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Parent's worst nightmare realized

Garrett Pearson was granted a wish through the Make a Wish Foundation after he battled Burkitt Lymphoma. So Garrett along with his sister Grace, mom Ashley and dad Addison went to Disney World and Legoland in Florida. Ashley said they stayed at a resort called Give Kids the World which is specifically for wish families. Submitted photo

Cancer: a six-letter word, that means something different to so many people. For those who have survived cancer, the word has taken on a whole new definition after their personal experiences. As June 3 was National Cancer Survivors Day, we know many who have battled cancer, won and now supply hope to those going through similar battles.

From that first cancer diagnosis to learning about the disease, facing treatment and possible surgeries, to many survivors the term "cancer" takes on a much bigger meaning beyond "abnormal cell growth."

Pearson's childhood

Parents don't plan on having their child face life and death illnesses. Unfortunately though, many parents face the devastating news that their child has cancer.

Ashley Pearson, of Red Wing, was not prepared to find out her son, Garrett, who just turned 9, had cancer.

"Basically a parent's worst nightmare," Pearson said.

Last year, Garrett had a large lymph node under his jawline, so they took him to see his primary care doctor. The doctor did blood work and an ultrasound.

"Tests just showed he had an infection at some time, at some point, but didn't have it at this time," Pearson said.

The doctor ordered more blood tests and referred Garrett to Mayo Clinic. While they waited for an appointment in Rochester, Pearson said they realized something was definitely wrong.

"On Sunday at home he turned a little jaundiced," Pearson said. "His skin turned a little yellow, whites of his eyes were yellow."

By Monday, when Garrett saw the ear, nose and throat specialist, the doctor knew something was wrong right away. Garrett had an appointment with a gastroenterology doctor, who ordered more blood work and scheduled an abdomen ultrasound Tuesday morning.

Pearson said they went to the lab to leave a urine sample, but while they were waiting the GI doctor called back and said preliminary results warranted more tests; it would be best for Garrett to be admitted to the hospital. Garrett was admitted to St. Mary's in Rochester.

Garrett was scheduled for surgery on Thursday to investigate the lump on his neck. During the surgery, the doctors determined it was a cancerous mass and removed it. Pathology confirmed the diagnosis.

On Saturday, Garrett had a second surgery to put in a central line that health professionals could use to take blood, hook IVs to, and use for chemotherapy treatments. He also was given his first half dose of chemotherapy medications through a spinal tap.

The diagnosis

Further testing showed Garrett had Burkitt lymphoma. He stayed at St. Mary's for three weeks and, in total, had 4.5 doses of chemotherapy involving a number of drugs.

"Doctors called his chemo regimen the kitchen sink," Pearson said. "First he had five different medications. Last round of chemo he had four medications during the week. A lot of different medications to put in such a small body."

The doctors told the family to hope that Garrett would be home for Christmas, but should expect that he might be spending the holidays in the hospital. However, because Garrett was able to get his treatment in a short time, he was home for Christmas.

Child-life coordination

Pearson said they were fortunate that family and friends were able to help. The first three weeks their 4-year-old daughter, Grace, was taken care of by family members, giving the Pearsons "time to absorb it and be there for Garrett."

At St. Mary's, Pearson said a child life coordinator spoke with them.This person primarily works with children and helped Garrett understand what was going on and answered questions he had.

"He understood he was sick," Pearson said. "He didn't have the understanding of what cancer is; he understood the concept enough."

During his treatment, the family was told not to limit Garrett's activities and let him set the pace. He continued to go to school during his treatment when up to it and returned to school full time after his last chemo treatment.

"He was scared and worried at times," Pearson said, but "he really had a good attitude during the whole time."

Prior to Garrett having cancer, Pearson was unaware of the prevalence of childhood cancer.

"Garrett is one of the lucky ones," Pearson said. "We haven't seen long-term side effects."

Pearson said any parent going through a similar situation needs to remember a lot of people are willing to support and help them. They need to keep faith that everything will be OK.

"Just know that you are not alone and that there's a huge network for support out there," Pearson said. "It's extremely scary. You have to keep that belief up and trust in your doctors that they will do what they can to help you beat this."