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Max – The Mighty Cancer Warrior

Max the mighty cancer warrior

Max is a neuroblastoma warrior. The energetic and active three-year-old has been fighting high-risk Stage IV Neuroblastoma since August.

His diagnosis came as a complete surprise to his parents, Dianna and Roger, who say that Max was the healthiest and wildest kid you’d ever meet. 

Max sometimes complained about knee pain and then his eye started getting puffy. Then one day, his eye looked black and blue and got worse. Then the other eye turned yellow and started to bruise. Knowing something was off, Max’s parents took him to the doctor for blood work.

The results showed cancer, so his pediatrician called Dr. Oesterheld at Levine Children’s Hospital, where Max was admitted immediately. It was there that Max and his parents became part of the LCH family under the great care of Dr. Oesterheld and an amazing team of nurses and other medical professionals to begin a long and rigorous treatment process.

Max’s Treatment

The primary tumor is on Max’s liver, on two lymph nodes on his abdomen, and his eye. He recently had 30 percent of his liver removed, a resection surgery to remove his tumors, and received his sixth round of chemotherapy. He has also had 11-12 blood transfusions and four platelet transfusions since August. 

Max the mighty cancer warrior

Max still has bone cancer on the entire top of his skull, right upper arm, pelvis, spine, and legs. His treatment is being pushed back three to four months, because his cancer isn’t quite ready to move forward with the original treatment plan, which would include a high dose of chemotherapy and stem cells. He may end up needing MIBG Therapy. 

“I would never want anyone else to have to go through this,” said Max’s mom, Dianna. “It’s very scary, but we are very grateful to the amazing team at Levine Children’s Hospital who are like a second family.”

Max is part of DFMO drug study at LCH to help prevent relapse of neuroblastoma. As part of the study, he takes a chemotherapy pill at home. Fortunately, it doesn’t add any additional side effects or toxicity. 

Max bounces back between treatments and enjoys his time at home in Montgomery County where he and his family have a hobby farm. Max’s best friend is his chicken named Pumpkin who is like a dog in the way he plays with him and follows him around.

Pediatric Cancer Funding

Max receiving treatment at Levine Children’s Hospital

It wasn’t until this summer’s shocking news that Dianna realized how much funding is needed in the pediatric cancer field.  Since Max’s diagnosis, his parents have become passionate about raising awareness and funding for pediatric cancer and supporting local hospitals like Levine Children’s because they don’t turn people away. 

Adds Dianna, “These hospitals are like angels doing everything they can do to give all these kids a fighting chance. My new mission is educating people about rare childhood cancer. No baby, three-year-old or teenager deserves to die because there is not enough money to save their lives. I will do whatever I can to make a difference.”

If you are interested in helping support Max during his treatment to assist with medical expenses and gas cards for their two-hour trip from Montgomery County to Levine Children’s Hospital, please email Dianna at dianna.lariviere@gmail.com to her PayPal. 

Max and his pet chicken Pumpkin

Max, Cancer Messed With the Wrong Kid

Max and Santa

An Army of Support

Emily and Kevin know firsthand the impact an army of support can provide a family during a crisis. Their daughter, Claire, was 19 months old when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma in 2011. They received an incredible outpouring of support and wanted to do the same for other families fighting childhood cancer. So they created Claire’s Army to honor Claire – who passed away in January 2012 – and to continue her legacy of her love for others.

Claire

“Our friends, family, employers, strangers and the hospital teams did so much for us during Claire’s treatments and our time of grief,” said Emily. “We wanted to do for others what others did for us.”

Through Emily and Kevin’s grief counseling at KinderMourn, time spent with other hospital families and discussions with medical providers, they realized that not everyone had support when going through a similar situation. This led to creating the following core programs at Claire’s Army:

CLAIRE PACKAGES: Claire’s Army provides a package to a new family facing a childhood cancer diagnosis at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital and at Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital. The Claire Package utility tote includes towels, a journal, a gas card and additional comfort items. Valued at $150, the package helps make a family’s hospital stay more comfortable and saves them a trip to the store.

