It’s a parent’s worst nightmare—a headache or throat ache that turns into something more sinister: cancer.
It’s a reality that parents of nearly 10,500 children in the United States will face this year, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s also a fact that at least two parents who work at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School have faced in the past decade.
Lundy Smith, the second grade teacher, and Mary Esther Elam, the school nurse, know firsthand the effects of childhood cancer on the family.
Smith’s son Bennett died in 2019 after developing neuroblastoma, a cancer of the adrenal glands that usually sits on top of the kidneys. He was first diagnosed in August 2016 at the age of 6.
“At first, Bennett said he had a cough, and we just went to check him up at the children’s clinic in Starkville,” Smith said. “At that point he was really high blood pressure, so the doctors suggested we move immediately to Birmingham but they were too full. Then we were taken to Jackson Children’s Hospital. … They were able to determine that the high blood pressure was caused by an attached tumor. with his left kidney.
Bennett went into remission twice, but when the cancer recurred for the third time in January 2019, doctors said there wasn’t much that could be done to help other than providing comfortable care for Bennett and his family, including his two older sisters. .
Even though cancer was starting to take over his body, Bennett remained positive and received as much as possible, including a Make-A-Wish trip to Orlando with his family.
Smith said tears were forming in her eyes but she held on to the composure of every elementary school teacher, and said Bennett never complained about his condition.
“He never complained through anything,” Smith said. “It really touched me because I’m just thinking about how hard life is and how we complain about something, and all Bennett can think is, ‘When am I going to go back to school? “And how much I love the school….they decided to set up a memorial garden in his honor, and we have kept it going.”
While fondly remembering her son with a smile on her face, Smith said that Bennett loved his family and school and even wanted to become a math teacher and math director.
Smith’s colleague, Elam, helped her son Cole in 2014 when he was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the liver.
Elam initially thought Cole had swallowed a toy because she felt his stomach was protruding, so she rushed him to the Starkville Children’s Clinic where they took x-rays and told her it was a tumour. From there, Elam and her husband made a decision to go to Lebonheur, and then to St. Jude, both in Memphis.
“He had treatments for about a year,” Elam said. “He had a hepatectomy where they took out part of his liver. He was in stage 4 before they figured out what it was. He had a softball sized mass in his liver. … He kept complaining at first about a pain in his neck, so we went to the doctor. We get home, the doctors call us and tell us we need to start thinking about what we want to do because he had a mass.”
Cole is now in fourth grade at Starkville Christian School and has recovered after 13 treatments.
“He has hearing aids because the chemotherapy caused his hearing loss,” Elam said. “He’s a 10-year-old boy who plays baseball and does all the things that normal kids do. … He loves baseball in Mississippi, and he loves going to games. He even has favorite players.”
Finding support in the community
Smith said her days of treatment at Children’s Hospital of Mississippi in Jackson were long and expensive, and she often had to rely on family, friends and classmates at Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District to help her around the house.
“We had twin daughters in sixth grade at the time, so we generally needed to maintain some normalcy for them and keep them in school,” Smith said. “His dad and I had to be in the hospital so we had to use family and friends to help the girls stay in school while we were there with Bennett….I got a huge amount of support from the school district. People donated vacation days, raised money to give to my family, Students wrote cards, sent out snacks, letters – the amount of support we received was so intense and so helpful.”
Bennett joined HWS when he was diagnosed, and his classmates and the entire school rallied behind the family. Smith said costs were starting to pile up, from gas to Jackson to hospital meals for those keeping tabs on her daughters at home.
One of the many ways her co-workers helped out was by making T-shirts emblazoned with the saying, “Nobody fights alone,” with all proceeds going to support the Smith family. The teachers lined up to get the T-shirts and helped out in any way they could.
She knows the physical and mental cost of childhood cancer to the family, and she, along with other teachers at HWS, continues to make sure any family has what they need during the unthinkable.
Each September, students, staff, and faculty at HWS experience “Go Gold” week where they learn the importance of helping others and supporting those who may be going through a tough time.
“With the help and support we’ve had, we really want to help others who might be going through this,” Smith said. “During the ‘Go Gold’ week at HWS, we grab snacks and supplies for families with cancer because there are so many people that when they get to the hospital they realize they’ve forgotten something or want something. …Once Bennett wanted his favorite thing. : granules. I didn’t have any grits, but I found the last pack of grits in the hospital family room.”
Rely on faith
Both Smith and Elam said that the support they received from SOCSD, churches, friends and the community at large was what helped them most through the difficult times they faced as parents whose children had cancer.
In advising any parent who is currently helping a child with cancer, both emphasized relying on faith and the roles churches play in the community in helping support their families.
Elam said she knows because of her belief that there is a reason for everything, and helping her child through cancer has helped her become a better school nurse helping other people’s children. The point she sharpened was to listen to the aches your child is complaining about, especially if it’s a persistent complaint.
“I tell people all the time that I wish we didn’t have to go through it, but I’m glad we did,” Elam said. “It made us stronger in our faith, and it made me stronger as a nurse too. It makes me pay attention to the little things that might not be obvious. I had a little boy last year with a tumor on his head, and we got his mom to check him up. Luckily he wasn’t cancerous, and he’s back here fine” .
In a final word to anyone helping their child with cancer, Smith stressed the importance of remembering the happy and good moments of success.
“Rely on your family, depend on your faith, and take it day by day,” Smith said. Take a lot of photos and videos.
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