BEN BALTZ IS THE 10TH-FASTEST KID IN HIS third-grade class. He plays soccer, and, in April, he completed the YMCA Country Music Kids’ Marathon in Nashville, a race that involved running a total of 25.2 miles in the weeks prior to the event and completing the last mile on race day. It wasn’t timed, but Ben is too competitive for that, and his parents clocked him at just over nine minutes per mile. An impressive time for sure, but not necessarily worth the applause that Ben, 9, received as he tore through the streets of Nashville. One detail caused strangers to stare in awe; it’s a detail that’s blatantly obvious to everyone who encounters Ben, yet it remains almost insignificant to Ben himself. The boy lost his left leg to cancer two years before race day.
“He continues to wow people,” says his father, J.C. “He is inspiring. Did his disease affect him psychologically? No.”
When he was 6, Ben was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that strikes about only 400 children per year. At first, Ben’s parents blamed his strange limp on growing pains, but an observant doctor diagnosed the disease quickly and, after 11 months of chemotherapy failed to solve the problem, the decision was made to amputate Ben’s leg just above the knee.
“I feel lucky,” J.C. says. “I know this sounds pretty crazy, but I only had to cut off my child’s leg because of cancer.”
There is no hyperbole in J.C.’s statement. He has seen how deep cancer can root into a family’s life.
THIS MONTH IS NATIONAL CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS MONTH — a time to bring attention to the 12,500 children who are diagnosed with cancer and the 2,300 children who die from cancer every year. While it’s the top disease killer of children and an illness that causes lifelong damage in 60 percent of survivors, in terms of numbers, it’s only a blip on the radar compared with breast cancer and many other potentially fatal adult diseases that strike hundreds of thousands a year.
These statistics, though, are deadly in that they fail to capture the far-reaching damage of childhood cancers. The small number of victims has led to a dearth of research, and the numbers cannot capture cancer’s exponential reach: siblings receiving less attention than they normally would, the sleepless nights parents spend in homeless shelters so that they can be near the hospital, the number of divorces caused by the stress.
Parents often remark about how well their children handle the diagnosis, how they see a potential death sentence as nothing more than a bump in the road. But these parents also lament the lack of services available for families facing their greatest challenges. From that pain, Michelle Tucker and Heide Randall, along with Dianne Killian, Michelle’s best friend, formed Team Unite, a grassroots organization that is filling in the overlooked gaps left in cancer’s wake.
Michelle’s and Heide’s children were not as lucky as Ben.
Henry Tucker was a precocious infant, speaking full sentences at 16 months and acting like a teenager by the time he was 6. He was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia, one of the most curable forms of cancer, at 2. After the cancer had been in remission for almost four years, the tumors came back, and the hope of his survival quickly evaporated.