Five years ago, Carolyn and Charles Peterson received news about their child no parent wants to hear. Doctors found cancer inside their 18-month-old son, Charlie.
"It was the worst nightmare come true," said Carolyn Peterson, 47, of Northfield, whose son received his cancer diagnosis June 6, 2005.
Of parents whose children are diagnosed with cancer, the Petersons consider themselves lucky. Charlie's cancer went into remission two months after he started chemotherapy.
Charlie becomes one of the youngest cancer survivors in southern New Jersey later this month with his final visit to his oncologist.
The child's success could be appreciated by fellow cancer survivors and inspiring for those fighting the disease. A Celebration of Life brunch was held Sunday at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point in conjunction with National Survivors Day on June 6.
Charlie is so young he does not remember most of what he went through.
Shore Memorial doctors affiliated with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Connection saw Charlie. His parents also drove him to Children's Hospital for treatment.
"It never bothered me," said Charlie, now 6, about seeing his doctors.
One of the reasons Charlie did not mind visiting doctors was that he was treated like a rock star upon his arrival at Children's Hospital, his father said. A Shore Memorial child-life specialist created a playroom for him for his stays there at one point when he had to limit his exposure to others because of his weakened immune system.
"He never knew he was different," said Carolyn Peterson, who added Charlie did not cry and was never sad but would say he was hungry when he could not eat. "He was unbelievably courageous."
Charlie's parents recall him not liking to be restrained for spinal taps and the difficulty staff had in finding a vein for an IV for someone so small.
"I was optimistic, but I was scared to death," said Carolyn Peterson, who added it is key to take things one day at a time and to have faith. "It was a very helpless feeling."
Treating cancer in a child is significantly different from treating it in adults, said Dr. Magna Chang-Dias, director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Connection at Shore Memorial Hospital. The medicine used is very different, and the same category of cancer, for instance, leukemia, has a different prognosis in children versus adults.
"With kids, you have to be a lot more sensitive because a lot of time, they don't really understand everything that is going on. You have the family that almost becomes part of the patient that you are treating," Chang-Dias said.
When cancer strikes a parent, adult children can help their loved one a great deal with assistance from the Internet. Joan Phillips, who attended the Celebration of Life brunch Sunday at Shore Memorial, discovered that when she received a breast cancer diagnosis nine years ago. While her husband, Dave Phillips, had the most emotional reaction, their daughter, Jill Rogers, turned into the family researcher, finding out all she could about the disease.
"My daughter was living in Tucson, Ariz. She got on the Internet," said Joan Phillips, 69, a part-time Ocean City resident who also lives in Florida.
The most difficult period for Phillips was between receiving the diagnosis and coming up with a course of action. Treatment itself was not easy, as the chemotherapy and radiation zapped her energy, and the chemotherapy also made her nauseous, but the cancer has not come back.
"You look at life differently after something like that. You are grateful for each day," Phillips said.
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