4 Birmingham families share how childhood cancer has changed their lives

4 Birmingham families share how childhood cancer has changed their lives

Every day, 43 children are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the United States, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. On top of that, more than 95% of childhood cancer survivors experience significant health-related issues because of the current treatment options. Childhood cancer has deeply impacted the lives of families across the country, and the Birmingham area is no exception.

The Hope Family from Alabaster

On March 5, 2020, Alabaster residents Elizabeth and Joseph Hope received the heartbreaking news that Ruddy, their 1-year-old son, had acute myeloid leukemia. Back in November 2019, Ruddy started experiencing cold symptoms, a high fever and some leg pain. After being in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals for the next few months, doctors thought all Ruddy’s symptoms were indicative of a virus. However, Ruddy kept returning to the hospital due to severely high fevers. After finding a mass in his groin and conducting lab work, doctors finally discovered the root of Ruddy’s symptoms.

Ruddy was admitted to Children’s of Alabama for in-patient treatment. He had to endure five rounds of chemotherapy, making his stay a little less than seven months long. Ruddy had cancer in his Cerebrospinal fluid, which is found in tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. After the first round of chemotherapy, Ruddy was considered in remission, but he had to continue with the rest of his treatment plan. Between each round, Ruddy could only be home for seven to 10 days. That led Elizabeth and Ruddy to have long stays in the hospital, ranging from 25 to 47 days.

The Hope Family (Photo Submitted)

Ruddy was diagnosed right before the pandemic shutdown, and the COVID-19 safety precautions in place at the hospital created many challenges for the Hope family. With no visitors allowed, Elizabeth had to be with Ruddy at the hospital by herself, leaving Ryanne, her 6-year-old daughter, at home with her husband. On top of the worries of treatment, there was also the burden of being separated from family, and Ryanne being unable to visit her brother.

“It was really hard because he was diagnosed a week before the pandemic,” Elizabeth said. “I had a 6-year-old daughter at home, who couldn’t come and see him. My husband had to keep working, and somebody had to be in the hospital with my son. It was hard on so many levels. It was hard because I feel like I missed a lot of her life because I could only go home when my husband was off work… So you have the stress of feeling horrible because you’re leaving a 6-year-old at home.”

Ruddy Hope (Photo Submitted)

Their last name suits their journey so well because despite all these challenges, they clung to hope, faith and little silver linings. Throughout Ruddy’s treatment, he would always find joy in dressing up as some of his favorite characters, including Spider-Man, Batman and Buzz Lightyear.

Since being discharged from the hospital a year ago, Ruddy has had to go to a clinic every month for lab testing, and he will now start going every other month. He still enjoys dressing up and simply being a 3-year-old little boy.

Elizabeth now advocates for childhood cancer research and is passionate about spreading awareness.

“I honestly didn’t really know much about childhood cancer until it affected me, and I think that that’s a problem,” Elizabeth said. “Everybody has heard of Susan G. Komen for breast cancer awareness, and I admire and really give them a lot of credit because they’ve pushed hard. Everybody has heard of them, and there have been so many advances because of them. I want that for childhood cancer. It’s so underfunded. People think it’s rare. It’s definitely not as rare as what people think it is.”

The Turner Family from Pelham

            Another family that is passionate about spreading awareness for childhood cancer research is the Turner family. Danielle Turner and her daughter, Lana Turner, met Elizabeth and Ruddy while Lana was also receiving treatment at Children’s of Alabama. They established a close bond by talking with each other about the hardships they were experiencing.

            Lana was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on Feb. 7, 2020, thirteen days before her 19th birthday. A few days earlier, Lana had been getting ready to head to one of her classes at Troy University. She hopped in the shower and suddenly felt overwhelmingly dizzy. As she swayed back and forth, she hit her head against the tile walls. Unable to hold herself up, Lana immediately became sick to her stomach. Doctors assumed that it was just a stomach bug, but when Lana wasn’t getting any better, she went to a different doctor who decided to do blood work.

            The blood work results showed that Lana’s white blood cell count was extremely elevated. She was taken by ambulance to the Shelby Baptist Medical Center, where she was told that she had acute myeloid leukemia.

The Turner Family (Photo Submitted)

            Lana was then sent to Children’s of Alabama and began treatment about a week after being diagnosed. For her treatment plan, Lana was supposed to go through five rounds of chemotherapy in the hospital and receive her sixth round at home, totaling to a six-month stay at the hospital. After each round of chemotherapy, Lana and her mom would only be able to return home for a week.

However, Lana’s six month stay turned into a total of eight months after she was rushed to the ICU. During her last round of chemotherapy, Lana developed a fungus called aspergillus, which caused her to be put on a ventilator for a week and required her to go through rehabilitation.

