When you take your child to the doctor, the last thing you want to hear is that he or she has cancer. But that's what thousands of parents face every day.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and to celebrate the courage of those who have dealt with this disease first-hand, we will be featuring stories on Sundays this month. To kick off the month, we feature a story from a family with two of three children diagnosed with cancer.
Lisa and Troy Aldridge have three children: Lauren, Kayla and Jim. Lauren began experiencing terrible headaches in the spring of 2001. After a CT scan, it was discovered that she had a brain tumor. The family was sent to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where she underwent a craniotomy. Everything went well during and immediately after the surgery.
"When we took Lauren back for her staples to be removed by the neurosurgeon, we were also scheduled to see an oncologist. Looking back, we were in such denial, but we should have realized something was definitely wrong. The oncologist had stopped by to see us in the hospital, but we didn’t think anything of it until the doctor’s appointment that day when we received the pathology results," Lisa said. "We were told that the tumor was malignant and was called a PNET, a type of Medulloblastoma. Treatment would require radiation at Piedmont Hospital and chemotherapy, and even though the neurosurgeon got everything that could be seen, the cells that could still there had to be treated."
Lauren went through radiation and chemotherapy, and had a difficult time with it. She had to undergo radiation in her brain and spine, and lost her hair, something that was very difficult for the "girlie-girl." She was burned so badly during the radiation that she had to be put on a morphine pump to help with the pain.
But through the treatments, surgeries, loss of hair and appetite, and long days in the hospital, Lauren kept her sweet spirit and was an inspiration to others, her mother says.
Lauren lost her battle with cancer on Sept. 24, 2003, just two weeks shy of her 10th birthday.
Almost four years after Lauren's diagnosis, the couple's youngest child, Jim, began experiencing severe headaches. He had his first brain tumor in March 2005. The family again made the trek to Atlanta, where Jim also had a craniotomy.
"It was like we were living a nightmare all over again," Lisa said.
Jim's tumor was a PX Astrocytoma, and he had six weeks of radiation therapy at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. He was in kindergarten at the time.
Lisa says life became somewhat normal then, although Jim continued to have MRIs every three months to rule out an signs of tumors. But in September 2009, it was discovered he had another brain tumor in a different area of his brain, which meant another craniotomy, and more treatments followed. He has lost his hair at least three times because of treatments, has speech difficulties, and is weak on his right side, likely due to radiation.
In March, Jim had scoliosis surgery due to the radiation treatments, and now has two rods in his back to straighten his spine. He is undergoing physical and occupational therapy, and continues to be checked for new tumors every three months.He hasn't had any new tumors since 2009.
Lisa says there is a third child in their family that, although she has never had cancer, has been impacted by the experiences of her siblings.
"Kayla is a senior at Coffee County High School this year, and has had to live this nightmare since she was five years old, when Lauren became sick," Lisa said. "She loved Lauren and she loves Jim. She and Jim have an unbreakable bond partly, I feel, because they were together so much when we would have to be in Atlanta with Lauren. Kayla has had to endure all of the gossip in school with kids saying that she had cancer, too, because both of her siblings had it. She has had to live life knowing how serious childhood cancer is and how it affects everyone in the family."
Because of their experiences, Lisa and her family are involved in the Childhood Cancer Awareness Group of Coffee County, which will turn their community gold this month.
Childhood cancer is the No. 1 killer of children in the United States. About 13,500 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, and 20 percent of those will die. Not bad statistics – unless it's your child. Cure rates have improved in the past 50 years, which just shows that researchers are making great strides. But these increases are not across the board. Not all types of cancer have seen such improvements.
Survival of cancer comes at a cost for children. Two-thirds of those who do face at least one chronic health condition. One-quarter of survivors face a late effect from treatment which is classified as severe or life-threatening. These can include heart damage, second cancers, lung damage, infertility, cognitive impairment, growth defects, hearing loss and more. Childhood cancer is often for life.
The fight to end childhood cancer and to raise awareness is spreading throughout South Georgia and North Florida. Each year, the campaign sells gold ribbons, which can be found on park benches, mailboxes, business signs and residences.
Gold bows will be available in Moultrie, Camilla, Cairo, Tifton, Donalsonville and Bainbridge, and in the Florida cities of Quincy and Havana. Bows are $10, and can be purchased at Stone's Home Centers. All proceeds will go to CURE Childhood Cancer. For more information, call 229-226-6927 or go online at www.curechildhoodcancer.org.
Editorial Note: Lisa contacted The Gazette through Facebook and wanted to tell her story.
To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.