When Harrison was first diagnosed with leukemia in December of 2011, doctors told us his treatment would last three and a half years. That seemed like an eternity. We never imagined reaching the end of that terrible journey. He was in fourth grade at diagnosis, and would be finishing seventh grade at the end of treatment. Remarkably, that day finally arrived: April 1, 2015.
Best April Fools Day ever.
The entire family went to the clinic that day for his last chemo treatment. Afterwards, a large contingent of his friends left school early to surprise him at Chick Fil A. He never imagined them having a No Mo’ Chemo party for him. The whole experience was surreal. The moms made Ginger feel like a million bucks. Harrison’s friends made him feel normal. It was the greatest day since January 24, 2012, when he first heard the targeted therapy was working.
Unlike most pediatric leukemia patients, end of treatment (EOT) did not actually mean the end of chemo. Harrison had to remain on an oral chemotherapy, the tyrosine kinase inhibitor Gleevec every day. Doctors anticipated he would take Gleevec twice a day for the rest of his life. But compared to all of the other drugs he was on during treatment, a few pills a day–though frustration–would be nothing.
That summer family hosted a No Mo’ Chemo party for Harrison in Mobile. Celebrations were definitely in order.
Now, besides the celebrating, Harrison could turn his attention to recovering. Childhood cancer treatment is awful. One oncologist said it is like “beating dogs to kill fleas.” The drugs came closer to killing Harrison than the cancer did. But, as Dr. Weston regularly reminded us, current pediatric leukemia treatment is to take the patient as close to death as possible, only to bring them back just before it is too much. It is barbaric. One day our descendants will look back at what we did to kids the same way we look at ancient medicine and wonder, “How terrible!”
Recovery from cancer treatments for a fourteen year old boy involves physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual efforts. Treatment for childhood leukemia does more than destroy the body, it destroy the soul. It attacks your will to live. Patients viewed the world differently because of their experience. Many of them suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Their bodies will never fully recover, and those lasting side effects cause the psychological pain to remain.
When Harrison was a child with cancer he was different than when he was an adolescent with cancer. As a child he was easily distracted. As a teenager he realized what he was missing. His friends went on with life while he missed so much school, church, and fun activities.
Fortunately, he could look at the previous three and a half years and realize, “I survived.” There were far too many times that was uncertain, but in the summer between seventh and eighth grades he was a cancer survivor. And whatever cancer had stolen from him, at least he was alive to grow from it. He turned his back on cancer and pressed forward. He wanted to be a normal teenager. Only one thing remained: surgery to remove the port that had been in his chest since December 10, 2011. Once that was removed, cancer was a distant memory for him. He was finally free of the prison he had endured for much of his childhood.