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The life changes that come with a childhood cancer diagnosis extend far beyond frequent trips to the hospital for challenging treatments. Oftentimes, kids have to remain relatively secluded, protected from the plethora of germs present in everyday life. Ryan, a 5 year old from Denver, is facing that reality after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in October 2017. Even mundane tasks are potentially dangerous.
“Pneumonia that kids with leukemia get is fatal,” said Ryan’s mom Jennifer. “It’s terrifying to me that I could take Ryan to the grocery store, he could touch the cart, get the flu and potentially die.”
Implementing those sorts of precautions are now a normal part of Jennifer and husband Jeremy’s life. They may not enjoy this new normal, but they’re adapting to it by drawing from Ryan’s immense strength.
Ryan is a jovial jokester who loves dinosaurs, watching movies and idolizing his older brother, 9-year-old Dylan. The two of them are best buddies with a tight-knit bond that made it even harder when Ryan first went to urgent care after suffering from symptoms like stomach pain or nausea.
That initial trip ended with only an ear infection, but after finishing his medication, the symptoms returned fiercer than before. When Ryan’s fever spiked over 104 degrees, urgent care promptly sent them to the ER at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver. Doctors conducted tests on Ryan until the early morning, before a pathologist finally discovered the leukemia in his blood. Initially, Jennifer felt racked with guilt.
“It’s so hard, because as a parent you’re supposed to protect your kid,” said Jennifer. “Your first reaction though is what could I have done differently? How could I have prevented this? What did I do wrong? Why my kid and not me?”
Although Jennifer pondered those trying questions after diagnosis, it wasn’t long before the reality of the situation set in. The family thrust themselves into treatment as Ryan started chemotherapy that week which involved a six-day hospital stay. So far, treatment has proceeded well and Ryan is set to start the maintenance phase (providing low-dose medications designed to kill any remaining cancer cells in the body) in June and continue until December 2020.
Ryan leaned on his brother and family throughout, but has remained brave himself. His parents are conscious of the fact that this forced both kids to grow up quickly though.
“I feel like Ryan has completely lost his innocence and he’s had to grow up much faster than he should,” said Jennifer. “For Dylan, I think it’s made him feel excluded to a point.”
That latter feeling was what first drew Jennifer to the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) brochure in their hospital room. She wanted something to help Dylan process this predicament and ensure he felt special, so she enrolled him in the SuperSib program.
While cancer may have disrupted their family’s lifestyle, there’s no shortage of support surrounding them. Ryan’s Lutheran preschool recently held a leukemia awareness day with every student decked out in an orange shirt. All proceeds from that day’s chapel service also went to Ryan’s family.
Coincidentally, they also have a family familiar with their fight right next door.
“We have a neighbor whose son is also in treatment for ALL,” said Jennifer. “He’s a little bit further ahead in treatment, but they’ve kind of been our mentors by showing us the ropes and resources like ALSF.”
Having a guide through this experience has been invaluable. They hope to spread some of that knowledge and awareness by participating in The Lemon Climb Denver and Lemonade Days, too.
Even in the scariest moments of Ryan’s fight–anxiously awaiting blood tests or taking steroids that alter his bubbly personality–the family remains empowered by Ryan’s empathy.
“I was crying in the room after they told us his official diagnosis, but Ryan pointed his little, magic wand finger at me and said, ‘Abracadabra, make Mommy stop crying,’” said Jennifer. “He wasn’t worried about himself, he just wanted me to be happy.”
Those magical glimpses of childlike activities, make believe and playing pretend, fuel their hope that Ryan will live a prosperous, normal life.
Hero Quote: “Dear Jesus, thank you for this wonderful day.” – Ryan
Information provided by Jennifer Eng, Ryan’s mom
Updated April 2018
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