Be the Inspiration!Aug 29, 2014 11:00AM ● By Jason Huddle
“YOUR ACTS OF KINDNESS ARE IRIDESCENT WINGS OF DIVINE LOVE, WHICH LINGER
AND CONTINUE TO UPLIFT OTHERS LONG AFTER YOUR SHARING.”
- RUMIBy: Kim Cassell
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time that specifically recognizes and promotes the need for research toward finding a cure for the forms of cancer that are most often diagnosed in children.
In the U.S., about 10,450 children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year. Childhood cancer rates have been on the increase for decades; however, the five-year survival rate is now about 80 percent, up more than 30 percent from the mid-1970s. This is attributed to pioneering research and treatments into pediatric cancers whose origins are largely unknown.
“Childhood cancers are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors,” cancer.org says.
“The five-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least five years after their cancer is diagnosed. Doctors use five-year rates as a standard way of discussing and comparing the prognosis (outlook for recovery) for different cancers. Of course, many children live much longer than five years, and many are cured.”
Sixteen-year-old Chris West and his family live in Concord. Chris is your typical teen. He’s a little shy, loves sports – attending, watching, playing and talking about it. He likes to ride his bike and shoot hoops, and his favorite meal is steak and potatoes. He attends Jay M. Robinson High School and wants to be in sports broadcasting when he graduates.
Chris is also battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma – once known as Hodgkin’s disease – and has been since June 2011, just before his 13th birthday. A cancer of the lymphatic system – part of our immune system – Hodgkin’s lymphoma attacks the lymphatic cells, which then weakens the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off infection.
His mother, Michelle, says Chris’ first symptom was arm pain. A doctor’s examination revealed a lump; an ultrasound showed it was a swollen lymph node. Two rounds of antibiotics, a Complete Blood Count (CBC), then an x-ray, CAT scan and biopsy by a hematologist pointed to the diagnosis. A PET scan determined Chris’ cancer was Stage IV so a chemotherapy port was introduced and he underwent chemo treatments from June through October of that year, followed by radiation.
Relapses have seen Chris go through an auto stem cell transplant and a bone marrow transplant, as well as all the pre- and post-transplant testing that goes with them. He was released from Levine Children’s Hospital on June 30, but Michelle says, “Right now he is still in treatment, so three days a week he goes to Charlotte to his pediatric oncologist’s office for blood level checks/chemo/treatments. Usually we get there in the morning and are home by 5.”
So why – and how – does a young man whose days are literally filled with tests, treatments and recovery have the energy, gratitude and time to consider those around him? Michelle says, “It’s a distraction from his daily treatments and he loves to do things for others.”
Chris began performing random acts of kindness after his first cancer treatment. “He wanted to pay it forward for things that were done special for him in treatment, so he started collecting items for the hospital and Ronald McDonald House,” Michelle explains.
What solidified the cause, plus created another, stemmed from Chris relapsing just two days after his 14th birthday and about a week before he would have started back to school. While in the hospital, he received get-well cards and mail, and found himself feeling bad that his brother Willy and sisters Kayla and Hannah didn’t.
“We found out he would be inpatient during his sister’s 16th birthday,” Michelle says, “so he started asking people on his prayers (facebook) page to send her cards because he felt like his diagnosis would ‘ruin’ it. Kayla had never expressed any complaints that her life was flipped upside down, and was always supportive, but he just felt that way. He got her over 300 cards, and a lot of people told him they had a child fighting cancer and felt the same way. Encouragement from others saw them starting Smiles for Siblings.”
On both facebook and at www.smilesforsiblings.org, this venture asks followers to send a birthday card to the brother or sister of a pediatric cancer patient. Chris and Kayla manage the page.
“Imagine it’s your birthday,” Michelle explains. “Your parents have been busy with a sick sibling. You’re excited your birthday is coming up, but on your special day all of the mail in the mailbox is for the sick sibling, who seems to get all of the attention anyway. The page creates events for the siblings on their birthday, and always needs people willing to send a card (or ten) a month to a sibling for their birthday.”
The pay it forward effort really took on a life of its own when, following his relapse and knowing the treatment would be more difficult, Chris was asked to think of ways to celebrate his stem cell transplant. He came up with performing 100 random acts of kindness.
“He started asking his prayer warriors (www.facebook.com/prayersforchriswest) to send in pennies and it took off from there,” Michelle says. “He had a lot of setbacks and issues come up, but having a project to think about kept his mind off of that.”
Pennies started coming in and, with them, Chris has been able to deliver balloon bouquets to each patient on the 11th floor of Levine Children’s Hospital, where he was cared for; cater a Salsarita’s dinner at Hemby Children’s Hospital for the patients and their families; give away $50 cash at The Little Sugar Creek Greenway in Charlotte and Les Meyers Park in Concord; plan a meal, purchase groceries and organize volunteers to cook dinner at Ronald McDonald House; and give 34 backpacks full of supplies to Blume Pediatric Hematology & Oncology Clinic for patients and their siblings for back-to-school.
And just before going to press with this issue, Chris hosted 10 families for a day at Sea Life Aquarium on his 16th birthday. “He wanted to give families from the clinic a day of fun – some are like us and can’t get away at all due to treatments over the summer – and a way to meet other families in treatment,” Michelle says.
May the community support that Chris and his family receive help him in his recovery and give encouragement to all of them as they continue on this journey. Strength doesn’t adequately describe what the Wests possess; their caring hearts heal us all. To donate toward Chris’ endeavors, visit the facebook page and website mentioned.