Former Easthampton, UMass pitcher Jeremy Demers stares down fight with cancer

Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2014

When he’s got a baseball in his hand, it’s hard to tell Jeremy Demers has cancer.

Most of the weight he originally lost from his 6-foot, broad-shouldered frame has come back and so far his hair has been unaffected by chemotherapy.

When his right arm reaches back and sends the ball toward the plate, it’s not hard to see the standout pitcher he was at Easthampton High School, the University of Massachusetts and the New England College Baseball League.

He has a beard now, and at 31, Demers still looks ready to battle hitters.

His battle is different now as he’s fighting Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of lymphoma. He wasn’t expecting to hear “cancer” from the doctors when he went to Cooley Dickinson Hospital by himself at 2 a.m. on Dec. 4 with back and side pain too intense to wait until the next morning.

He’d been in a car accident a year earlier and suffered lingering back injuries. He thought he was dealing with another flare-up, but a biopsy revealed he had stage 4 Hodgkins. The disease had begun attacking his lungs as well.

“It was devastating,” Demers said. “It was kind of rough being alone and finding out on my own. It hit me like, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

While stage 4 is the last stage, the fact that the cancer hadn’t spread to either his heart or bone marrow, and had just begun to spread to his lungs was reason from optimism.

Demers will go in this week for his eighth of 12 doses of chemotherapy. He will take it every two weeks until June 12. While the toxic chemicals have spared his hair, they’ve taken a toll on the rest of his body.

“Usually for two or three days afterward I feel bloated and nauseous,” said Demers, who had to change the course of chemo he was taking because the original cocktail was causing nerve damage. “I’m trying to get feeling back in my feet.”

Still, he said the cancer cells, while still present, are shrinking.

There’s obviously no good time for a cancer diagnosis, but Demers’ luck was particularly rough. He’d been laid off from his job long enough not to have health insurance, and recently enough that Mass Health, the state-mandated option, has yet to come through. Demers said he’s not eligible for unemployment benefits because he’s not healthy enough to pursue other jobs. He’s applying for disability, but the bureaucratic wheels move slowly.

Treatments, tests and medicine are all expensive and he still has to eat, put gas in his car and spend money on daily essentials like everyone else.

“I haven’t had any income since my diagnosis. It’s been nonstop with appointments with doctors and insurance companies, meetings left and right,” said Demers, who has moved in with his father in Ludlow to save money. “I’ve probably been busier now and more stressed out now than when I had a legitimate 9-5.”

His escape has been baseball. With no job to go to, he’s been helping out coach Ed Zuchowski with the Easthampton baseball team, working largely with the pitchers.

“Baseball is my getaway from everything that’s going on. It’s why it’s so big that the high school team has reached out. It’s been so rewarding,” said Demers, who has helped Easthampton American Legion coach Joe Dushane run camps and clinics at Williston Northampton School since he was 16 years old. “I’ve always loved teaching kids.”

While Zuchowski was glad to provide his former pitcher with an outlet, his players were benefitting greatly from having Demers around.

“The boys are getting a lot of baseball knowledge from Jeremy, but a lot about life and how it can kind of fly by. You have to battle what you have to battle,” Zuchowski said. “That’s the great lesson they’re learning. Here’s a guy who just turned 31 and found himself in a life-changing situation. His positive attitude, his work ethic and his we-can-do-this attitude has been great for these guys. To be around someone who has such a positive outlook on life already, despite this terrible disease he’s been battling, has been great.”

Demers said some of the lessons he learned playing baseball and competing have helped prepare him for this fight.

“Playing sports and being very competitive has helped me persevere,” he said.

While Demers might have been alone that night at Cooley Dickinson, the outpouring of love and support since has been a driving force behind his positive attitude.

Easthampton celebrated Demers, a 2001 EHS alum, when he was a pitcher and when word of his illness got around, the town rallied raising money and his spirits at the same time.

Different groups have held fundraisers. Last month there was a spaghetti supper and a dance party. Friends and supporters have sold candles on his behalf. On May 3rd there will be a tag sale (8 a.m. at 97 Glendale St.) and on May 10th a car wash (8 a.m. Easthampton municipal building), all to raise money to help defray his medical costs and living expenses.

“I’ve been awestruck. It’s very touching. I’ve always been proud to be from Easthampton. The whole city has supported me. It’s been so positive,” Demers said. “I’ve been so grateful for it. It’s been unbelievable.”

Last week for the baseball team’s home opener, the coaching staff, players and booster club put together an event celebrating Easthampton baseball and its history to raise money for Demers, who they invited him to throw out the first pitch.

During the game, the junior varsity team handed out violet ribbons, symbols of Hodgkins Awareness. The players wore violet shoelaces and maroon T-shirts with the phrase “Team Demers - We can Do This.”

“It was very overwhelming. It was very intense that so many people showed up,” Demers said. “It was very touching the ceremony that they had.”

An unexpected moment, designed by Demers, might have been the event’s most stirring. Instead of taking the mound alone for the ceremonial first pitch, Demers brought Kyle Gagnon, a 2009 Easthampton graduate, with him. Gagnon, who had played football with Demers’ brother Chris, had just been diagnosed with lymphoma and was about to start treatment. The two threw out ceremonial first pitches together.

“Nobody knew it until I showed up and told them I wanted him to throw with me. His first treatment day was (Friday). I wanted to kick him off on a positive note,” Demers said. “It felt like the right time and place to reach out to him.”

Dushane, who helped organize the event, wasn’t surprised.

“Jeremy, who’s selfless, said ‘He’s coming out with me to throw the first pitch. We have to support him too,’” Dushane said.

Being around the Eagles and on the mound last week has further inspired Demers to beat cancer. Whether it’s softball or Over-30 League baseball, Demers wants to be well enough to someday play again.

“It gave me an itch big time. I told my buddy, ‘I just want to go out and throw off the mound now,’” Demers said. “I want to get back into it and feel good again.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage