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11:35 AM

ESPN: Children's Mercy families given hope after Jets player visits

Mike Pennel is a cancer survivor, treated by Dr. Alan Gamis

Mike Pennel

In mid-May, Mike Pennel returned to his first home, Topeka, Kansas, for his grandfather's 70th birthday. While in the area, he decided to make a one-hour drive to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit an old childhood haunt.

A place he barely remembers.

The place that saved his life.

Pennel went to Children's Mercy, where he was greeted with New York Jets placards and green balloons. He had called ahead, telling them his story and his plan for the day.

The hulking nose tackle, 6-foot-4, 335 pounds with a chest as wide as a doorway, arrived with toys, art supplies and board games such as Monopoly and Sorry! He distributed them to kids battling kidney disease, and he spoke with their parents, trying to ease their fears. He saw his former doctor, Alan S. Gamis, who removed tumors from his kidneys 24 years ago.

"It was real humbing, to be honest," the big man said at last week's minicamp. "I talked to a lot of kids on dialysis. One kid, about 2 years old, didn't know what was going on. I just tried to raise their spirits a little bit."

For Pennel, who is strong enough to bench-press a couple of linebackers, it was the most satisfying lift of his life.

The new man on the Jets' defensive line is a cancer survivor. Before hatching his NFL dream, his goal was to live long enough to become an adult. He overcame a frightening childhood, took a circuitous path to the NFL and landed with the Green Bay Packers, where he spent his first three seasons.

Adversity has been a traveling companion -- he was cut by Green Bay last season after two league suspensions -- but nothing can compare to what he endured as a child.

"I still get choked up thinking and talking about that period of time in our lives," his mother, Terri Pennel, said.

Pennel was only 2 when he was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. He went in for a routine checkup when a physician's assistant felt an abnormality in his stomach. That was on a Wednesday. By Friday, following a CT scan, he was in surgery.

Tumors were attached to both kidneys. Dr. Gamis was able to remove the tumor off of one kidney, but the other was complex. To extract the tumor, he had to remove more than one-third of the actual kidney. Next came 18 months of chemotherapy, and many trips from Topeka to Kansas City. Each time, he spent a few hours in the pediatric oncology center, watching "Barney" movies as potent, cancer-killing drugs filled his little body.

"Every appointment was a reminder and fear of treatment not working or the cancer metastisizing to his lungs, liver or pancreas," Terri Pennel said. "I stayed, prayed up and kept pushing."

A week before the Jets' OTA practices started, Pennel took that trip to Children's Mercy, where he spent three hours with the kids. Maybe, just maybe, he got as much out of it as they did. It was a sobering reminder of his past and how lucky he is to be alive. It was emotional for him and his mother, who believes "it gave some parents some hope to see my baby beat cancer."

"For eight years after his cancer surgery and treatment, I told him, 'God spared you for a reason -- that was his gift to you," Terri Pennel said. "What you become and make of yourself is your gift to him."


Read the full story via ESPN.

Learn more about The Children's Mercy Cancer Center.

Article by Rich Cimini, photo by Julio Cortez