MEAL PROGRAM: Claire’s Army has several restaurant partners and a team of volunteers to deliver made-to-order meals to families at Hemby Children’s Hospital five nights a week. Their goal is to expand to Levine Children’s Hospital in the near future. Since starting this program in February 2014, Claire’s Army has delivered 4,000 meals, which offset a financial burden, provide options beyond hospital food and foster family time.

EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM: Claire’s Army works through oncology social workers to pay for bills to help families who are suffering financially. Emergency assistance can range from mortgage/rent payments, utilities and travel needs to insurance. In one case, Claire’s Army was able to purchase an airline ticket at the last minute for a grandmother to fly roundtrip from El Salvador to attend her grandson’s funeral service. To date, the organization has provided nearly $30,000 of emergency assistance through this program.

“We want to be able to help in any way we can and to make an already awful situation suck less,” said Emily who also spent a few years as a nurse assistant at Hemby Children’s Hospital. “As a hospital provider, it was heartbreaking to see what families go through during a diagnosis, especially if the family was alone with no other support.”

Claire’s Army hosts an annual gala – which raised $200,000 this year – and other fundraisers throughout the year. Funds support these core programs, as well as pediatric cancer research through nonprofits like the Isabella Santos Foundation.

“Claire’s life was very brief, but very impactful,” added Emily. “We hope that the work we are doing is an extension of our love for her and her love for others. We want to carry that on and help these families one at time.”

Sometimes an 8 year old can just put everything in to perspective

Written by Erin Santos, Isabella’s Mom
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I knew that Jersey Mike’s Subs Day of Giving was going to be good, but today exceeded my expectations. I knew lunch would be crazy so I spent my lunch watching social media flood with everyone I knew getting lunch while I patiently gave platelets at the blood center. Also, because this was about Isabella, I wanted to take the kids for family dinner tonight. We ventured out to a new location for us on East Boulevard. When we walked it, I was so excited to see the team in their Cancer Messed With shirts. They of course greeted us when we walked in, not knowing the story that just walked through the door. The first teammate noticed my shirt (CMW the wrong family) and said, “Hey! Look at us in our matching shirts!”. I told her I loved not only the shirts but everything they were doing today in honor of my daughter. I was Isabella’s Mom. The assembly line stopped and I was created immediately with hugs. Sophia of course proudly announces that she is her sister too. The manager tells me how honored they are to be a part of the process and how he read a great interview that I did in Creative Loafing a few years back. It hooked him and and he has been following us every since. He was happy to be a part of the team that provided dinner for the Levine families earlier this month and proudly showed me the photo on the wall.
 
Sophia and I proceeded to eat together in a booth alone as I listened to her talk about her day, stopping every so often to hug me. Midway through our meal, a man and a woman came over and shook my hand. They just wanted to come over and meet us. Turns out their son Tristan, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at just 5 months old. He has had 4 rounds of chemotherapy and 2 surgeries already in just 9 months of life. They had always heard of us and were so excited to meet us and thank us for all that we are doing. I told them they were in great hands at Levine Children’s Hospital and NB caught under the age 2 has a very good prognosis. We would love to help them with anything they need but by the look on his face I felt like maybe we were already doing enough. He jokingly said that this sub will taste a whole lot better now after this and loved that it was going to help kids like his. He shook my hand again and looked me hard in the face and said, “Thank you.”.
 
Only a couple kids in Charlotte with NB and we stumble across them randomly tonight. I try not to let these things screw with my mind – the whole coincidence of it all so I turn back to Sophia. She says, “Mommy there is good and bad about Isabella dying. Bad because she can’t sit here with us at this table, but good because we are helping that baby.” I get one last hug and she is back to her food. Sometimes an 8 year old can just put everything in to perspective.
 
-Erin, Isabella’s Mommy

We Did It: MIBG Treatment Room Coming to Charlotte

Friday marked a huge milestone for our Foundation.  And we aren’t just talking about a monetary milestone and funding a million dollar project, but also an emotional one.  On what would have been Isabella’s 13th birthday, it was extremely special to be able to celebrate her life, her legacy and especially the IMPACT she is making on this world with the coming of an MIBG Treatment Suite at Levine Children’s Hospital.

