ELKTON — Rising Sun-area resident Tim Pickeral is battling a rare and highly aggressive form of cancer that has devoured his right jawbone since he was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.
Pickeral and a South Carolina woman are the only known patients in the world right now with this type of cancer, which is called Mandibular Clear Cell Odontogenic Carcinoma, and there have been a mere 79 others in medical history. He and the South Carolina woman communicate on Facebook, but they haven’t met.
He has undergone two tracheotomies and numerous biopsies, as well as several multi-hour surgeries in which tumors were removed and his jawbone was reconstructed with titanium and transplanted pieces of both his fibulas. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment aren’t options with this type of cancer.
Because the cancer can spread rapidly, Pickeral undergoes PET scans, MRIs and a battery of other medical screenings every three months at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Philadelphia, which he praises for the high-level of care it provides.
Pickeral, 51, receives emotional and other types of support from an obvious source, his family, starting with his wife, Teresa, 42, and their four sons, ages 8 through 15, as he battles his cancer.
Teresa, who is now the financially strained family’s sole bread winner, tends to Pickeral when she isn’t at her nursing home job.
A trained chef employed at a Delaware assisted living community for the past 22 years, Pickeral hasn’t been able to work since June — when he underwent a 19-hour surgery that put him in the intensive care unit for the first two weeks of his three-week stay and left him with a feeding tube. Pickeral, a culinary aficionado, hasn’t eaten solid food in four months.
Support for Pickeral, however, also has come from a less obvious source — his fellow Elkton High School Class of 1984 classmates.
Some 32 years after receiving their high school diplomas together and then venturing out into the world in various directions, Pickeral’s former classmates have come together to rally around him since learning of his cancer on social media.
Several EHS Class of ‘84 members have organized a benefit for Pickeral, which will be held at the Nauti Goose restaurant in North East from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 22. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased at the door. More than 100 people have already purchased tickets, planners reported.
In addition to dancing, heavy hors d’oeuvres and live gratis music by EHS Class of ‘84 alumni Richard Durkin and his Durkin & Mallet Acoustic duo, there will be a silent auction, a live auction, raffle baskets, a 50/50 drawing, a bachelor and bachelorette auction and a small bake sale.
All proceeds will benefit the guest of honor: Pickeral.
“I will be there, but I hope they have a big box of tissues because I get emotional every time I think about what they’re doing for me and my family,” Pickeral said. “I’m just in awe, just so grateful.”
The latest effort
It all started several weeks ago with a question that EHS Class of ‘84 member Shelly Fears Nauton asked her former classmates on Facebook, after learning about Pickeral’s recent setback — more tumors had been discovered — and the major June surgery he underwent to battle back.
It simply read, “What kind of fundraiser can we do for Tim?”
Suggestions started pouring in, a consensus was reached and EHS Class of ‘84 members volunteered for jobs, such as finding a place to hold the affair and soliciting donations from businesses and people for the auctions, raffle baskets and other gifts.
The teamwork reflects the post-graduation closeness of EHS Class of ‘84, according to Elkton-area resident Kathy Heath, one of the planners. She noted that distance and responsibilities preclude most members from hanging out, but there is plenty of interaction on Facebook.
As a result, EHS Class of ‘84 reunions are epic events.
“It’s not just one night. We do a lot of different things over a weekend and about 150 people turn out,” Heath said, noting that an EHS Class of ‘84 blowout has included a happy hour, a banquet night, a hayride or some other family-oriented event and a golf outing.
Beyond those class reunions, social media interactions and occasional get-togethers, there is a bond among EHS Class of ‘84 members, a connection that is felt more than three decades after graduation. The planners remember Pickeral as a responsible, family-oriented guy who was always nice, although they didn’t necessarily hang out with him on a daily basis.
“It could have been any one of us. It just happened to be Tim,” explained Cindy Biggs Thomas, one of the overall organizers, referring to Pickeral’s cancer and his need for help.
Preparing for this fundraiser has inspired Thomas, who solicited contributions for the prizes from the North East area.
“I am a glass-half-empty kind of person, but this has changed my outlook. I didn’t think people would want to donate, but everyone was so generous. It has really changed my perspective on people,” she said.
