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Setting the bar: A high jumper's journey from stage 4 cancer to getting back on the track

A Christian Brothers University freshman beat stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. Now he's back on the track and ready to show the world what he can really do.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An 18-year-old should imagine the places they will go—or the heights they will reach.

They shouldn’t have to think about stage 4 cancer.

“That was probably the last thing on my mind,” said Trez Jackson, who just completed his freshman season with Christian Brothers University track and field.

In March of 2022, Jackson was in the final weeks of his high school career at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis. He was preparing to announce his commitment to the Bucs, where he would compete in high jump and sprints.

“I felt like I was at a really high point in my life with my athletic career,” he said. “Then, little by little, things just started to unravel.”

It all began with back pain.

“It got to a point where I couldn't sleep. I had to eventually go to Urgent Care and see what was wrong.”

After several rounds of tests, a biopsy revealed Jackson had stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I remember being in disbelief,” Trez said. “There was an awkward silence in the doctor’s office for a long time. I remember purposely not looking at my parents because I knew what their faces looked like.”

Those faces were ones of pure devastation. Jackson’s diagnosis was the realization of a mother’s worst nightmare.

“Imagine being 18 and finding out you have cancer,” Trez’s mom Katrina Brown said through tears. “When it’s your child and you can’t really do anything. He’s looking to me for guidance and answers and I don’t know what the right thing is.”

Trez began chemotherapy in April of last year. Instead of looking forward to his future, he questioned if he would have one.

"I started to think how long I will live, honestly,” Jackson said. “My doctors told me not to, but as soon as I got home, I started looking things up like life expectancies and chemotherapy procedures.

“And my plans started to change. I started to think 'What if this is something that I can't come back from with my body from an athletic standpoint?' I kind of started to question where my future would land.”

Even as his body weakened, Trez continued competing. At district meets, he needed to place at least fourth in high jump to advance to the state tournament. He finished fifth.

“I didn't understand why my body couldn't do the things that it used to do,” he said. “I couldn't jump nearly as high as I could. I couldn't run as fast as I could. I would get tired really, really quickly.”

As treatment took its toll, Trez went to prom and graduation, but the chemo made him too nauseas to enjoy those moments. To make it through, he found strength in his family and his faith.

"I started to turn to God more. For example, the story of Job and everything that he went through with his trials and tribulations. I kind of compared myself to him and just tried to push through in the way that he did.”

After six months of chemo, Trez completed treatment in September and was officially in remission.  

"As soon as I got home and touched my bed, everything started to sink in that I was finally done and I wouldn't have to come back,” he said with a smile. “That was exciting for me.”

He arrived on campus at CBU one month later, where a new challenge began.

"I remember going in the weight room and I could barely even lift the bar off of the stool,” he said. “It was kind of eye opening just seeing how hard I would have to work from there.”

“Trez fought two battles,” said Christina Fortenberry, Bucs track and field head coach. “The first battle was cancer. The next battle was getting back into the shape of being a college athlete.

“Obviously I was always very concerned with the first battle. Once we got through the first one, I knew we were going to be fine getting through the second one. I just also knew it would take time.”

Trez worked tirelessly, adding 25 pounds of muscle in three months, and started to look like himself again.

“I FaceTimed him one day and I started to see his facial hair grow back, and I was like ‘Oh, that's why you acting different because your hair is growing back.’” Katrina said, letting out a big laugh. “It was amazing. It was a blessing to see him come back from everything and to see him jumping and running again like back to his old self.”

Trez made his college debut in January, competing in high jump.

"I felt like I was coming home from a long vacation,” he said with a reassuring nod. “It felt really good. Even stretching and running a lap. I was just excited to be there.”

"I paid to see it on a live stream,” Katrina said as she recalled Trez’s first meet in Birmingham, AL. “I was at work and I let everyone know, ‘I am going to close my door and if you hear any yelling, it’s because I’m watching my son.’”

Trez finished his freshman season placing fifth in the Gulf South Conference Championships. It was the same result as his final high school meet, only this time he was cancer free.

But did coming in fifth feel any better?

“No,” Trez admitted with a laugh before allowing his competitive spirit to subside. “It does feel better because I'm a lot further than where I started. It was definitely a big step up from the previous fifth place. But I still feel like I could have done better.”

“It's something he should be proud of,” Fortenberry contends. “It's something I'm very proud of obviously as his coach. There is no way he would have done that if he did not have the character that Trez has. He is just a wonderful young man and I'm so proud to have him on my team.”

What Trez is proud of are the lessons learned from his cancer journey.

“I would say I cherish life a lot more now,” he said. “I started to check up on people a lot more and just try to treat people like it might be my last time seeing them. Because for a while I thought that when I interacted with others, that might be their last time seeing me.”

In addition to high jump, Trez plans to return to sprinting next season. With a summer of training instead of treatment ahead, he can’t wait to show everyone what he can really do.

"Life is short and you have to take advantage,” Katrina said. “You have to make the most of it. You can't doubt yourself. You can't overthink. You've just gotta go.”

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