Levine Children’s Hospital will now be 1 of 20 hospitals to have a MIBG Treatment room in the U.S.  The two-room MIBG suite, which will include a lead-lined patient room and an anteroom for parents and caregivers, will provide targeted radiation to pediatric neuroblastoma patients and other rare pediatric cancers with minimal side effects.  In addition, availability of this room will allow for research studies aimed at testing the effectiveness of early MIBG treatment regimens.  Isabella and her parents were forced to travel to Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia due to this treatment not being available in Charlotte.  We are excited that we are changing this challenge for other families.

The MIBG project team did not forget one single detail.  Most MIBG treatment rooms  are just a one-room area for the patient receiving treatment, while their parent or caregiver sits on the other side of a lead-lined shield.  The two-room suite will give the child receiving treatment the ability to see the parent or caregiver through the connecting room window.  We love all the details the project team has included into the treatment suite design like utilizing Isabella’s artwork and a multi-colored fiber optic light design on the ceiling.  And that’s just a start.

We were joined on Friday by our 3 Wish Circle Members and sponsors who helped us make this room a reality.  What was also special, doctors and nurses who treated Isabella during her time at Levine Children’s Hospital were  in attendence.  To watch them listen to Isabella’s mom as she spoke was incredibility touching.  It was definitely a full circle moment.  Everyone in attendance signed a piece of Levine history as the lead beam will become part of the suite during construction.

We can’t thank everyone enough for the support  and believing in our foundation.  You are helping us make a mark on the future and we will continue to strive to elevate cancer care for kids.  We look forward to sharing updates as construction begins in a few short weeks.   The hospital will have construction cameras, it will be fun to watch the room unfold.

News Coverage on the morning:

MIBG WSCOTV News Coverage

Molly Grantham 

 

 

 

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Two Sides to Every Story

Contributed by Wheela Sunstrom

They say time heals all wounds

Isabella Santos lost her battle to neuroblastoma at the age of 7.

For some, this is a myth…something that people say because, well, they don’t know what else to say. It’s something we hear throughout our lives, but never really weigh the meaning of until you have to. Because for some, no matter how much time passes, grief never goes away.

We have learned in our ISF journey that grief and happiness are all about perspective. When people perceive our organization, they generally see all of the good things we do!  From funding research and programs to supporting families in need to running events to a myriad of other accomplishments, they see hard work for the greater good. They see Isabella’s smiling face printed on glossy paper or cast high on a projection screen, their hearts overflowing for the brave little fighter.  They see volunteers, board members, sponsors, doctors, nurses, and families – a sea of purple – working tirelessly, but positively, to effect change.  They see congratulatory hugs, high-fives, happy dances and the like when something great happens.

What they don’t always see is the other side.  Though Isabella’s mom would normally be included in the list above, it’s a hard realization that every time ISF does something amazing, she is reminded that her child wasn’t afforded the opportunity. This is where happiness and sadness become muddled.  When Isabella’s name is attached to new programs, buildings, research, and anything else, Erin experiences the proudest moments of her life. And also the worst.  Her perspective has always been real and raw, shedding a different light for those who may only perceive our progress.

Isabella’s birthday is no different.  On the one hand, ISF is celebrating her life and the legacy she left behind.  A legacy that led to a momentous milestone in the addition of an MIBG treatment room to deliver targeted therapy to high-risk neuroblastoma patients.  This. Is. Huge.  ISF celebrates the incredible, rare opportunities this treatment room will provide for patients and their families. We shout, we high-five, we do a happy dance. It is a culmination of tireless work in Isabella’s memory, aptly unveiled on her 13th birthday. On the other hand, her mom is reminded that this was the treatment Isabella received a little too late. It stings. It gnaws. It burns.