EHS Class of ‘84 member Lisa Wyse also was impressed with the thoughtfulness of people, as well as their generosity, while soliciting contributions in Elkton.
“When I picked up donations, they would wish Tim well, even though they didn’t know him,” she recalled.
The first effort
This marks the second time that EHS Class of ‘84 has rallied around Pickeral.
About two years ago, after Pickeral had undergone his first surgery in 2013, his former classmates held a bake sale in downtown Elkton to benefit him.
Pickeral, however, was unaware until after the fact.
“A couple of women that I had graduated with came to my house with paper bags full of cash. They said they had a bake sale to help me. I fell to my knees. I was so amazed,” Pickeral said.
Dorothy Boyle Kirk remembers how that bake sale fell into place. Several former classmates had baked goodies. Trouble was, a lot of the people were unable to attend the actual event because they lived far away or had other commitments.
“We told our parents to go down there and buy something, lots of things,” Kirk recalled. “It was just amazing because it got to the point where someone would say, ‘I’ll give you $30 for that cake,’ well over the asking price, and they would buy it for that.”
The bake sale raised $4,000 for Pickeral.
Pickeral is happily surprised by all of the help he has received from his former classmates, considering that, in his opinion, he wasn’t an EHS standout.
He played lineman positions on the Golden Elks football teams and was friendly with all of his classmates.
But Pickeral didn’t hang out much. Most of his time was spent working at an area restaurant and helping his three brothers take care of their mother, who was battling breast cancer. Their father, Matthew Pickeral, died when Tim Pickeral was 13. Their mother, Suzanna Pickeral, died in 1990 at age 54, after battling her breast cancer for 12 years.
“There were other more popular people in high school. I always thought of myself as just a medium guy,” Pickeral opined.
That self-described “medium guy” would have been more involved with his classmates, had he been able.
“I remember leaving practice with my football uniform on, riding my motorcycle home, changing and taking my mom to doctor appointments or for tests,” he said, quickly noting that his brothers — Mark, now 59, Bruce, now 55, and Bob, now 49 — cared for their mother too.
Pickeral remarked, “I only felt a quarter of the pain because I had my three brothers.”
Although two now live in Florida, his three brothers also have been supportive as Pickeral battles cancer.
Kirk, one of the overall organizers, is not surprised by the EHS Class of ‘84 rallying around Pickeral. She remembers her class as being a close-knit bunch. Students typically were amiable, even if they hung out in various groups.
“I think we had our groups based on interests and activities. There were jocks, cheerleaders, band members and so forth,” Kirk said. “But over the years, any cliques that existed have dissolved. You have jobs and kids now, so we all have something in common. Now you’re just happy to hear that someone is having a good life.”
Pickeral is quick to note that he has never smoked or used any type of tobacco product in his life.
His cancer was discovered in 2011 during a followup visit with his dentist, who had taken oral X-rays — showing nothing out of the ordinary — some six weeks earlier in preparation to fill a cavity.
During that second visit, Pickeral informed his dentist that he had been experiencing some pain on the bottom right side of his mouth.
“He pushed the tool down and it disappeared. The bone was gone. It had dissolved,” Pickeral said.
Pickeral was referred to an oral surgeon, who put him under for an investigative procedure.
“The doctor goes in and removes a molar on the bottom right side, and he finds a tumor the size of a quarter. When I came to, he told me he had never seen anything like it before,” Pickeral said. “The tumor had developed in about six weeks. That’s how aggressive it is.”
Pickeral immediately was placed in the care of endocrinologists and underwent his first major surgery two years later, after tumors had returned.
Since that first surgery, Pickeral has experienced varied levels of pain every day.
“‘Why me?’ I ask myself that question all the time. There must be a reason I got this very rare cancer. I’m not a real religious person. Because of my cancer, I know there is a higher power that has a hand on me. I know I’ve been called to do something to help someone in some way,” Pickeral said.
But for now, he is overjoyed to be the recipient of help.
“High school is a huge part of your life. I was blessed to be a part of the Class of ‘84,” Pickeral said, adding, “What my classmates are doing for me is just amazing. I love them dearly.”