If it weren’t true, it would be unbelievable. Three family members – a mother, father and their son – all diagnosed with cancer.
Jay Siltzer is the morning anchor at WLOS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Asheville, North Carolina. As the morning guy, he keeps things light and fun – Siltzer’s friends and colleagues lovingly point out he can even be corny at times – which is pretty remarkable considering all that he’s been through.
The 48-year-old was first diagnosed with testicular cancer in January 1999. He had surgery and radiation and was doing well until the cancer came back and wrapped around his spine.
This time, doctors were less sure of his prognosis. Again, he had surgery and radiation. He also had chemotherapy treatments. Siltzer, who was treated by Lance Armstrong’s doctor, was warned that it would be probably be tough for him to have children.
The possibility that he couldn’t have kids worried him, but he didn’t dwell on it. He’d only been dating his then girlfriend, Kelly, a few months. The couple met when he went to the dentist and she was the assistant assigned to clean his teeth.
“I just remember the eye contact,” he tells PEOPLE of their first meeting. “In spite of the fact she was wearing a mask and I had my mouth open, I knew there was something there.”
Siltzer says their first date was awkward and the food was terrible, but “for some reason she agreed to go out with me again.”
The couple married in 2000 and life was good – for awhile.
They tried desperately to have kids. “We hit a wall at every turn,” Siltzer says.
Five years later, they met and fell in love with Malachi, the little boy they would adopt from Ethiopia.
On the plane ride over, they flipped a coin to see which one of them would get to hold him first.
“I won. Seeing him for the first time in person was the most incredible day of my life – even though I picked him up and he screamed! I handed him to Kelly and it was like they’d been together forever,” he remembers.
“We laugh a lot,” Siltzer tells PEOPLE of his son, now 8 years old and in the second grade. “Our bond was pretty instant and I’ve never been the typical parent. I’m sarcastic and can be outrageous, and I think some of that has carried over to him. He’s always been full of spirit and life.”
That spirit has served them both well because in 2011, when Malachi was barely three, his mom and Jay’s wife, was diagnosed with an aggressive and rare form of leukemia.
She was in excruciating pain as she went through two stem cell treatments and several chemo treatments.
“It was unbelievable, she slowly, painfully deteriorated over three years, and when she died, I took comfort knowing she was finally healed,” Siltzer says.
Kelly died in the summer of 2014.
“I never imagined being a single parent, let alone a single parent of an adopted child from a different culture and of a different race. But that’s who I am and it’s made for some really funny moments,” Siltzer says.
The single dad has documented many of those moments on Facebook and recently combined them into a self-published book, fittingly called The Book of Malachi and sold on Amazon. The proceeds go to the organizations that helped when Kelly battled leukemia.
In another cruel twist of fate, just as the father and son were adjusting to a new normal, Malachi woke up last November with a headache. An MRI showed it was a grade-three brain tumor – a large mass on the left side of the little boy’s brain.
Malachi has had two brain surgeries to remove the tumor, radiation and ongoing weekly chemo treatments.
His speech is slowly coming back, but he still hasn’t learned to read again.
“Even though he’s somewhat cognitively compromised, he’s still a funny kid,” Siltzer says.
“You hope and pray for the best, and in the back of your mind you prepare for the worst,” he adds.
When asked about the incredible fact that all three family members were diagnosed with cancer, he says, “I don t let myself go there, that would be a dark place. I suppose I could ask, ‘Why me?’ but the answer is ‘Why not?’ I’m a person of faith, and I trust good will come from this.”
The proud dad continues to document his relationship with his son.
“I hope I capture just how funny he is,” Siltzer shares. “He says the first thing that comes to mind, he likes to laugh and in spite of everything he’s been through, he’s still laughing and that makes me happy.”