We were a happy family of four with many reasons to be grateful. My husband and I often commented on how lucky and blessed we were to have two beautiful, healthy boys and very few worries. Life was good. But all that suddenly changed. Our descent into the nightmarish world of pediatric cancer officially began on August 21, 2001 when our then five-year-old son, Andrew, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. From the moment our lives were drastically and irrevocably altered with the terrifying reality that our child had a life-threatening illness.
Several weeks before the diagnosis I knew something was wrong. Our once “healthy as a horse” little boy who never even seemed to catch a cold just wasn’t himself; he ran fevers, had severe stomach aches, was lethargic, and frequently complained of bone pain. I was in the pediatrician’s office often, desperate for answers but fearful of what we were going to find. I was repeatedly told Andrew had a virus which would run its course or growing pains which would subside. Then one night I was awakened by Andrew screaming from leg pain. My husband and I rushed him to the ER where blood tests showed severe anemia. We were sent home and told to follow up with the pediatrician in the morning. When we got home, Andrew took a turn for the worse. he spiked a fever, was nauseous, suffered from all-over body pain, and was unable to walk. As soon as the pediatrician’s office opened, I was there, delicately cradling Andrew in my arms because the slightest movement caused him pain. Again, we were sent home with instructions to return the next day.
During the night, Andrew continued to deteriorate. I remember lying in bed next to him and every time I moved to shift my body on the mattress, he would cry out in pain. The next morning back at the pediatrician’s office, a group of doctors gathered to discuss Andrew’s symptoms. I finally got up the nerve to insist that they tell me what they suspected was wrong with my son. I’m not sure why, but I specifically asked if he could have cancer. I supposed I asked about cancer because that was the worst case scenario I could think of, never really imagining I would be right. however, the doctors believed Andrew either had a bone infection or juvenile arthritis and wanted to order x-rays. At that point, Andrew was in severe pain, still unable to stand or walk, let alone lift his head. In addition, his heart rate and blood pressure were causing some concern. While holding his limp little body on my lap, I tried to gently adjust the blanket I had wrapped around him without causing him pain when I noticed little bruises on his arm and back. Instantly, I knew we needed to head to Scottish Rite Hospital.
Upon entering Scottish Rite’s ER, we were immediately escorted to an exam room. Andrew was so weak he didn’t even make a sound the entire time they poked, prodded, and stuck him with needles. Then a new doctor entered the room and began asking questions about Andrew’s health history. I immediately noticed the doctor’s name tag – not his name, but the title under his name: “Pediatric Oncologist.” All I could do was stare at those two words on his name tag like a neon sign was flashing in my face. Eventually the doctor, Dr. Bergsagel, broke the horrifying and shocking news that Andrew had leukemia – and in that instant our world came crashing in on us.
“Dr. B became Andrew’s oncologist and a God-send along with “Nurse Mary” and all the amazing and compassionate people at the Aflac Cancer Center at Scottish Rite. Andrew underwent three years and two months of chemotherapy and never once complained or felt sorry for himself. (I wish I could say the same about myself.) Just a couple of weeks after his diagnosis, Andrew began kindergarten; Dr. B urged us to send him to school to help maintain some sense of normalcy in his life. Once, a few months into his treatment, he had a seizure, a rare side effect from the high dose of intrathecal chemo. When I got to his school, Andrew was on the floor, still having a seizure, with a group of teachers and staff gathered around him in prayer, waiting for the paramedics to arrive. Overcome with feelings of helplessness and fear at the sight of my sick little boy, all I could do was fall to my knees and pray… and, of course, sob uncontrollably. During the ambulance ride, Andrew was not lucid. When he finally woke up in the hospital and we told him what had happened, he was disappointed that he didn’t remember the ambulance ride. After all, what little boy isn’t fascinated by ambulances?
As his parents, we struggled emotionally through three terrifying years of clinic visits for chemo, spinal taps, and various medical procedures in addition to the difficulty of managing side effects. Sometimes the overwhelming worry and fear, combined with the never-ending roller-coaster of mixed emotions, seemed debilitating, but Andrew always handled everything with astonishing courage and grace and an uncanny steadfast faith that inspired all of us. He actually looked forward to going to his chemo appointments because he loved the people at the clinic and understood everyone was working to make him well. He pushed through the treatments and side effects with a positive attitude and focused on just being a happy kid who loved soccer, video games, Legos, and books. Less than a year into his treatment, Andrew came up with the idea to help brighten the day of other clinic patients by collecting donated toys from our community. To this day, Andrew maintains his charity, called “Friends of Andrew”, to help bring new toys to the kids at the Aflac Cancer Center.
Andrew is now a healthy 15-year-old excited about starting high school and learning to drive. I often look at him and think about what he has been through and what he has taught our family. While I wouldn’t wish our experience on my worst enemy, I am grateful for the many blessings and positive experiences that came out of it. We have adjusted our lives to make family our number one priority; we have grown tremendously in our faith and continue our life-long faith journey with a sense of gratitude to God; we have gained an appreciation for the power of prayer; and we have experienced first-hand the positive impact of a loving and supportive community where even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference. We will never forget the support of the doctors, nurses, and staff at Scottish Rite, The Lighthouse Retreat, Camp Sunshine, Make-A-Wish Foundation, CURE Childhood Cancer, and the many people (friends, family, and strangers alike) who helped us over the years. But we realize that the fight is not over. We continue to pray for every child and family impacted by cancer, and we hope to bring awareness to pediatric cancer causes until a cure is found and this devastating disease is a thing of the past.