We have learned everyday that grief and happiness can coexist. We will still smile and share the joy of our latest accomplishment, the gift of the MIBG treatment room. It’s okay for us to be happy about the things we are doing. And it’s okay to celebrate the birth and life of the brave little fighter on what would have been her 13th birthday.  Because, without her, none of this would be possible.

And it’s also okay that there is another side. The side where heartache sits. Because sometimes they go hand-in-hand.

13 – What Should have been, what could have been, and what it is

Written by Erin Santos, Isabella’s Mom

Erin Santos & daughter Isabella. Isabella lost her battle to neuroblastoma at the age of 7.

Tomorrow Friday, March 9th is a big one. 13.  Sure, each birthday number has a different meaning, but when I hear the number “13”,  it’s a big one for me. Luckily there are only a couple more that might really be daggers in the heart. 16, 18, 21 – I see you all waiting for me off in the distance. I will get to you eventually, but tonight – I’m staring the dreaded 13 right in the eye.

I guess because it means she no longer would have been a kid. Teenager is a scary word. First of all, I feel too young to have a teenager. Maybe because I’m single, I listen to dirty rap music, stay out too late,  and want to sleep until noon on the weekends – all traits of a teenager I guess. But then it had me thinking – is that what teenagers do? In true Erin form I constantly find myself avoiding girls her age. I don’t want to stand next to them because it would tell me how tall she would have been. I don’t want to listen to what they are talking about or think about the fact that they all have periods now and wear bras. In my head it seems crazy to me that she could have ever been one of those girls. My mind just won’t let me go there. But as I sit here and think about her, I realize that I prevent myself from knowing what 13 year olds girls are like. How do you know about them if you don’t have one? It’s definitely not something you can look up on the internet without getting flagged. TV doesn’t really depict true 13 year old girls either. So I decided to research it a bit.

Isabella Santos lost her battle to neuroblastoma at the age of 7.

I find an unsuspecting person who has a teenage girl and just say, “Tell me everything she is into”, which I’m sure is a creepy question. But as they start talking I find myself  ridiculously-filled with questions that I almost have to sit on my hands. Questions start out basic enough, like: what kind of music does she like and does she have a boyfriend yet? Then, 40 questions later, I feel like I’m just getting started and have to prevent myself from having the full 2 hour interview I really want.   They listen to all kinds of music from electronic to rap to everything in between. They like SnapChat and Instagram Stories. They have boyfriends who they hold hands with at the mall. They only see this boy in group settings but ignore him at school. They are all at this tipping point of looking like kids one minute, then transforming into a woman the next, with the help of a dress and some makeup. They are into fashion. They binge Netflix. They want to go to the Melting Pot on their 13th  birthday with their friends and catch a movie after. Their girlfriends occasionally turn on them and the drama that ensues can be pretty hurtful. They are sweet and moody all at the same time, probably due to the period they just got for the first time this year. They can curl up to you like a baby one minute, but then have the most adult conversation the next. I could go on and on…

The coolest thing about finding these things out isn’t always the answers. Sometimes it’s hearing the excitement in the voices of parents as they talk  about them. While all the attributes they are telling me feel like tiny knives going into my heart, I find myself knowing that I, too, would be that boastful parent.  She would drive me crazy I’m sure – but all the little things that would have made her up would have been a little piece of me – the good and the bad. It would have been exciting to be a part of her ride to 13. As I digest all the attributes of a “normal” 13 year old, I find myself with this gut- wrenching feeling. Sure, some of it is jealousy… but some of it is the thought that this is what she should have been like.  Instead, I look at the life that was more realistic for me. She could have beaten the cancer, but then we would have had a 13 year old that probably wasn’t anything like the girl I described above. When you sign off on treatment plans, the list of side effects is an afterthought. To be honest, you really stop even reading them. The list is so horrible but at the time it doesn’t matter. You are just trying to keep her alive.

I think about the 13 year old that would have survived after years and years of grueling treatment and over 5 relapses.

Isabella Santos lost her battle to neuroblastoma at the age of 7.

