Families give update after pediatric cancer diagnoses

Published 3:40 pm Saturday, September 2, 2023

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In August 2020, four families gathered at Courthouse Square Park to talk about pediatric cancer.

September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month and these families once again gathered last Sunday for a photo together.
They also provided an update of their life years after dealing with cancer in the form of a Q&A with the SNAP.

Four children who have battled cancer are shown at Courthouse Square Park in 2020. Pictured, from left, are Brinn Andrew, Stella Senter, Joel Gardner and Tate Whitley. (Photo by CHARLES CURCIO/staff)

Speaking on behalf of the children were Kellie Andrew, for her daughter, Brinn Andrew; Hayley Helms, for her son, Joel Gardner; Mary Senter, for her daughter, Stella Senter; and Amy Whitley, for her son, Tate Whitley.

1. What was your child’s diagnosis, and how long did they go through treatment?

Andrew: Brinn was diagnosed with Stage 3 neuroblastoma at 19 months old. Treatment protocol was 18 months which included six rounds of chemotherapy, tumor resection, stem cell transplant and six cycles of immunotherapy. Several other cancer related surgeries caused treatment to last 24 months.

Gardner: Joel’s diagnosis was Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia (JMML), a one in a million disease.
His treatment lasted about six months with two rounds of chemo and a bone marrow transplant. He was hospitalized for about four total months during this.

Senter: Retinoblastoma. Stella did not go through treatment. Her right eye was removed curing her of cancer. She had to have exams under anesthesia and MRIs every three months, then six months and yearly until age 5.

Whitley: Pre B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia-High Risk; three years, five months (7/1/17-12/11/20) active treatment … still in off treatment visits.

2. What grade are they in and what are some of their interests outside of school?

Andrew: Brinn is in first grade at Park Ridge Christian School. She enjoys gymnastics, playing with her brother, Nash, and playing dress up.

Gardner: Joel is now in third grade and loves video games, swimming and is a big animal lover. He loves playing with his dogs, cats and loves catching lizards.

Senter: She is in fifth grade. She enjoys reading, volleyball, cheer leading, basketball, animals, swimming, playing the piano, artistic things and spending time with family and friends.

Whitley: Fourth grade. Playing Bowling King, Roblox, Minecraft on his tablet. Being outside playing basketball, going on trips to ride the RZR with his dad, but his current obsession is rummy.

3. What were some of the high and low points during your child’s treatment?

Andrew: Andrew: High: 1) learning to walk again after her tumor resection which resulted in a month-long stay due to complications from surgery. 2) No evidence of disease scans.
Low: Almost losing her five days after her tumor resection due to being septic. We didn’t realize how close she was to dying until after she was recovering. 

Gardner: We came in contact with so many incredible people — doctors, nurses, other families — that carried us through our journey. We are so thankful for them.

The effects of treatment after it’s all said and done can be extremely damaging. Joel had GVHD in his gut that he nearly fought for two years. He lost a lot of weight, had trouble eating and was unable to participate in “normal” activities due to being so weak. This was the most difficult time for us.

Senter: Low points were learning she had cancer and her eye would have to removed. Highs were learning that the cancer was contained in her eye and that the removal of her eye meant she was cured of cancer.

Whitley: The high: the outpouring of love and support from our community, our family, friends, our jobs, churches and organizations that help with with every aspect of a cancer diagnosis has definitely been the highest of high. It still overwhelms me how many amazing people there still are in this world.

The low: Not knowing if we would leave the hospital with our child. Tate got a fungal infection in his lungs that resulted in a hospital stay that lasted 72 days, multiple surgeries, x-rays, scans and a conversation with a surgeon I hope no one ever has to have.

4. What is life like for your child now after treatment? Do they still have any ill effects from what happened?

Andrew: Life is great. She is thriving in all areas. She has little fear of doctors and nurses and still refers to Levine Children’s Hospital as “her” hospital. She is improving in physical strength and speech, two areas we saw affected as she continued to grow.

Gardner: Life now is fantastic. We are extremely fortunate to say that Joel carries on as if nothing ever happened.

He is full of life, incredibly smart and thriving in school, and has the biggest heart. His immune system is still 100% donor cells which is the best thing you could ask for in this situation. He’s perfect.

Senter: She is healthy and lives life normally. She can do  anything any other child her age can do.

Whitley: Tate is a regular kid. He’s smart, happy, funny, caring and helpful. He doesn’t remember much of his time in and out of the hospital … which we are thankful for.

5. How has pediatric cancer affected the lives of your child and family?

Andrew: Pediatric cancer is a love/hate relationship in our family. We love for others to know Brinn’s past and see the positive outcome. We hate that so many kids are continuing to go down this path, especially so many in our county and surrounding counties. Pediatric cancer defined our family for so long and in a way we take pride. We are so proud to be from a town with people who picked us up in our darkest moments and helped us, prayed for us, gave to us, cooked for us, sat with us … the list keeps going. We are so very thankful.

Gardner: Pediatric cancer, cancer in general, is heartbreaking. We keep families in our hearts and prayers who are facing similar battles. As humans we tend to always keep that small worry in the back of our minds, the “what if?”, but we know God is able and He with us always.

Senter: While terrifying and saddening initially, we have since grown closer and stronger as a family. We value our health and the time we spend together more than ever.

Whitley: It completely changed the way we lived. Nothing was the same anymore — in both good and bad ways, but we made it through.