Cayden’s Story – Fighting Leukemia

Every morning when Courtney wakes up her 6-year-old son Cayden, she just holds him in her lap for a few minutes. She studies the features of his face, sometimes stroking an eyebrow or touching the curl of his hair. She remembers to be grateful for whatever the day ahead holds. Three years ago, Courtney may have taken these kinds of moments for granted, but not anymore – because three years ago, Cayden was diagnosed with leukemia.  

From leg pain to leukemia 

It started when Cayden’s teacher at daycare told Courtney that she was worried. The previous day his legs were hurting so badly that he refused to walk. If he needed something across the room, he’d scoot or crawl instead. The leg pain worsened over the weekend, and when Cayden also spiked a fever, Courtney took him to the emergency room. When those doctors still didn’t have answers, Courtney and the pediatrician pushed for Cayden to get bloodwork done to find out what was going on.  

“Cayden was my healthy kid,” Courtney said. “He’d had maybe a few colds in his whole life. That weekend though, he would wince from pain when I tried to pick him up. Something was just not right.” 

Courtney and her husband, Darryl, took Cayden to the emergency room at the local children’s hospital and after multiple test and grueling hours of waiting, a doctor opened the door to deliver the news that would upend their lives.  

“The doctor came in and introduced the oncologist – I didn’t even know what an oncologist was at the time,” Courtney said. When he said Cayden had leukemia, Courtney collapsed into Darryl’s arms.  

“I could not stand. My body felt like it was shutting down, my hands and feet went numb and I’d never sobbed so hard in my life,” Courtney said. She sent a text to a group of close friends who knew they were in the hospital waiting for answers. The text simply said, “Cayden has leukemia. Pray.” 

Cayden in the hospital with his NG tube

The next few weeks were some of the hardest Courtney had ever seen Cayden experience. He had surgery the day he was diagnosed where doctors placed a port in his chest, a small device surgically inserted under the skin where nurses could administer treatments and take blood. He also had an NG tube in his nose to receive oral chemotherapy, because the taste made it too hard for him to swallow it himself. It was hard for Cayden’s parents to watch him be either uncomfortable or in pain for so many months, all the while worrying about the cancer that had invaded his cells and the possible side-effects of the treatments he was getting to fight it.  

“I couldn’t even process all the side effects they said he could have, but they said he needed to start chemo the day he was diagnosed so there was no time to think or research we just had to trust the doctors. At one point, we were giving him medications 12 times a day,” Courtney said. “We were intentionally poisoning our child to save his life.” 

Treatment and toddlerhood 

Cayden tried to take back some control wherever he could. At his weekly appointments to have his blood drawn, he would tell the nurses which color of collection tube to use next. He would sometimes even connect the tubes to collect his blood himself. Courtney vividly remembers one day when Cayden went down to the hospital’s playroom - he couldn’t fully stand up straight, but he used all the energy he had to play and explore. It was such a bittersweet moment – a collision between childhood and cancer.  

Cayden Today 

Today, Cayden is 6 years old and thriving. He loved playing soccer this year and plans to play baseball in the spring. He loves helping his mom in the kitchen and playing with his big brother, Christian. But the scars, both physical and otherwise, of cancer still linger. He was in physical therapy for months to regain strength he lost during chemotherapy. Medication changed his sense of taste, so he’s a bit of a pickier eater than he was before. He missed so much school during treatment that he was behind in kindergarten, although he is starting to bounce back academically. He just recently was able to quit taking blood pressure medication he’s been on since the early days of treatment.   

Courtney says this journey has changed her on a fundamental level. She didn’t know anything about childhood cancer the day Cayden was diagnosed – now she could tell you as much as some doctors and nurses. She experiences post-traumatic stress associated with Cayden’s treatment. While she tries not to think about it, there are times when the fear of potential relapse crosses her mind. But instead of succumbing to fear, she cherishes the present moments, prays and shares Cayden’s story to make things better for the children who will unfortunately come after him.  

“I’ll be on fire about this for the rest of my life,” she said. “No parent or child should have to go through this. It’s heartbreaking to know childhood cancer research doesn’t get funding because it’s not profitable. There are people who came before us and made things better for Cayden – we want to be the people who make things better for the next family.” 

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