Two years ago, Jason VanBenschoten could barely walk. Last Saturday, he ran 3.1 miles-all the way from South Street to 7 Hamlets Brewing Company.
Jason organized a "Fauxlermaker" event to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Still, it was also a celebration of his triumph over a brain tumor that almost cost him his life.
Ironically, he became aware of the tumor after returning home from a Relay for Life event when a mild headache grew in intensity. Before he knew it, he was lying on the bathroom floor, kicking at the wall in pain. The last thing he remembers saying that day is, “call me an ambulance.”
By the time he got to Faxton Hospital, a tumor at the back of his brain had burst and was hemorrhaging. The situation was so dire the doctors drilled a hole in his skull in the waiting room. They saved his life, and there is currently no sign of the cancer, but the journey back to recovery and being able to organize events like the charity car wash was a long one.
In the aftermath of the brain tumor, he couldn’t walk or talk and almost had to resort to a feeding tube because he was unable even to swallow. The steroids that were necessary for his healing made him hallucinate. Just a few weeks before his car wash, he finished physical therapy after a long year, working very hard to recover.
“I started it in a wheelchair, and I ended it on the treadmill,” Jason said when I first interviewed him about it last September.
He had planned to crown that achievement by running the 5K Boilermaker this year, so when it was canceled because of COVID-19, he came up with the idea of having a “Fauxlermaker” event starting at his home on South Street and ending at the 7 Hamlets Brewing Company on Route 233.
Participants wore blue T-shirts that said, "Brain cancer didn't stop me from walking; COVID-19 didn't stop me from running."
“Since I was unable to actually run the 5k boilermaker, this event will be the Fauxlermaker,” he said on his Facebook page. It was also a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. He limited the number of people who could run with him because of social distancing, but he had a crowd waiting for him to cross the finish line at 7 Hamlets.
"For him, going from not walking to running is incredible," said Bill Card, a cancer survivor who came from Utica to cheer Jason on as he crossed the finish line. "For people who are going through it, or who have survived it, this will keep them motivated and inspired. We have to soak in all this positive energy and move on."
Bill found out it was happening by reading about it in that morning’s paper, so did Kevin Copeland, who volunteers as the Boilermaker Assistant Finish Line Director.
“I knew we needed to do something,” Kevin told me in a phone interview.
So, he called Mark Dembrow [the Finish Line Director], and they quickly gathered some Boilermaker finishers pins and a hat. Then he rushed to 7 Hamets and waited for Jason to finish.He talked to Jason’s father, Rodney VanBenscoten, and Jason’s mom, Tammie, while he was waiting.
“This is an amazing story,” Kevin told Rodney.
Rodney could not be prouder of his son, describing him as “a man who overcame every obstacle thrown at him. From our boy to the man with determination and courage to beat the odds.”
As Jason neared the finish line, several members of the crowd, including his wife Bethany, doubled back to cross it with him. Everyone cheered. Some in the crowd had tears in their eyes, thinking of how far he had come.
“I sat in a waiting room full of family, waiting for hours…” Jason’s sister, Jessica Grande, recalled. “When the doctor walked in, he said the words, ‘He is at zero [percent chance to live], I think we got to the tumor too late…”
Jessica said how she had watched him “fight his way back” for the past two years.
“My heart is full,” she summed up. “I am so thankful God had a different plan that what was originally thought. Our family is so thankful for every hand that helped. The people who prayed and donated.”
“I got very emotional because I was actually able to do it,” Jason said. “Everyone was so generous, we got a good amount for the American Cancer Society, and there were others inspired by it, like Bill.”
Kevin Copeland stepped up and gave him the Boilermaker pins and a hat.
“On behalf of the Boilermaker, I want to present you with this,” he said.
Jason described that as “icing on the cake,” saying, “They not only affirmed me finishing a race but [freeing myself] from limitation.”
“We are a grateful family,” Jessica concluded. “I know I am ‘the big sister,’ but he is my small town hero!”
Ron Klopfanstein has a video of Jason and his team of runners crossing the finish line at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo, Instagram and Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein.