Living with Cancer: A Mother Holds On to Hope

It's hard to stay strong when your son has leukemia.

Posted in , Nov 29, 2010

Those simple handmade ornaments will always be Nancy and Andy's favorites.

Tree-trimming day was a big deal in our family, but not this Christmas, not with Andy, my youngest, so sick. I brought in a big, full-branched tree that reached almost to the ceiling, hoping it would cheer him up. Hoping it would cheer all of us up. I put on some holiday music. Emily, 12, and Adam, eight, strung the lights and hung the ornaments. Four-year-old Andy tried to help. But after hanging a few strands of tinsel, he lay on the couch, too weak to do anything besides watch.

His doctors told me to keep his life as normal as possible. But how? How could I forget the row of medicine bottles on the kitchen counter? The rough-and-tumble, impossible-to-keep-up-with boy my little son had been just 10 months earlier? So much had changed so quickly for us.

Andy was my Energizer bunny. He didn’t just start walking early, he ran…racing to do everything his big brother and sister did. Fearless. He was constantly getting bumps and bruises. At age two he made the first of many visits to the ER, to get stitches on his finger. Maybe that was why I hadn’t been all that worried on Valentine’s Day when his preschool teacher told me he’d been limping. “He fell down a couple of times too,” Mrs. Strong said at morning pickup.

I sighed and shot my rambunctious little one a look. “I bet he hurt himself jumping off the playhouse again.” Andy liked to climb onto the roof of our backyard playhouse and leap off. “But I’m a Power Ranger,” he’d protested when I caught him at it the last time. I’d told him in no uncertain terms to stay off that roof, but there was no telling with Andy.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I told Mrs. Strong. I noticed a little hitch in his stride as we walked to the car but he was moving as fast as usual, so I figured it would soon go away.

We stopped by Emily and Adam’s school to help with their Valentine’s Day class parties. Andy was thrilled to be included, but by the end of the afternoon, his limp was worse, and he asked me to carry him. Something was very wrong. Andy couldn’t stand being babied.

I took him to the pediatrician. Dr. Fernandez suspected Andy had a hip infection, and ordered blood tests. “We’ll have the results in a few hours,” he said.

I knew it was bad when Dr. Fernandez himself, not a nurse, called back. “Andy seems so healthy that I ran the tests twice just to be sure,” he said. “This isn’t an infection. It’s more serious, Mrs. George.” And I guess that’s when everything changed—my whole world shifted on its axis. Dr. Fernandez suspected Andy had leukemia.

“Go to the emergency room at Children’s Medical Center,” he said. “They’re expecting you.”

Children’s Medical Center was only a half hour drive. Thanks to Andy, I knew the way, of course. Still, I was so frazzled that I kept making wrong turns. Finally we got there. A nurse hustled us into an examining room. She pulled the curtain and took out a needle to draw blood. Andy crawled into my lap and started to cry. So did I. The nurse took me aside. “It won’t help him to see you cry,” she whispered. “You have to pull yourself together for him.”

I took a deep breath and managed to quell my tears for Andy’s sake, but I fell apart again as soon as the tests confirmed the diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia. The best treatment, the doctors said, was an aggressive course of chemotherapy.

Andy got the drugs both intravenously and through spinal taps. I didn’t know which was worse, my son wailing, his face, his whole body, clenched with fear, or barely speaking because he was so sick from the chemotherapy treatment. I slept on a cot next to his hospital bed, praying that the treatment would work and trying not to let him hear me cry.

Every eight weeks we’d head to the hospital for another round of chemo. Then, because the drugs depleted his immune system, he’d have to stay home from preschool for two weeks until he regained some strength. No more racing around after Emily and Adam. No more Power Ranger. What I wouldn’t give to see Andy try to defy gravity and fly off the roof of the playhouse again!

Each time he was allowed to go back to school it was like starting all over again. He was tentative, afraid. “I don’t want to go to school,” he said one day. By then most of his hair had fallen out. “What if all the kids there laugh at me?”

I stroked his few remaining blond wisps. “Mrs. Strong can’t wait to see you,” I said. “Remember how much you like her? You’ll have fun.” Please, Lord, let that be true, I added silently, knowing that four-year-olds tended to live in the moment and his classmates might not have thought of him at all now that they didn’t see him every day.

At the doorway to his classroom, Andy hung back. “Go ahead,” I urged. “Go play.” Then a boy named Cubby came running up. “Hey, Andy’s back!” he shouted. Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed Andy’s hand and pulled him over to the toys. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

Like his doctors told me, being with his friends and getting back to his normal routine did Andy good. But leukemia didn’t take a break for the holidays. So neither could we. Even though it was the week before Christmas, he still had to go in for chemo treatments.

That’s why he was lying on the couch, pale and listless, only able to watch while the rest of us trimmed the tree. He wasn’t the only one who was wiped out. I was so drained from the past 10 months that even our favorite holiday ritual felt like a chore. The doctors said Andy’s latest blood tests were encouraging, but they warned me it was too soon to tell whether he was out of the woods.

What if the next rounds of treatment didn’t take, or he was so weakened by them he succumbed to infection? What if this turned out to be Andy’s last Christmas?

The next day around lunchtime the doorbell rang. Mrs. Strong stood on the stoop, holding a big red bag with stickers on it. “Can I come in?” she asked. “I have something for Andy.”

She followed me into the living room and knelt beside the couch where Andy was resting. “We’ve been making Christmas ornaments in school,” Mrs. Strong said. “When I told your friends you wouldn’t be in, they wanted to make these for you.” She handed him the bag.

Andy opened it and took out the ornaments. There were silver bells made of aluminum foil. A Christmas ball that was a section of egg carton painted and covered with glitter. One child had made a wreath out of felt and sequins, another, a construction-paper tree decorated with confetti. Andy’s face lit up. He got up from the couch and walked slowly to the tree with the ornaments. One by one, he took them by their pipe-cleaner hooks and hung them on the lowest branches. Then he turned to me. “Do you like them, Mom?” he asked me.

“I love them,” I whispered, going over to Andy and taking him in my arms. Thank you, Lord, for Andy, and for this Christmas. There would be more chemo sessions and more nights at the hospital, but nothing could take away this feeling of being hoped for and cared for. My eyes filled with tears.

The same tears of joy—and gratitude—that come now when I see those handmade ornaments, colors faded, sequins missing, in their place of honor by the angel that tops our Christmas tree, hung with care in the uppermost branches by my tall, healthy 16-year-old son Andy.

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