Cancer survivor Daniel Jacobs returns to ring after oppressive bout with osteosarcoma

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Daniel Jacobs initially dismissed the weakness in his legs as one of those things that can happen to a boxer when he is out of training.

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Daniel Jacobs celebrates after beating Juan Astorga by TKO for the NABO supermiddleweight title. (Getty)

He was just a few months past his 24th birthday and remained an elite prospect, an almost-certain world champion. His condition, though, was an odd one for a magnificently conditioned professional athlete.

His legs were weakening and he was dragging his feet as he walked. The problem progressively worsened until he first needed a cane and then a walker to get around.

Jacobs, though, was the eternal optimist. The numbness and the weakness in his lower body would disappear, he believed, when he returned to the gym and resumed training. He'd just gotten back from a USO goodwill tour of Iraq, utterly convinced he'd resume his march toward the top of the middleweight division.

And then, suddenly, he found himself talking to his doctor and heard the one word that changed everything: Cancer.

"You have to understand, I was on my death bed," Jacobs said. "The doctor said that the tumor was growing so fast that if I had waited four more days, it would have grown so large it would have slowed my heart down. I was literally on my deathbed. I escaped death."

Jacobs will return to box on Oct. 20 at the Barclays Center in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., a miracle with more twists and turns than a Perry Mason movie. On that beautiful spring day in May 2011, though, Jacobs learned for the first time just how lucky he is to be alive.


Dorothea Perry was in a panic. For several days, she couldn't reach her godson. An inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission, Perry had been estranged for about four years from Jacobs, but they met in early April 2011 at the New York Golden Gloves tournament at Madison Square Garden and settled their differences.

The issues between them, she said, were exacerbated by others, and she was relieved to have resolved it.

At one point after their reconciliation, Jacobs complained to her about having difficulty walking. He'd gone to a local emergency room, but said hospital staff didn't do much for him. They'd told him to take some Ibuprofen, get some rest and quickly sent him on his way.

He was 24 at the time and in magnificent shape. No way, Perry thought to herself, should this thickly muscled young man need a walker.

"I said to him, 'You're too young to be using a walker, Danny,' " she said. "You know how young people are. They tend to exaggerate and dramatize things. I was concerned about him, but I just couldn't get this part about using a walker."

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Jacobs was thinking perhaps he had a problem with the sciatic nerve in his back. Perry had tried to help, but to this point, nothing was working. She wanted to check in again, to see if he was all right and to satisfy this voice inside of her that urged her to keep looking for him, to not give up.

Many times over the next few days, Perry called to check on him, to no avail. Call after call went unanswered, each message unreturned. One morning, after she'd finished an appointment in the vicinity of where Jacobs lived, she decided the situation was serious enough that she needed to hunt for him.

Since she had only dropped him off at his home once and didn't have his address, she began to slowly comb the streets, hoping something would jog her memory and that she'd remember where he lived.

One building looked familiar. She parked and approached the doorman.

"Does a boxer live here?" she asked.

Yes, the doorman said, Danny Jacobs. Perry introduced herself and told the doorman it was urgent she speak to him. The doorman buzzed Perry up.

When Jacobs answered the door, Perry was shocked – the elite boxer couldn’t even walk to the door.

"I had to crawl on my arms from the bed, because it had gotten so bad, it was at the point I couldn't even walk," Jacobs said. "I kind of had to military-style pull myself and drag myself by my arms to open the door. She immediately took me to see a neurologist and the neurologist told me she had seen my condition before. The person she had seen it from actually didn't make it."

A tumor the size of a handball had been growing on Jacobs' spine. It was causing the problems in his hips and legs.

Even thinking of death was unfathomable to Jacobs. Death happened to old folks, not young, healthy, 24-year-old professional athletes with a world of promise and everything to live for.

He had a plan for his life, and it included earning enough money to provide for his 2-year-old son, Nathaniel, as well as future generations. He dreamed of capturing world titles and winning dramatic bouts and being celebrated for his heart and courage and dedication.

Dying wasn't part of the plan.

It would, however, get worse before it got better.


Jacobs was something of a boxing prodigy. He was 137-7 as an amateur and won the national Golden Gloves title both as a welterweight and as a middleweight. He'd also won the Police Athletic League national title twice and was the 19-under U.S. champion in 2004.

Jacobs turned pro in late 2007 amid great acclaim. He'd signed with Golden Boy Promotions and very quickly was being featured on major shows. He made his pro debut on the undercard of the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton card in Las Vegas. It doesn't get much bigger for a 19-year-old rookie.

Eight of his first 11 bouts ended in first-round knockouts. Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya, a one-time superstar boxer, raved about Jacobs' potential.

Very quickly, Jacobs was skyrocketing up the middleweight rankings.

"I worked really hard to get to where I was," Jacobs said. "Nothing was given to me. But boxing fit me. It was natural. I seemed to understand it very well."

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Daniel Jacobs lays on the mat after getting knocked out by Dmitry Pirog. (Getty)

Golden Boy was protecting him on his rise, leading to some jealousy from his rivals. He was nicknamed "The Golden Child," and it seemed like he'd haul in the gold, both for himself and his promoters.

