Danny defeats cancer

dannyWith everyone trying their best to be optimistic as a child battles cancer, there’s always a looming cloud of doom that follows you. When Teri’s son Danny, who had leukemia, went with her husband to the funeral of a boy who had been going through the same treatments, she stayed home and cried. And she wondered when it was Danny’s turn.

In June of 1993, my cousin Teri and her family were living in Norway, and her brother Rick and his family were visiting from the United States. Throughout their visit, Teri watched Rick and his wife give their young daughter her chemo pill, as she was battling leukemia. On the last day of their visit, Danny became very ill, vomiting in a way Teri had never seen before. Still, they figured he must just have a stomach bug.

Rick and his family left Norway, and a few days later, Teri noticed 11-year-old Danny’s back was covered in bruises. She wasn’t entirely worried, as Danny was a goalie for his soccer team. But then he had a fever and started vomiting again. Teri knew something wasn’t right, but she never imagined it was cancer.

“The doctor said he hoped he was wrong with his diagnosis, however, we needed to have tests done at the hospital,” Teri said.

The normal range for white blood cell count was between 4,000 and 11,000 cells in every microliter of blood. Danny’s was 168,000.

“All of a sudden I got confused and started to really worry,” Teri said. “But my thoughts were that we were in the hospital ward with kids, and I needed to put my big girl pants on. We were told he was going to have minor surgery to extract bone marrow from his hip to get the results, if this was leukemia or a blood disease.”

It was leukemia. Like his cousin Jennifer, Danny was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

“My mind went crazy,” Teri said. “Both (my husband) Ivar and I were very quiet and in a state of shock. No crying and no reaction. All the doctors were wondering why. Our reaction came when we were alone and nobody was looking.”

Teri and Ivar’s reaction, or lack of one in the hospital, came from a common thread in their family: bad news. It was too familiar for the couple, whose daughter Marina was diagnosed with spinal meningitis just six years earlier. She wasn’t expected to survive, hooked up to nine machines that kept her alive for five days. Sure enough, Marina pulled through.

“I’m positive this is part of what makes us tough-skinned,” Teri said. “Bad and horrible news was par for the course.”

Danny began chemo immediately after the diagnosis and continued treatment for three years. For two of those years, he was hospitalized nearly the entire time. Danny faced a number of terrible issues due to the chemotherapy treatments, but his family was always by his side. His stepdad Ivar even shaved his head to show his support for Danny, who lost his hair.

The radiation also curbed Danny’s growth throughout chemotherapy, and it wasn’t until he was 14 and finished that he started growing at normal rates.

“The role of having a kid with cancer, it was just an automatic duty,” Teri said. “I did what I had to do and that was be a mother. I felt lucky because we never lost Danny to this disease. We had really close calls, but we learned from it.”

Danny turned 38 on February 4, and works for a Norwegian Company in Asia. He was told he might not be able to have children because of years of radiation treatment, but Danny has two boys, Ethan and Isak.

“They are my little emperors who are currently learning three languages: English, Mandarin, and Norwegian,” Teri said. “We are very proud!”

Leukemia and lymphoma are blood cancers that many families face, and it is particularly destructive on the bodies of children. To support families impacted by these horrible cancers, please make a donation here.

Lucky to have his little girl

IMG-1744I was in the fourth grade when my cousin Jennifer was diagnosed with leukemia, so I don’t remember much other than being really scared and praying a lot. When I asked my cousin Rick, Jennifer’s father, to recount their experience, I was heartbroken. I simply can’t imagine what they went through. 

This is the first in a series I’m writing for my Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year campaign. I am raising funds for LLS, whose mission is to “cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.”

After reading this, you’ll see why I am 100% in on supporting LLS. No one should have to go through this. And next week I’ll share another story: how my other cousin, on the same side of the family, also battled childhood leukemia.

“That day was the most difficult day of my life,” Rick said. “It was first time my wife ever saw me cry.”

It was Mother’s Day in 1991, and Rick and Cindy had just learned that their three-year-old daughter Jennifer had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

Rick and Cindy hugged and prayed, and then they realized they had so many questions.

“All we knew was that the word leukemia was associated with terminal illness and death,” he said. “I was not able to process that.”

Jennifer, her twin brother Jason, her older brother Geoff, and her parents soon learned that she would go through chemotherapy, a word Rick didn’t want to hear. His grandmother had died of colon cancer, and he saw how chemo ravaged her body.

As scary as it all was, Rick soon learned that had Jennifer been diagnosed just ten years earlier she would have had only a 50% chance of living another five years. Due to advances in course of treatments, Jennifer’s chance of mortality was 10%.

Rick endured some of the toughest years of his life as he watched Jennifer go through three and a half years of chemo, several bone marrow tests, several fluid taps, surgeries, and other hospitalizations.

“I remember having to restrain her several times in a fetal position while they drove a needle deep into her hip bone to extract bone marrow for testing,” he said. “I had to listen to her scream, ‘No!’ and ‘Daddy!’ as I helped hold her down.”

Rick also recalled frequently having to give her a bitter steroid medication that she wanted to spit out. She would scream, gag, cry, and try to free herself from her parents’ grip. Each time, they, too, were left in tears watching their little girl struggle.

“But she was a trouper and a strong little girl,” Rick said. “And she still is.”

As the treatments and medicine went on for more than three years, Jennifer eventually stopped putting up a fight.

“I don’t know if that was an answered prayer or if she just gave up fighting,” he said. “But it was never easy watching her little body weaken, her hair fall out, her sadness when she had a bad day.”

As their family went through Jennifer’s many years of cancer treatments, Rick wasn’t aware of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“After becoming involved with (LLS) in later years and finding out what they have done in the field of research and patient care, I’m certain Jen benefited from their efforts,” he said.

Fast-forward to today, and Jennifer is approaching her 29th year of being cancer-free. She hasn’t even seen her oncologist in nine years and won’t ever have to again unless the cancer returns.

Rick knows he’s lucky to have his little girl. Their many hospital stays put them in a position to meet other families with children going through the same thing. Often it was comforting, other times it was devastating, when a child’s cancer would prove fatal.

“Our hearts aches for their families,” Rick said. “They still do.”

In 2015, Rick walked his daughter down the aisle as she married the love of her life. And in December 2019, Rick and his wife Cindy where there when Jennifer and her husband Rob adopted a sweet little baby they named Arlen.

“To this day, I don’t know why God spared Jen. Except maybe because He had something bigger planned for her,” Rick said. “Who knows, maybe it has something to do with Arlen. Nevertheless, He allowed her to live, and that is not lost on Jen. Or me.”

Click below to learn more about supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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