She has hearing aids due to the cisplatin that you gave her over and over. She is missing teeth from the chemotherapy cycle they properly named, “Kitchen sink” because that’s what it was. She’s a full 18 inches shorter than everyone because her body was never able to grow. She doesn’t play sports because her bones are so weak from the radiation you hit her with over and over. She struggles in school because she now has learning disabilities thanks to 5 years of treatment. Oh and she is probably held back because she missed so much school from being in the hospital so much. She is missing patches of hair due to brain radiation that prevented some places from ever growing back. She has trouble making friends because she is different and the friends she has feel like pity.

Let’s not even talk about a boyfriend or the road she has ahead of not being able to have children. She hates you because she is different and she blames you for it. And just when she figures out how to adapt to the cards she is dealt, she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 15 thanks to the high probability of a second cancer. This. This is what could have been.

You want to keep your child alive, every parent does. But sometimes they don’t survive. And you look at what could have been your life if they did and that scares the shit out of you too. I oftentimes wonder if she was taken because what could have been might  have just been worse. I know you aren’t supposed to say that because having them alive with a million problems is better than not having them at all, right? Right?

Erin Santos & daughter Isabella.  Isabella lost her battle to neuroblastoma at the age of 7.

Instead I get to look at what it is. For me, her 13th birthday will consist of opening my eyes tomorrow morning and being crippled with pain inside. I will get Grant and Sophia off to school and sit in my kitchen alone with a cup of coffee and cry my eyes out. It will eventually stop and I will get in the shower and distract myself. I will pick out a purple dress and dry my hair. I will pray that my eyes are not puffy and put on makeup to hide my face. I will drive up to Levine Children’s Hospital and cry again as I make my way along the path we drove for years to get her treatment. I will tilt my head to the side so the tears do not remove my eyeliner. I will put on my best ISF face as I enter the lobby of the hospital, knowing to keep the conversation light because if the wrong person says the wrong thing to me, I will find myself imprisoned in the bathroom.  I will make an inappropriate joke and thank large donors and supporters for coming to celebrate the new MIBG room we are building in Isabella’s name. I will carefully not watch the clock strike 11:12 am, the time she was born.

My ISF team and I will go to lunch where I will drink wine and pray they keep the conversation light. My drive home will be spent calling my Mom who will cry with me and tell me how much good has come from her short little life. My sister will call and will know to talk about everything except Isabella.  Someone will leave an anonymous gift on my porch to let me know they are thinking of me. The kids and I will take flowers and balloons to her site and they won’t really grasp the level of this visit but will kiss her stone and say “Happy Birthday”. I will sleep off the wine, troll social media then try to plan a night out of the house. My girlfriends will take me out and get me stupidly drunk, trying hard to have no real conversations with me about what my day has been like. They will try hard not to touch me because if they know me, a hug might break me in two. I will anxiously wait for the clock to strike 12:00, knowing this awful day is behind me. I will fall asleep in my clothes.

That is what Isabella’s 13th birthday is because my daughter got cancer and she died. Not at all the day I had planned for her when she was born, but now it is what it is. But on March 10th and in true Erin fashion, I will get out of bed and start another day, keeping the mission moving.  24 hours goes by slowly and painfully but in the end, it’s still just 24 hours.

I can do this.

********************

Sydney, 13 year old, wishes to visit the Harry Potter museum in London.

Let’s Become a WishMaker Together in Honor of Isabella’s Birthday

Make-A-Wish granted Isabella her wish and gave her the best days of her life.  Make-A-Wish also gave her family the best memories of theirs.  The positive impact wishes give to kids and their families are invaluable.  

There is a girl fighting cancer, Sydney, who is 13 years old and wishes to visit the Harry Potter museum in London. We can’t think of a better gift than to honor another girl’s wish on what would have been Isabella’s 13th birthday.

Please donate to help make Sydney’s wish come true.  Donations of all values will help us collectively reach the $6,000 fundraising goal by March 31.

DONATE HERE

*Donations made to this campaign are a gift to the mission of Make-A-Wish. Each contribution will be pooled with other gifts to grant the wish of the child shown above or of other eligible children. Costs shown are estimates. All wishes listed will be granted.