Two Cherokee children who lost their lives to cancer are being honored this September as part of National Childhood Cancer Awareness month, and their families are hoping to bring the community together to fight for a cure.
CURE is an organization that funds childhood cancer research, and this month they have an initiative aimed to educate and empower called “CURE’s Kids Conquer Cancer One Day at a Time.”
Through the initiative, each day CURE will honor a child who has been affected by cancer. Participating families have a minimum goal of raising $1,000, and funds raised through the initiative will go toward CURE’s 2013-14 research aimed at improving the survival rate for cancers that are difficult to cure.
Ricky James of Woodstock died from a rare cancer just before his fifth birthday, after a three-year battle with three stints of the disease. He was honored Sept. 3.
Ross Pischke of Woodstock died just a few months after his unexpected leukemia diagnosis at the age of 18, and will be honored Wednesday.
Kristin Connor, CURE Childhood Cancer executive director, said the organization offers many aspects of crisis support from information, family and individual counseling, to free meals and monetary support.
“About 87 percent goes directly to research,” Connor said. “About 14,000 kids nationwide are diagnosed (with cancer) every year, and about 400 in Georgia every year.”
Conner, who was previously a lawyer, got involved with CURE after having a child with cancer, she said.
“Unfortunately it’s a lot more common than we like to think,” Connor said.
About one in four elementary schools has a child battling cancer, and about one in two high schools, Connor said.
Donations can be made in James’ and Pischke’s names, or to the foundation as a whole, through the CURE Childhood Cancer giving page, at www.firstgiving.com/curechildhoodcancer.
To find a specific child’s fundraising page, type their first and last name into the search field at the top right of the webpage, and press enter.
Or, to learn more about the organization, visit its website at www.cure
Woodstock residents Shelli and Rick James took their 22-month-old son, Ricky, to see a doctor after he started having trouble going to the bathroom.
Worried that their first-born child may have swallowed a quarter, instead, they would find out their son had a tumor on April 1, 2007.
“We ended up in the emergency room at Scottish-Rite, finding out that we were dealing with cancer, and not a quarter; it was really devastating,” Shelli James said Friday. “I was four and a half months pregnant, and we were in the hospital for 12 days the first time. Within three days he started his first dealings with chemo.”
James said her son had more than 100 weeks of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation over the course of his three-year battle with stage three Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma, or ERMS, of the prostate.
Ricky would develop high fevers and infections from the chemo as he fought three occurrences of the disease, Shelli James said. About 350 children are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year in the U.S.
“In the beginning, we weren’t in the hospital quite as often. We had like one inpatient stay every three weeks. He had the chemo, he had the radiation, he finished 52 weeks of chemo, and he was cleared ‘NED’ (No Evidence of Disease),” Shelli James said. “Ricky then relapsed within two months, in the same location.”
At 2 years old, Ricky had to have multiple organs removed because of the disease, including his bladder, prostate, transverse colon, a portion of urethra and all surrounding lymph nodes.
“This time the chemo was hitting him really hard. In a four-month period, from November 2008 until February 2009, we were in the hospital over 100 days,” James said.
“At this point, my daughter had been born and she lived at the hospital with us. I had both kids at the hospital while my husband was at work.”
James said after the second round of chemo, Ricky was declared NED again. But when he went in for a six-month checkup, the cancer was back for a third time, and he was given a 1 percent chance of survival.
“Ricky started chemo, again,” James said. “We developed a family motto of live, love, laugh and make memories, we say ‘L3M2,’ and chose to prevent the cancer from spreading as long as we could, as long as our quality of life was able to be maintained. And when the chemo started taking from our quality, we were going to stop the chemo and let (the cancer) run its course.”
Shelli James said that Ricky never complained about being sick, and eight days before his fifth birthday, he died.
“Ricky passed away on May 23, 2010,” she said. “I attended Ricky’s preschool graduation the evening of his funeral.”
CURE Childhood Cancer is an organization that funds childhood cancer research and supports families who are affected by the disease.
