‘Braver than any child should have to be’: A Mother’s Reflection on the Trials of Childhood Cancer

By: Brittany Magnus

Our son Cole was born on November 1, 2018. It’s fitting that he was born the day after Halloween: He loves all things spooky. Ghosts, bats, spiders, skeletons – you name it. He is the sweetest boy, and his nickname as a baby was ‘Sweet Baby Cole.’ He’s so loving, especially towards his big brother, Hudson, who is 7 years old. He loves chasing Hudson around the house while dancing to music and shrieking with laughter. No one can make him laugh quite like Hudson can. The two of them are inseparable.

Cole and Hudson have spent an irregular amount of time together over the last few years, due to isolation measures taken in light of Covid and Cole’s illness. In February of 2021, when Cole was 2, I noticed that he had a swollen lymph node beneath his ear. Over the next two months, we traveled to many doctor appointments, where multiple tests were run, including blood work, an ultrasound, a chest X-ray, and a CT scan with contrast. 

We were told many times that Cole did not have cancer – but, much to our horror, this turned out not to be true. After his biopsy, I received the phone call that every parent fears: Our child had cancer. We immediately rushed to Lurie Children’s to begin treatment.

After more testing, we learned that Cole has high risk B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The treatment plan is 3.5 years long. Cole’s high-risk treatment protocol has consisted of oral chemo, which he receives via his port; intrathecal chemo, which is injected into his spinal fluid; steroids that wreak havoc on his sweet personality; spinal taps, and much more. 

Cole’s treatment has not been without challenges. He’s had multiple complications, including norovirus; a staph infection in his port requiring removal and a new one placed; and a blood clot in his jugular vein requiring shots twice a day given by his dad, Brad. He also developed acute pancreatitis, which is incredibly painful. 

In spite of everything Cole has endured over the last few years, he still enjoys going to the hospital to visit his team, who he has formed a special bond with. Having a cheerful team makes this experience more tolerable. Brad and I have remained at peace, knowing our son is in the best hands possible. 

‘Cards for Cole’ Creates Community

Fortunately, Cole responded well to treatment – and as a family, we all had a part to play in keeping him healthy and strong. I wish people knew how lonely it is to be a childhood cancer family. We are often required to isolate ourselves for months at a time, going from attending sports practices, date nights, birthday parties to staying home 24/7, and leaving the house only for hospital visits or grocery pick-ups. 

We so badly needed the support of our community, especially Cole. During one of the hardest phases of treatment – delayed intensification – I created a “Cards for Cole” campaign. I asked people to send birthday cards to our sweet Cole since he was unable to have a party for his third birthday. 

The campaign blew up: We received 10,000+ cards and gifts – many of them spooky, which filled Cole with joy. We were interviewed on local news channels and shed light on our experience as a childhood cancer family. ‘Cards for Cole’ brought our family so much joy during an extremely difficult time. 

The community we found also filled us with the hope we needed. We received letters from childhood cancer survivors themselves, as well as letters from the siblings of survivors. It was comforting to read every letter and hear about how well they were doing today. We were shown how many wonderful people there are in the world. Some have continued to stay in touch, still sending balloon arches for Cole’s birthday each year. 

Cole is braver than any child should have to be. After a long course of treatment, thankfully, Cole rang the end-of-chemo bell in August 2023. We are so grateful that we were able to be treated at Lurie Children’s. 

Today, our family doesn’t take anything for granted. We're looking forward to our Make-a-Wish trip to Disney for Halloween and Cole's birthday. I'm looking forward to cozy movie nights at home; to the mundane normal moments that were stolen from us. We will continue to fight and raise awareness for our friends who are now angels. 

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