Four families face childhood cancers with faith, determination and a penchant for positivity
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and many families in Fredericksburg and vicinity are fighting this battle with their own children right now. Here, we profile four such families to share their challenges and their successes.
Lydia Dolvin was looking forward to sophomore year in September of 2013. She was in her second year of Commonwealth Governor's School, and she was a member of the cross country team. She started passing out during practices, which prompted a trip to a cardiologist. An EKG and CT scan revealed a large mass in her chest; biopsies and bloodwork confirmed Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Lydia immediately started intensive treatments, followed by radiation in January 2014. She missed school. Her hair fell out and she felt listless all the time. She says, "Part of me didn't want to see my friends because I was bald and sick. I just wanted to curl up into a ball until I could go out and have fun again." Through it all, her family was her strength, and her teachers and classmates supported her every effort to stay connected. In February 2014, she was declared free of cancer.
This past December, Lydia's cancer reoccurred. She went back to the hospital for a different chemo protocol, and this time the doctors wanted to try something trickier – an otologist stem cell transplant, wherein Lydia donated her own stem cells back to her body. The procedure left her vulnerable for a month while her immune system grew back, but it was successful. Doctors declared no evidence of disease.
Today, Lydia continues returning weekly to the clinic for monitoring of her numerous medications. Though it's been a long, rough recovery, Lydia is grateful, saying, "Technically, I'm still in treatment. Every month I get an infusion of a chemotherapy drug that's pretty wonderful. It doesn't cause hair loss or nausea or even tiredness, so I get it go about my business. I'll do that every month for a year and be done."
Lydia will be starting a senior this fall.
The Harris family faced the unthinkable in February 2009 when, at just 5 years old, their son Carter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor; he died in December 2009 at age 6. During that time, his younger sister, Caroline, witnessed his battle and his death. Caroline, just two years younger, idolized her big brother. Mom, Courtney, says that it was only through the help of family and friends that they were able to normalize the experience for Caroline.
Harris says Caroline understood the severity of Carter's condition more thoroughly as the holidays approached. Caroline had lost great-grandfathers that year and asked her parents in November if Carter was going to heaven. They told her yes. Harris notes the night Carter died, "Caroline actually woke up, which she never really does. She was there and we talked about how the angels had lifted him up."
Though Caroline was cleared by a therapist after Carter's death, Harris knows it haunts her. Whenever family members fall ill, Caroline immediately wonders if they might have cancer. Caroline is also concerned that she and younger sister Charlotte, born after Carter's death, will never intimately share the special memories of their brother. The relationship that seems to have most alleviated Caroline's anxiety has been with Carter's best friend, Kaelan. The two share similar memories of Carter and have bonded over them.
Carter is never far from the family, especially with Caroline to keep his memory alive.
Lindsay Velez finds an irony that is both shocking and humbling in her daughter Elise's cancer diagnosis, but one that also reinforces her belief in people's good nature. For years, Lindsay volunteered with the Fredericksburg Area Service League, raising money for some of the same organizations that her family now relies upon for help with Elise's cancer. She helped raise funds, worked at a bereavement camp, and donated money to the Fairy Godmother Project. She says, "Now, here we are on the other side."
Explaining cancer to Elise's friends and classmates has been challenging. Velez says, "They wonder if they can catch it and how she got it." She says it's confusing for Elise, "Just imagine a 9-year-old trying to understand, 'I have cancer.'" Elise's younger brother struggles to understand Elise's battle, as well. In his young mind, he feels overlooked when Elise gets presents and attention, and he doesn't comprehend what it means to have an illness like Elise's.
Through it all, Velez describes Elise as a happy, active child who has chosen optimism. She recalls, "Even the other day, Elise said, 'Yeah, I have cancer, and I could be sad, but I'm choosing to be happy.' I think to myself 'Wow, OK, that explains it all.'" Velez says Elise knows her cancer is life-threatening, but that she plays and does as much as she can, which has been a good thing. "Fortunately for us," Velez says, "she's feeling well now that she's off some of the medications. We're in a wait and see period. She knows it hasn't gone away, but that we will keep trying new things. She remains hopeful and ready to fight."
[We are sad to share the news that Elise passed away on March 7, 2018.]
A Cheering Squad
Elizabeth Newsome says that she didn't realize how small her world was before her daughter Lauren's leukemia diagnosis. She muses, "I was just a stay-at-home mom raising her kids until one of them got sick and we needed help." She has been overwhelmed with the community's efforts to pitch in, and had not realized how many people were out there actively looking for ways to help. Newsome reflects, "How do you say thank you big enough?"
Shortly after her diagnosis at the age of 3, Lauren lost her ability to walk and talk due to the cocktail of 12 cancer medications she was taking. For 30 days, she was silent and immobile. The Newsomes used the Ronald MacDonald House in Washington, D.C., a place Elizabeth calls their home away from home for temporary housing during Lauren's treatments. When Lauren started physical therapy to learn how to walk again, she did the majority of it there and in the gardens of the Franciscan monastery nearby. Newsome says of their experiences in D.C., "We were there for seven-and-a-half months last year, and we met people who became our family. We've seen a lot of children who haven't made it, and we've been with families through that. They've seen our daughter really struggle, and now she's doing better."
Dubbed the Peewee Newsome Club after a popular children's book series, Newsome says it's the family's bond that has rallied Lauren. They have always spent most of their time together, and Lauren often asked for the Peewee Newsome Club when she was receiving treatments. Newsome says, "Each family has to find their own way to deal with their diagnosis, but we've trained our thoughts to make sure we're positive. We cheer every needle stick, every blood draw and every step forward that Laruen makes."
Today, Lauren is officially in remission, but she still has cancer in her body. She will continue chemotherapy treatments for the next two years to suppress the leukemia and ward off a relapse.
How Can You Help?
Community organizations such as Fairy Godmother Project, Grace Oughton Foundation, Strong for Dom and Owen Lea Foundation are helping families every day, and they are always seeking volunteers and donations. See our sister article for more about these organizations.
A.E. Bayne is a writer, visual artist, and educator who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She is a monthly columnist with Front Porch Magazine and has contributed to Fredericksburg Parent and The Health Journal. Bayne is an editor at the Fredericksburg Literary Review and writes the educator's blog, The Write Stuff – Virginia.