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Treatments for neck cancer left 7-year-old Cierra McCauley of Elizabethtown feeling weak much of the time.
But she responded well following six months of chemotherapy that started in late 2012 and wrapped up by midyear.
By the end of June, she was dancing a lyrical solo to a fourth-place finish out of 15 contestants in a national competition, her cancer problems behind her.
Her father, Michael McCauley, said he felt like he was watching an angel.
“It was surreal to know what she went through and that she could come back like that,” McCauley said. “I think it’s time that people know just how serious childhood cancer is.”
Staff and students at Rockcreek Elementary School honored Cierra and another young cancer survivor, Caleb Martoccia, 9, in September during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which reminds residents of the medical challenges children face across the country.
They also paid tribute to a third Rockcreek student who succumbed to the disease.
Nationally, almost 13,000 children each year are diagnosed with cancer, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization. Twenty-five percent of them do not survive. In fact, cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for children younger than age 15, the organization states. According to the National Cancer Institute, 14 children develop the disease each year for every 100,000 children.
That means Rockcreek Elementary has had more than its share of cancer. Despite a student population of about 300, the school has two survivors who beat the disease and fond memories of one who died last school year.
Children diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States
Cancer occurrences in every 100,000 children each year
Percentage of children overall who survive cancer
Sources: National Cancer Institute and American Childhood Cancer Organization
Brittany Boezeman, a kindergarten teacher at Rockcreek, fought and beat cancer as a 2-year-old. She had retinoblas-toma, a rapidly developing cancer that forms in the maturing cells in the retina.
The fact that she survived inspired her as an adult to name her daughter Rylie, in honor of the lifesaving treatment Boezeman received at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis.
It also inspired her to take action when Peyton Whittington, a prekindergarten student last school year at Rockcreek, lost his battle with cancer in June.
Under Boezeman’s direction, the entire student body and staff wore yellow shirts to honor Peyton and support current Rockcreek students who beat the disease to become cancer-free today.
Every student and staff member posed for a picture outside that will be sent to the families of the cancer survivors, Boezeman said. Also, students in some classes made get-well cards that were sent to children at Riley who are fighting the disease.
Rockcreek’s two cancer-beating students know what others are going through.
Cierra, a first-grader, was diagnosed in November with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that causes cells in the lymphatic system to grow abnormally and possibly spread to other parts of the body.
Michael McCauley said he and his wife, Marci, who lived in Louisville, Ky., at the time, had visited medical specialists for about a year before the diagnosis. That’s because a lump was discovered on the back of Cierra’s neck. However, he said the specialists did not seem concerned at the time.
That changed when Cierra broke her collarbone in 2012 in a gymnastics accident in Louisville, where her parents were trying to sell an old house, McCauley said. The couple had moved in the summer of 2012 to Columbus, because Marci grew up here and wanted to return.
While the injury itself was easily treated, doctors in the meantime got a closer look at the lump, which turned out to be cancerous.
The good news is that Hodgkin lymphoma is cured 90 percent of the time, according to the American Cancer Society. But there is a risk of infection-related death when chemotherapy is part of the picture.
Cierra had six rounds of chemotherapy for six months. She had four fevers in that time, which spurred the McCauleys to take their daughter to Riley Hospital as a precaution. She missed a lot of school, often going for two weeks and taking the next two weeks off for treatment and recovery.
June 4 turned out to be a day for celebration and a day for mourning for the family. It was on that day that Cierra was pronounced cancer-free. It was also the day that Peyton died at age 5 between his prekindergarten and kindergarten years.
“I was so thrilled my child was OK but so sad to lose Peyton,” Marci McCauley said. “They were friends.”
Cierra remembers feeling sad and scared of getting sick when she had cancer. But she feels great now and has hair returning to the top of her head to prove it.
Caleb, a third-grader, fought his fight when he was just a year old, his mother, Cathy Martoccia said.
She had taken Caleb to the doctor after noticing her son had a swollen testicle, she said. The doctor thought at first that it was a hernia. But as the swelling increased, Cathy Martoccia grew concerned that it was something more and took her child back for examination.
The doctor diagnosed him on April 28, 2006, with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer of the connective tissues.
Cathy and her husband, Dan, took Caleb to Riley Hospital for surgery that same day because of a high risk that the aggressive and fast-spreading cancer would invade other parts of his body.
Surgeons removed the cancer threat, and Caleb was determined to be cancer-free three days later.
“That was probably the longest weekend of our lives,” Cathy Martoccia said.
The boy had six rounds of chemotherapy over six months. He finished those rounds in November 2006 and has been healthy and cancer-free ever since then.
“It’s pretty awesome to fight through it,” Caleb said.
Not every case of childhood cancer at Rockcreek ended happily, however.
But Peyton’s mother, Lynn Whittington, has fond memories of her son, who seemed mature for his age and could make a whole room of people break out in laughter just by giggling about something randomly.
She also has another memory that she considers beautiful: Holding her child in her arms when he died, yet feeling somehow at peace that she could be there as he left this world similar to how he came into it.
Peyton was diagnosed June 17, 2012, with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an inoperable brain stem tumor that affects motor function and inevitably ends in a child’s death.
Lynn Whittington said the first sign that something was wrong came just two days earlier. After being healthy enough to ride a bicycle during the day, the boy had nightmares that night and woke up the next morning feeling dizzy and suffering from double vision, she said.
Lynn took Peyton to the hospital the next day when his dizziness worsened. The doctors determined that the boy had pressure on his brain that needed to be relieved that day, prompting Lynn and her husband, John, to drive him to Riley Hospital for emergency surgery.
The surgery to relieve pressure was successful, but the diagnosis was devastating. Peyton had a rare form of brain cancer that would lead to his death a year later.
“You can imagine the screams in the room,” Lynn Whittington said. “There wasn’t a dry eye. Even the nurses were crying.”
Lynn said she and her husband said a prayer over their son, who was still unconscious from the surgery. She crawled into bed with him anyway and told him that she still had big plans for him — that he wasn’t allowed to die.
The boy rebounded somewhat, which allowed him to walk, run and go to school for a time. Then, he underwent about six weeks of radiation therapy followed by six months of chemotherapy.
“He had to miss the first part of school but was so happy to come back,” Lynn said. “He loved to come home from school and draw pictures for his classmates.”
Lynn Whittington remembered her son having one at-bat in a Little League game. The stands were filled with people who wore T-shirts that read “Peyton’s Angels,” a website in honor of Peyton that his mother created on Facebook.
His dad carried him around the bases.
Peyton died a week later, just two days before his mother gave birth to the sister that Peyton said he always wanted.
The parents of Cierra, Caleb and Peyton all said they were humbled by the effort of Rockcreek students and staff to honor those who have fought, but not always defeated, cancer.
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