In the Face of Pain From the pages and pictures of 'fighting Chance' spring to life stories of children's courage and the cost of surviving cancer.

June 06, 1998|By JOANNE E. MORVAY | JOANNE E. MORVAY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEVENTY-FIVE percent of children diagnosed with cancer survive. In an age of medical miracles, when we hear almost daily of new ways to fight cancer, prevent it and beat it -- that may not sound surprising.

But the statistic continues to delight Dr. Curt I. Civin, director of the Pediatric Oncology Division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"Step by step, we've moved from almost no cures, to approximately one in four when I was a medical student, to now three out of four -- and I'm not that old," says Civin, 49. In "the next decade or two," he expects 90 percent of children diagnosed with cancer will beat the disease.

Still, this is not an easy fight. Killing cancer in the growing body of a child means taking chances with vital organs like the heart, the kidneys and the brain. Treatment is a trade-off, a calculated risk that has doctors doing the best they can and hoping the effects will be minimized down the road.

From the very moment they sit parents down to confirm that their child has cancer, physicians know treatment will take two to three years -- if successful. Their patients' lives change in an instant. There is no time to brace them for what is to come, no way to show them or their families that hope may lie past the hours of chemotherapy, the months of hospital visits, the endless tests and shots and possible surgeries and radiation.

Until now, Civin says.

Baltimore photographer Harry Connolly spent three years on 8 East, the Pediatric Oncology Division at Johns Hopkins Hospital, taking more than 15,000 photographs of children and families engaged in fighting cancer.

The result is "Fighting Chance: Journeys Through Childhood Cancer" (Woodholme House, $27.95) a photographic essay.

The book is the first of its kind for families who find themselves confronting childhood cancer. Hospitals around the country have already begun placing copies in their pediatric oncology wards. Volumes have also been placed in each Ronald McDonald house, the homes away from home for families of ill children.

Seventeen of the 54 children Connolly photographed did not survive. But Keith Patrick, Heather Brogdon and Eli Kahn did. Here is where they are today.

Keith Patrick

Twenty-year-old Keith Patrick is sprawled in the spotless living room of his parents' farmhouse outside Easton on a lazy Saturday afternoon, eating leftover casserole and trading wisecracks with his older brother, Scott.

With his earring, mustache and goatee, Keith has a rogue's look about him, and he plays the part. Irreverent but charming, one minute he's the serious youth who endured 10 different types of chemotherapy to treat the T cell lymphoma discovered in his body in 1993. The next, he's the smart-mouthed 16-year-old he never got a chance to be because of it.

"A lot of people have died from cancer and I kicked its ass -- in record time," Keith boasts. His mother, Dawn, appears chagrined at this, but can't help smiling.

"My grandmother told me half of fighting cancer is your emotional state, and you should say and do what you want," Keith says. Her battle with breast cancer was the only experience the family had had with the disease before Keith was diagnosed.

"The first thing you think of is death," Dawn Patrick says. "For two years you cry. For two years, you don't sleep because there's always that possibility."

Keith's treatment ended in January 1997. Subsequent checkups have shown no return of the cancer.

But the fight is not over. After his chemotherapy ended, Keith was at loose ends. There were problems with drinking and drugs, fights over his disregard for rules, a bout with depression that scared his parents more than the cancer, Dawn says.

"Cancer controls the body for so long -- mentally and physically -- that once the cancer quit controlling him, he didn't know how to control himself," she says.

Keith's lifelong dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy is gone. His cancer therapy affected his short-term memory so much that he takes just one night class at nearby Chesapeake College. During the day, he works at a well-drilling company with his brother.

It's hard to tell who Keith might have been without the cancer, Dawn admits. The disease struck him when he was bright and strong and just starting to find out who he wanted to be.

Keith is philosophical. "Before the cancer, I was lost and had no place," he muses. "This gives me a place. Maybe not the right place or the best place. But I was a cancer patient. Now I'm an ex-cancer patient and that's what I'll always be."

Dawn and her husband Bob worry sometimes that Keith will define the rest of his life by the disease he's beaten, simply

because he was old enough to understand the pain he endured -- the vomiting and fevers of 105 degrees, the hair loss and severe mouth sores.

"My husband says that because of the cancer Keith has become very spoiled," Dawn says.

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