By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
For the families of the PeCans - Pediatric Cancer - support group, the best present won't be under the tree Christmas morning.
It's that their children have fought off cancer and are alive, well and here for another year of celebrations.
Zack Caldwell of Nettleton, now 8, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia just before Thanksgiving 2006.
The holidays that year were difficult for his parents, Niki and Trent Caldwell, with worries about the cancer and coaching a 4-year-old through all the poking and prodding.
But St. Jude pulls out the stops for kids with cancer and their families, Niki Caldwell said.
"The Christmas that we spent at St. Jude was awesome for the boys," including big brother Mason, she said. "You stop and think about four years ago, how the holidays were. It's great to be where we are now."
The PeCans group has been the gift that's kept giving. The group began a year and a half ago as an effort to extend the support that families get at St. Jude after they come home.
Teresa Farris of Mantachie spent 14 months at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital when son Sam, now 14, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a tumor of the nervous system. Dad Dennis Farris would visit on the weekends.
"When we came back, I terribly missed the friendships I had made there," said Farris, who started the group with another mom who has since moved away. "You have a whole new vocabulary ... Your normal is not normal anymore."
The group has become a second family.
"It's having someone who's been through the same thing you have been through," said Rina Daniel of Tupelo, whose son, Jorden, now 6, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at 4 months old.
When members of the group are at St. Jude at the same time for appointments or treatments, the staff tries to put them close together at the on-campus hotel. It's great to have familiar friends close by, support group members say.
"Because we haven't been in treatment so long, we don't know people as well" at St. Jude, Daniel said.
The support group meetings also have been helpful to siblings.
"The meetings are always fun, not depressing," said Hayley Maxwell, whose brother, Harrison Maxwell, just finished three years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia in November. Hayley and Harrison are the children of Kim and Kevin Maxwell of Tupelo.
It's a big change from 12 months ago when treatments left him without an appetite, and pneumonia and RSV hit his weakened immune system hard.
But the journey continues even after active treatment is done. Many of the kids have ongoing complications as a result of the cancer - Jorden uses a wheelchair because of damage to his spinal cord from the cancer. There are regular scans to watch for signs that the cancer is returning, which is every parent's biggest fear.
"There's always a chance it can return," Daniel said. The Daniel family had to contend with a false alarm when Jorden was 11/2. His mother remembered how she and husband Patrick talked to daughters, Ashauntua and Peausha Daniel, and son Trevor Walker.
"It was hard on all of them," she remembered. "It was hardest on Trevor because he was so young."
Even though all the PeCans kids are doing well right now, they all know St. Jude friends who lost the fight. A recent update from the mom of one of those kids - who had the same kind of cancer as Sam and Jorden - put it in perspective for Farris.
"She would give up everything she has to be able to spend another Christmas with her special little boy," she said.
Contact Michaela Morris at (662) 678-1599 or firstname.lastname@example.org.