Throughout Lana’s treatment, she experienced side effects that at times felt unbearable. Lana had developed an ovarian cyst, and her right fallopian tube almost had to be removed due to the chemotherapy.

“Physically, every single day I was experiencing side effects, whether it was simple nausea or something as severe as red man syndrome,” Lana said.

She developed red man syndrome on her hands, which causes the skin to burn and become irritated. That made it extremely painful for her to do daily tasks.

The Turner Family (Photo Submitted)

“It looks like I had taken my hands and put them on hot burners… they were just super red,” Lana said. “I couldn’t hold anything. I couldn’t touch anything. I couldn’t even put my hands on a cold drink because that made it even worse.”

On top of the physical hardships, Lana also struggled with being separated from friends and family. Almost a year before Lana’s diagnosis, Jason Turner, her father, suddenly passed away. With only one parent, Danielle had to stay with Lana in the hospital. With COVID-19 safety restrictions in place, Lana was only able to see her mom and Lindsey Turner, her sister. Dillon Turner, her brother, couldn’t visit Lana at all, and Danielle could only see him when they returned for a week after each round of chemotherapy.

“Don’t give up,” Lana said when asked what she would say to other young people who are battling cancer. “I know it’s so hard to say that, but coming from a cancer patient and a cancer survivor, I know it’s so, so easy to want to give up, especially when you’re going through these treatments that are sometimes so unbearable… Just don’t give up. Strive. Overcome.”

Lana has been in remission since March 2020, and she is currently undergoing maintenance treatment. She will be completely chemo-free at the end of October 2021.

During Lana’s treatment, she took a break from school, but as soon as she saw the opportunity to continue school, she went for it. In Fall 2020, Lana resumed her schooling online at Troy University. She is pursuing a degree in social work, and will be transfer to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the spring 2022 semester.

Along with her passion for school, Lana also enjoys swimming and baking. When nurses entered her room, they would almost always find Lana and Danielle watching an episode of The Great British Baking Show. Through this experience, Lana has also discovered a passion to spread awareness of childhood cancer facts, the lifelong effects of cancer, and the symptoms of treatments and cancer. She hopes that by spreading awareness of these symptoms, people will be more likely to notice the symptoms in themselves or their children.

The Richey Family from Trussville

            Lori Beth Richey bonded with the Turner family and the Hope family at Children’s of Alabama while Avery Richey, her daughter, was receiving treatment. While they connected over their goals to increase funding for research, they ultimately became an extended family to one another because they all knew firsthand how childhood cancer changes everything.

For the Richey family, their whole life changed in August 2019 when 5-year-old Avery, who was about to begin kindergarten, started experiencing headaches and trouble with her balance. A doctor advised her to have an MRI, and they discovered she had a mass on her brain. It was unclear whether it was benign or cancerous. A couple of days later, Avery underwent surgery to remove the tumor. About a week after that, the Richey family received the tough news that Avery had medulla blastoma, a type of pediatric brain cancer, that had also spread to her spine.

The Richey Family (Photo Submitted)

On Sept. 11, 2019, Avery began her first round of chemotherapy, and she spent the next three months in the hospital for treatment. In January 2020, Avery received a bone marrow transplant and stayed in the hospital another 44 days, which was supposed to be the end of her treatment regimen.

Then, Avery had to have routine MRI scans done every three months. In May 2020, her scans were clear, and she was recovering well. However, in August 2020, the Richey family received devastating news once again that Avery had relapsed. Her cancer had returned aggressively all over her brain and her spine.

Three days later, they were back in the hospital, preparing to fight cancer once again. This time around, Avery had to start two large rounds of chemotherapy. Then, she also had to endure 28 sessions of full craniospinal radiation, which she completed in December 2020.

As things seemed to improve, Avery began maintenance chemotherapy in January 2021. However, her MRI scans in April 2021 showed results that the Richey family dreaded. The cancer was starting to progress again, leaving them with no more options. On April 28, 2021, they made the heartbreaking decision to stop treatment. Avery took her last breath at the age of 7 years old on May 17, 2021.

The Richey family now coins Avery’s journey as #brAvery to honor her amazing bravery and joyfulness. They remember her as the spitfire little girl who was full of life and who could find joy in the simplest of situations. They remember her as their little girl who loved unicorns, riding her bike, all things Bob Ross, and playing with Lexi and Ella, her older sisters. They are left with the wonderful memories of their Disney trips and their cherished last Christmas together. They find comfort in knowing that their little girl is no longer suffering. However, they now hold tight to their faith as they face a whole new journey of learning to navigate life without her.

