Concert to benefit West Mifflin officer battling rare cancer
In a matter of only a few hours, everything changed for Jim and Kate Pawling.
In October, about a year after moving their family from West Mifflin to a new home in North Huntingdon Township, Jim began feeling an intense bloating in his stomach. But his wife said there was little cause for concern as the 39-year-old K-9 officer with West Mifflin police had always been a model of good health.
“He was very active and worked every day,” said Kate Pawling, 30. “He has four sons (two from a previous marriage) and we were constantly running around like maniacs taking them to baseball, wrestling and football.”
But after a few weeks of pushing through the pain, Jim Pawling finally went to see a gastroenterologist in early November.
“They sent him for an ultrasound and scope because they thought it was a problem with his gall bladder,” Kate said. “But as soon as they started reading the results, they immediately sent him to the emergency room. They said there were lesions all over his liver.”
Before they knew it, the couple found themselves before a doctor who told them the unthinkable: Jim has Stage 4 Burkitt's lymphoma — a rare and extremely aggressive form of blood cancer. In addition to tumors on his liver, they were on the lining of his stomach and brain and in his bone marrow.
“They said it's so aggressive that he probably hasn't even had it for six months,” Kate said. “Tumors can develop and double in size within 24 hours.”
The following day, Jim started chemotherapy at UPMC Shadyside, where he routinely spends four or five days at a time for inpatient treatment.
Although he wasn't well enough to be interviewed for this story, his wife said she knows what he would have said.
“It was difficult at first,” Kate said. “You immediately start rethinking everything in your life. It's crazy what you take for granted every day. For the longest time, it was our kids' world and we were just living in it. But looking back, you begin to wish you'd stopped to smell the flowers.”
During the ensuing weeks, the Pawlings learned the cancer had spread to Jim's brain and spinal fluid — something that caused neurological problems like slurred speech and the inability to control facial muscles.
“It seems a little like with every step forward, we take a few back,” Kate said. “But there are little miracles happening all the time. Those symptoms have gone down but he can still be neutropenic, which means he loses a lot of white blood cells and becomes open to infections.”
Jim was neutropenic for the holidays and slept 22 hours on Christmas Day.
“It's difficult — especially for the kids — seeing the strongest person in the family in bed all the time with everything knocked out of him,” Kate said. “He's always been our Superman.”
They are not going through this alone. Friends and family sprung into action soon after learning of Jim's diagnosis and started the Jim Pawling Benefit Foundation through the Western Pennsylvania Police Benevolent Foundation.
Among his friends is Brett Basic, a fellow West Mifflin officer, who said he's known Pawling for about seven years.
“He's just such a good guy,” Basic said. “He's very outgoing and always has something going on with his boys. We knew we had to help however we could.”
The group put together a fundraiser on Jan. 9 at Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin that Basic said was a big success and didn't have nearly the star power as the next benefit does.
A concert is set forFriday evening at the Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall featuring Scott Blasey, Greg Joseph and Robert James of the Clarks along with acoustic rock trio AG3.
Although Jim may not be well enough to attend, Kate said she and the rest of the family will be there.
“I had no idea it was all going to be as big as it is,” she said. “We're so thankful to have so many people behind us and we're all really excited for the concert.”
While Jim's cancer is moving fast, Kate said his doctors have shown nothing but optimism.
“His oncologist said because he's young enough and has had no health problems before this, they could give him the most toxic regimen of chemo,” she said. “They said they have to treat it aggressively because it spreads so aggressively, but they said there's no reason he can't be completely cancer-free. And believe me: Jim is not going to give up.”
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.