two have been involved in sports together since seventh grade, Christopher said.
“During football season, we (the team) carried his jersey with us before the game started,” Christopher, 16, said. “The first game, we scored 34 points ... they called the game, so we couldn’t make it 35, Jason’s number. That would have been nice.”
To help lift up Jason’s spirits during treatment, his classmates surprised Jason by dedicating a pep rally to him and a video of well-wishes from around the state and country, including college coaches and NFL players.
Included in that video was a message from Mark Johnson, the former Texas A&M baseball coach. Johnson told Jason “KOKO” which stands for “keep on keepin’ on” in the video.
That message stuck with Jason throughout his treatments, and when Jason was offered a service dog, he quickly named her Koko.
As a service dog, Koko, a golden retriever, will help Jason in public and in school. After the tumor in his left arm was removed, a titanium rod was placed in his arm, and most of his muscles also had to be taken out.
Jason is unable to lift up his left arm, and at times, has trouble balancing when picking up an item. He will be back in public school again after a year of being homebound, and Jason is training Koko to become certified soon so she could help him in school.
Casten said she has requested Jason have Koko with him in school, and will meet with school district officials this month to discuss how Jason will be able to have a service animal in school.
Koko wears a vest and shoes as a service dog, and cannot be petted or spoken to by anyone else when she is out with Jason, Casten said.
For now, Koko is still training with Jason, and has several training sessions left before she is certified.
“She’s learning pretty quick. I take her out in public so that she gets used to being around a lot of people,” Jason said.
In February, Jason received the news from his doctors that he was cancer-free.
“It was such a relief. There was so much prayer for him to be cleared. To hear that news was something we’ve been waiting to hear forever,” Casten said.
Though treatment was rough, Jason did find inspiration during his time in the hospital.
He would like to become a child life specialist, a professional who works with children who are hospitalized or have an illness. He said he was inspired by the child life specialists he met at Methodist Children’s Hospital, who helped him throughout his treatment.
“The child life specialists would help take my mind off the cancer, and they would do things like play video games. I’d like to do that for other kids one day, too,” Jason said.
Both Jason and Casten are looking forward to the school year. Casten will teach English at Yorktown High School, while Jason will be a team manager for athletics.
“I really missed being around my friends and just doing normal things. I missed being a part of a team, so even though I can’t play, I’m glad I’m still able to contribute to the team,” he said.