Avery Richey (Photo Submitted)

“We’re suffering now,” Lori Beth said. “Obviously, we miss her like crazy. We have anniversaries and birthdays coming up and lots and lots of firsts. In the beginning, we always said that we would take it away from her if we could. Although that didn’t happen necessarily the way we wanted, it eventually did happen. Her suffering ended, and now we’re suffering without her. We have hope and believe that she is healed, happy, and whole again, and that we will get to see her again one day.”

Like the Richey family, there are many other families who have lost a child to cancer. When asked what she would say to those families, Lori Beth wasn’t sure if anything could be said to grieving parents.

“We’re only four months into this grief journey, and I wish that there were magic words or something that I could say to make things better,” Lori Beth said. “So far, we haven’t found those, and all of our friends who have lost children before us haven’t found those. Just try to keep moving forward. Try to remember the good things about your child and what you learned. Try to honor their memory by keep living.

“I know the pain and sadness will never go away, but hopefully someday it will be more bearable.”

Before Avery was diagnosed with cancer, the Richey family did not realize how common childhood cancer is.

“Childhood cancer is not rare at all,” Lori Beth said. “We’ve been so astounded by the number of families not only just in Alabama, but even in our own community of Trussville with kids that have cancer. Until we became part of this world, it’s not something that we realized how prevalent it was.”

The Wilson Family from Trussville

Another Trussville family impacted by childhood cancer is the Wilson family. On Sept. 14, the Trussville City Council proclaimed September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and it was at that meeting where Lori Beth and Heather Wilson connected in-person.

When Caleb Wilson was born, Heather noticed her son had birthmarks all over his body. At the age of 3, Caleb was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue. Caleb had no tumors until doctors found a tiny brain tumor on the optic nerve when he was in kindergarten. However, Heather was told there is a percentage of neurofibromatosis patients that have optic tumors, and the majority of them aren’t cancerous.

The Wilson Family (Photo Submitted)

Fast forward to Caleb in second grade, when one of his feet seemed to be flat. At first, doctors told the Wilson family Caleb was simply flatfooted, but after getting a second opinion and a full MRI, they discovered Caleb’s brain tumor had grown tremendously. On top of that, Caleb also had a plexiform tumor in his foot.

Caleb was put on a non-FDA-approved chemotherapy pill and began wearing a leg brace. For months Caleb was on this trial medication, when suddenly one day two years ago he had blood pouring out of his rectum. Unable to figure out exactly why, they stopped giving Caleb the trial drug.

In June 2021, an MRI revealed Caleb’s brain tumor had grown two centimeters and that he was in the beginning stages of vision loss. At a recent eye exam, the Wilson family discovered Caleb has lost peripheral vision in one of his eyes. Currently, 10-year-old Caleb is going through two different kinds of chemotherapy. He recently finished his first cycle of chemotherapy out of a total of 10 cycles. Caleb will be doing chemotherapy for about 70 weeks in all.

Caleb Wilson (Photo Submitted)

“The truth is that there is no treatment that is going to take this away,” Heather said of Caleb’s genetic disorder. “He will battle this disease his whole life, which grows tumors all along his nervous tissue. So if we can slow the growth down of these tumors through puberty, we have accomplished some big things. Full remission is not something we will see.”

Cancer is life-changing. It can impact every aspect of life, especially when the cancer patient is a child.

“It is a financial burden,” Heather said. “It rearranges your entire life. It rearranges your entire family dynamic. It rearranges, if not shatters, your friendship group. It is life-changing. You have to learn to go with the flow. Honestly, I hope no one has to understand it.”

Throughout his journey, Caleb has handled everything with patience and kindness. In his free time, he enjoys playing the piano, building Legos, writing letters to people, and spending time with his black cat named Zelda, who is his best friend.

“Caleb’s outlook and perception on life is beautiful,” Heather said. “There are times when I feel bogged down, and then he’s got these moments of being a completely normal kid, and I’m like, ‘If he can feel like this, then I should be the one to feel like this.’”

You can support childhood cancer research in several ways:

  • Purchase a Curing Childhood Cancer specialty car tag. Every tag donates $41.25 to the cancer program at Children’s of Alabama.
  • Head over to Kendra Scott at The Summit. Kendra Scott gave patients impacted by the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders the chance to design their own Elisa necklaces. You can purchase a patient designed necklace at the Birmingham and Huntsville Kendra Scott locations, and for every customized necklace purchased in September, 20% of the proceeds will be donated to Children’s of Alabama.
  • Visit Cookie Fix in Cahaba Heights and Homewood. In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness month, Cookie Fix is selling the Cure Gold Cookie for the rest of September, and 10% of each sale will go to Children’s of Alabama. If you decide to snatch a different cookie, you can also make a donation to Children’s of Alabama at the register.
  • Join Be the Match Registry. By joining, you are volunteering to be listed as a potential bone marrow donor for a patient in need of a transplant.