Shelli James said that CURE provided meals to her during the long hospital stays, would sit silently with her as she cried and supported her throughout the tragic experience.
James said she knew the cancer would overtake Ricky eventually, but said the adult-strength chemotherapy and 20-year-old treatments were unacceptable.
“There wasn’t enough research to save my son,” James said. “The lack of cancer research killed my son.”
James said she is a strong supporter of CURE, because she knows the money goes to fund cancer research.
“My daughter likes to talk about the good times, as she refers to them, when Ricky was around,” Shelli James said. “A lot of her favorite stories are things that happened while they were in the hospital together.”
Ricky’s sister, Erin James, is now 6 years old and a first-grader at Oak Grove Elementary School Fine Arts Academy. The school recently participated in “Caps for a Cure,” a program where students give $1 to CURE to wear a hat or bandana to school, and teachers pay $5 to wear jeans and a baseball cap.
An 18-year-old senior at Woodstock High School, Ross Pischke had a great sense of humor, and a kind word for everyone, said his mother, Debbie Pischke.
Ross was trying to donate blood at school one day and was turned down because he was anemic, his mother recalled. A week later, at a regular checkup, she mentioned it to Ross’ doctor.
“He had no symptoms,” Debbie Pischke said. “I picked him up at school one day and he said he was really, really upset that they told him he could not give blood because he was anemic.”
Pischke was working for a doctor at the time. Two weeks later when her son’s blood test results came back, the doctor told her that Ross had leukemia.
Debbie and her husband, Ken Pischke, went home to tell their son he had cancer, and opened the door to find Ross playing with their dogs.
“He wasn’t tired, he wasn’t sick,” Debbi Pischke said. “He never complained. ‘Hero’ is really what I’d call him. He just said, ‘Well, let’s go do what we’ve got to do.’”
On Christmas Eve in 2009, Ross was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and began a difficult journey of weekly chemotherapy treatments, bone marrow aspirations and spinal taps.
“What he had was an 85 to 95 percent cure rate,” Pischke said.
ALL is the most common type of childhood cancer, and each year about 3,000 children are diagnosed with the disease.
On Christmas morning, CURE showed up at Ross’s hospital room.
“There was a knock at the door, and there was a guy dressed like Santa,” Debbie Pischke said. “I’m 5 feet tall, it was a bag of stuff as tall as I am, full of Georgia stuff, and (Ross) was a Georgia fan. … It was all perfect, it was more than we could’ve imagined or asked for.”
Pischke said her son would constantly help his peers.
She would come home to find Ross texting his friends, and Pischke said when she read Ross’ texts, she found dozens of examples of Ross consoling and encouraging his friends.
“He was a lifeguard at BridgeMill for several years, and he saved a couple of kids from drowning,” Pischke said.
Ross’s older brother, Tyler Pischke, was graduating from Air Force Basic Training in March 2010, and the family traveled to San Antonio.
Before the Pischkes left for the airport, Ross had a white blood cell count of about 200 and got his clearance to fly. Three days later, his white count was down to zero, and Ross was “septic.”
“(On the plane) Ross kept saying, ‘I don’t feel right, I don’t feel right,’” Pischke said.
By the time the flight landed, Ross was in pain and had to be taken immediately to a hospital. It was the last hospital he’d visit.
Ross was admitted to the emergency room and died within a few hours, on March 31, 2010. He didn’t make it to his 19th birthday or his high school graduation.
“To say it was the worst thing to ever happen to us is an understatement,” Debbie Pischke said. “It was just quick. … He was constantly helping people.”
Pischke said the CURE organization was “phenomenal” to their family. During the months that Ross battled the disease, Pischke said CURE provided resources that helped pay monthly bills during the trying time.
“Since then, they send us a card every birthday,” Pischke said. “They’ll call and check on us, they’ll email us. They have a program for parents, it’s called a celebration weekend… they help to cope with the loss of your child.”
Along with all of their research, Debbie Pischke said CURE did so much more for her family and she “can’t say enough about them.”
“It’s hard enough to get out of bed every morning,” Pischke said. “But to have a support group like this … these people know, and they understand.”