So September has come and gone so quickly it seems… I posted a handful of childhood cancer stories at the end of the month to increase awareness of childhood cancer. Although the “awareness” month has come and gone… these families and children who have faced, battled and stood in the trenches during some very dark times in their lives… must continue the fight… must continue spreading the word about this illness… must continue to do their part to raise money for a cure… are daily reminded of what they went through… overcame… or lost. So, although Childhood Cancer Awareness Month has come to a close… I have a few more stories that must be shared. I will post these over the next few weeks and possibly even scatter some over the entire year… because I never want to forget what these families and children have gone through… and I don’t want you to forget either. So will you join me in reading these stories… real stories that happened to real people… and will you commit to pray for them with me?
The following story is written by a former patient’s (Leah) mom (Susan). Although I highly dislike the reason I met this family… I highly love having met them because they are the real deal. They know what it means to love. They know what it means to support one another and stick together, especially when the going gets tough. I witnessed their community rally around them through fundraising ( I still have and wear my Tshirt that her community sold to raise support for her family), hospital visits, dinners and love. You couldn’t walk into Leah’s hospital room without feeling the love that was shown in that room.. rather it be her family at her side, her mom caring for her every need, a high school friend’s visit… or from observing the colorful walls of posters, cards, and pictures galore from all of her loving family and friends. It is unquestionable that the Brinson family knows how to love and love was most assuredly shown to them through Leah’s battle with cancer. They absolutely know and live out the truth of God’s love and His display as He exchanges beauty for ashes… here is beautiful Leah and their story…
On July 21, 2010, our lives were forever changed when our 16 year old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia). Leah had returned home from a 3 week student trip with several symptoms but the most unusual of these was her bleeding gums. Leukemia patients often exhibit bruising but we believe God provided bleeding gums as a sign, one that we would recognize. You see, I am a dental hygienist and Leah’s father, Robby, is a dentist so we don’t believe this was a coincidence. Robby immediately recognized this as a symptom of leukemia. With over 20 years experience, he had never had a leukemia patient but remembered seeing pictures in textbooks and journals. After a sleepless night, Robby met with our physician at 6:30 a.m. and requested Leah be tested for leukemia. Later that morning, a simple blood test confirmed his suspensions and Leah was admitted that day to Egleston Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. Several hours were spent in the ER that evening educating us on her illness. I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed; especially when we were told our child had only a 2 to 4 week life expectancy!
AML is cancer of the white blood cells. The “A” represents the word “acute” which is defined as a rapid onset. In other words, her cancerous cells were reproducing at a rapid rate. These cells had taken over her bone marrow leaving little space for red blood cells and platelets. In fact, her biopsy revealed that her marrow was 94% cancerous! Normal levels are 3,000 to 11,000 but Leah’s were over 165,000. Levels above 150,000 put a patient at risk of a stroke. I also remember how astonished the doctors were that Leah was strong enough to walk without assistance! That night, Leah was prepped for a surgical procedure that would remove her white blood cells but before this could happen her platelet levels had to increase. Platelets cause the blood to clot, and with her levels so low, she could hemorrhage to death. Due to the high number of cancerous cells, her marrow would only accept 2 units of platelets. This was enough for the procedure but not enough for a preliminary spinal tap to see if the cancer cells had penetrated into the spinal fluid. Without this test, they had to assume the worst and Leah would have to endure the maximum levels of chemotherapy. This was a very aggressive form of leukemia, therefore, her treatments had to be very aggressive. She was a sick young lady! Leah had always been healthy, so you can only imagine the terrible shock this was to our family.
Leah’s treatment included 3 surgeries, 6 rounds of chemotherapy, and 9 spinal taps. Her infusions would run for 96 hours straight (4 days on, 4 days off, then it would repeat). Leah was on 4 different chemotherapy drugs at the same time. Because of the multiple drugs and long infusion times, she had to have a special catheter surgically placed into a large vein leading into her heart. Leah remained in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) until day 3 and was then transferred to the AFLAC Hematology/Oncology Unit where she would begin her chemotherapy. She had a total of 456 hours of chemo and over 100 units of blood and/or platelet transfusions. She was hospitalized a total of 123 days during her 6 month course of treatment. Much precaution had to be taken while home due to her compromised immune system. Leah endured many side effects, the hair loss being the most difficult for her. But through it all, I never once heard her complain. I recall Robby holding her frail body in his arms as he told her he wished he could take her place. Her whispered response was “I don’t.”
With Fall came the intensification phase of her treatments. Her last 2 rounds were 8 times stronger so she was in much discomfort. Thanksgiving was spent in the hospital with family. We enjoyed our feast in the cafeteria. Leah’s lips were cracked and she had lost her sight due to severe corneal abrasions; however, that did not prevent her from enjoying her grandmother’s turkey and dressing. Although the chemo was harsh on her body, it was also attacking those cancer cells; that we were thankful for! Leah was discharged on December 21st. Although we managed to find a last minute Christmas tree, the scarce wrapped gifts seemed unimportant. Our best gift was having Leah home for Christmas!
In January, Leah began her weekly “out-patient” clinic visits. At these appointments, she continued to get chemo into her spine. Following the series of spinal taps, Leah was pronounced in “REMISSION” on February 2, 2011.
Thanks to accredited homebound teachers at Egleston and at home, Leah was able to complete her junior year. She returned to school part-time after spring break. Not only did Leah begin her senior year as a cancer survivor but graduated with honors, and completed 4 college courses as well! We have been amazed at how strong and courageous she has been throughout this whole ordeal. She has come so far and doesn’t take life for granted. She says “life is too short to sweat the small stuff… like hair.”
Leah is feeling great and shows no residual signs of childhood cancer. Having had the maximum levels of chemotherapy, Leah must have her heart monitored annually for life. Other than chemo induced ADD, Leah leads a completely normal life. She has completed 2 years at UGA, then transferred to GRU where she began her first year of nursing. Leah does not want to be just any nurse, she wants to become a pediatric oncology nurse. But Leah’s journey does not end there. Not only has she thrived physically and academically, she continues to thrive spiritually. What a blessing she is to those who know and love her. We are so proud of the beautiful young woman she has become.
Robby and I believe in the power of prayer, and that Leah is alive and well today because of so many answered prayers. Friends, family, and our entire community have been incredibly supportive and we thank God each and every day for blessing us with such wonderful prayer warriors. Leah is living proof that prayer really works!!!
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
(by Susan Brinson)
The Brinson family would love to raise awareness of childhood cancer through the following organizations:
Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation: http://www.alexslemonade.org/
St. Baldrick’s Foundation: http://www.stbaldricks.org/