He was good-looking, charismatic and well-spoken. Not only could he box, he could punch and the world loves a knockout artist.

"You didn't have to be a boxing expert to see he was going to be a star," Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said. "He's always been one of the nicest young men around. He comes across so well. He's extremely well spoken and he's no thug. The words he uses, the way he speaks, the way he could fight, clearly, you could see that this guy was going places."

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Jacobs lost a championship bout he was heavily favored to win. He was knocked out in the fifth round on July 31, 2010, by Dmitry Pirog in a bout in Las Vegas for the WBO middleweight title.

It was a shocker, but Pirog was a quality opponent and Jacobs' personal life was a mess at the time. His grandmother, Cordelia Jacobs, the woman who had raised him, had died a few days earlier. Jacobs had fallen apart emotionally in the locker room moments before he had to walk to the ring to fight.

The consensus in the boxing world was that it was a blip on the radar and that Jacobs would soon be back.


Nine months after that loss, though, he was in a fight for his life. An MRI showed the tumor. On May 13, 2011, neurosurgeon Dr. Roger Härtl performed a catheter embolization to cut off blood supply to the tumor. But it wasn't until the pathology report came back that things really got bad for Jacobs.

The tumor was malignant. Jacobs had osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that grows in the bones. The five-year survival rate for localized osteosarcoma, or cancer which had not spread, was 60 to 80 percent.

That was the good news, even though it meant that the chance of not surviving it was 20 to 40 percent. If the cancer had metastasized, though, or spread from the bones to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate was grim – just 15 to 30 percent.

His girlfriend, Natalie Stevens, said that when Jacobs learned he had cancer, he got extremely emotional.

Stevens wanted to scream, to curse the gods, to cry, to rant. But she did not. Jacobs, she believed, needed a strong, clear-headed voice, a rock in the rough times. So she checked her emotions.

"I was poker-faced," she said. "I would have freaked out. I wanted to just totally freak out, but I knew right away I couldn't do that in front of him. I didn't want to give him one negative thought. All I wanted was for him to be thinking of beating it, of getting better. So in front of him, I never cried. I never really showed any emotion."

She wanted to sit with Jacobs and talk and nurture and will him through this ordeal. Initially, though, Jacobs pushed her aside.

He went to a local park to sit and think by himself. He needed to be alone.

"That hurt, because I wanted to be with him, but he needed time," Stevens said. "He just wanted to be by himself for a bit to digest it all."


Perry had learned Jacobs had cancer before Jacobs. He'd given consent for her to be notified of his medical records and when the pathology report came in, Perry, not Jacobs, received the call.

She didn't share it with him, though, feeling that he deserved to hear it from his doctor, who could provide context, clarity and answers.

For a week, she kept the information to herself.

"It was eating me alive to not be able to tell him," she said.

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Daniel Jacobs lands a right against Victor Lares in 2008. (Getty)

Jacobs called her after an appointment at Härtl's office to remove the staples in his back. He said the appointment went well, but made no mention of cancer. She thought she was dreaming when he said nothing.

Shortly after Jacobs hung up, she dialed him back.

"Danny," she asked softly, "what course of treatment did they recommend for your cancer?"

Cancer?

Cancer?

Jacobs was puzzled. He'd been seen not by the doctor, but by nurses. They hadn't told him.

"I told him not to worry and that it was a low-grade cancer and he'd get beyond it, but I could hear the terror in his voice," Perry said. "This was a devastating conversation, for Danny and for me."


Perry arranged for Dr. Janna Z. Andrews, a radiation oncologist at New York's Winthrop-University Hospital, to remove the tumor using a procedure called CyberKnife – a non-invasive way of removing tumors located in sensitive areas of the body.

The surgery is normally done through the chest. But because he's a boxer, that would be problematic, Perry knew. She understood that blows to the chest are legal in boxing, whereas shots to the back are fouls.

She convinced Andrews to do the surgery through Jacobs' back.

"Going through the back was harder because they'd have to deflate his lungs [and] then go around his ribs to get to the site," Perry said.


After 25 radiation treatments, Jacobs was finally cancer free. He could contemplate a return to the ring.

He's now 25, healthy, and insists he's as good as he ever was. He still doesn't have an opponent for the Oct. 20 show, but he is unfazed. It's going to be a magical moment in his life.

He's afraid he'll cry when he gets to the ring, and asked Stevens to keep his son, Nathaniel, out of his line of sight.

"If I see Nathaniel, for sure, I'm going to break up," Jacobs said.

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He says he's a different person now. He was always a spiritual man, but had his moments, he said, laughing nervously, like anyone else.

But after beating seemingly insurmountable odds to survive cancer, he has big plans for his life, inside and outside of the ring.

"My motive in my career now is not really to be the greatest boxer of all time," Jacobs said. "My motive is to kind of be a Lance Armstrong. There are so many world champions who are just that, they're world champions. But what can they say they've done for the public, for the community?

"For me to have an opportunity to be able to inspire so many different people to dare to be great, to not let anything stop them from what they're striving to be, it's very humbling. But that's my goal, my drive. For me to become a world champion, it's going to be so inspiring. I'm so very fortunate to be in this position, to give to the people and to show that no matter how bad things look stacked up against you, never to quit. Keep fighting."

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