No one wants to hear the words, “you have cancer.” Most especially no parent wants to hear that when it comes to their child. Yet for two Oakdale families it is a fate which has brought them both together in what would be one of the worst springs of their life.
Early this year, Adam and Kim French would be the first to hear those words, after their son Collin began complaining of muscle pain several months ago.
Not one to be ill often and a pretty tough kid, the French family visited their doctor in late 2018. Routine testing throughout the next few months showed nothing abnormal.
“It was like pulled muscle pain,” Collin’s mother Kim shared. But in early spring it took 17 minutes for her son to walk the mile to school.
One day in March, the then 10-year-old began crying due to the pain.
“I just had this horrible feeling for months that something was wrong,” Kim said. “He’s taken more ibuprofen than we’ve taken. But when we got the bloodwork back I was told it was normal.”
Both frustrated and concerned that locally no answers had been found, Kim placed her son in the car and drove to Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera while her husband Adam, a firefighter, was on a five-day shift.
By midnight that day, the couple knew they were either facing an autoimmune disease or leukemia. Collin was admitted to the blood cancer ward and the next day learned he had leukemia.
Back in Oakdale, word of the Fair Oaks student’s diagnosis traveled throughout the school, as staff and students began making cards and care packages for the family and their fellow Falcon.
Jo Adams, an instructional aide at the elementary school, was one such staffer who learned of the French family’s new challenge. Little did she know what lie ahead for her and her own family, the very next month.
“Luke had not been feeling well,” she said of her seventh grade son, then 13. “Probably the second week of April, his energy wasn’t great. We’d gone through a whole round of the flu in the house. So I thought maybe that’s what’s going on.”
The mother of two shared not wanting to over react, she tried managing the “flu” from home.
“There was something in the back of my head though,” Jo said.
On his insistence Luke traveled with his dad Bill to Las Vegas for an annual ‘guys trip.’ Bill shared with Jo during the trip that Luke wasn’t right the whole time. On the way home he fainted.
Bill drove their son straight to Modesto to their pediatrician who then sent them to Doctors Medical to the emergency room. A blood transfusion was immediately given to Luke. Jo met them in the ER.
“As soon as I walked in the doctor said leukemia,” Jo shared, choking back emotion.
“He was not doing well. He had a fever, his red blood cell count was extremely low,” she continued. “It was really, really bad. I could see that they were concerned.”
Within a few hours of the couple hearing this news, their son was medi-flighted to Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera.
By the time Luke arrived, Collin’s 12-day stay at Valley Children’s had concluded. Two of those days were spent in the ICU, where Collin’s port was put in and bone marrow taken. Fluid was also removed from his hips.
“He has permanent damage because of the fluid that built up on his hip joints because of the leukemia cells that were in the bone marrow,” Kim shared. “It made the bone swell and so his bones leaked fluid on his hip joints. He’ll need a hip replacement at 25.”
“They react very fast,” Jo added of the Valley Children’s medical team. “They put him on a plan immediately. It’s very overwhelming.”
Luke spent an initial 10 days in the hospital before being sent home. But he wouldn’t remain there long. Less than 24 hours after being home he spiked a fever and had to return to Madera for care.
“By the time we got to the ER at Valley Children’s, he almost died,” Jo recalled. “He had a fever so high we were packing him in ice and blankets. This went on for hours.”
During the following two days, as they waited for his Luke’s levels to drop, Jo shared the medical team prepared the couple for the fact that their son might not make it through.
At one point, the seventh grader was coherent and asked his father if he was going to die.
“Bill got right eye level with him and said I need you to fight,” Jo said of her husband’s response. “He’s a strong kid.”
Luke spent a total of 43 days in the hospital.
Life now for the two families looks little if anything like it did before hearing those words. The two moms now speak of bleach wipes, hand sanitizer, treatment plans and protecting their boys.
“One week at a time,” Kim said of life post diagnosis. “First it was one day, now it’s let’s look at one week. We focus on phases of treatment now.”
“You change everything,” Jo said, “the first few days I felt like I had a newborn again. The way they explained it to me, is that you can’t live in a bubble you have to manage your risk.”
“It affects the other child, they can’t do anything,” Kim said of managing that risk. “You can’t go anywhere or do anything for the first year for sure. You’re on lockdown and the other child can’t have friends over.”
Cancer is truly a family disease, impacting everyone in the household in a variety of ways.
“I don’t want to be that person that says, you can’t bring your children to my house but ... you can’t bring your children to my house,” Kim continued matter-of-factly, noting the importance of germ management as the boys rebuild their immunity.
Both mothers shared that the bond they’ve fostered through the nightmare experience has indeed been a silver lining. They often run into one another while the boys undergo treatment at Valley Children’s or simply check in on one another as they learn to now do everyday life in a much different way than in the past.
“I’d tell Bill, I just want to wake up,” Jo said of the days first spent in the hospital.
“I’d wake up in the hospital and think where I am? I feel like we’re in a nightmare,” Kim added.
“You’ve got to find your silver linings where they are,” Jo continued. “You’ve got to have humor.”
What both families have also learned is it doesn’t hurt to have community. Since learning of the families’ struggles, many local businesses have hosted fundraisers to help offset the medical costs not covered through insurance.
“It’s overwhelming in a very positive way,” Kim said of the community support.
“Don’t know how we ever could have done it without the support,” Jo added.
“Just a huge thank you,” Kim offered to the community. “Just the positive support is what’s pulled us through. When we were really crying and upset, we’d read all the positive cards and thoughts … that really pulled us through the dark.”
“The most eye-opening for me, my step mom pointed this out and it’s true,” Jo shared. “When you see the Facebook stories and the memes you have no idea really what’s behind all that until you’re there. What’s involved with “I have cancer.”
With the boys now 11 and 14, both moms shared Collin and Luke have already begun speaking of life post-cancer and treatment. Looking to their future, filled with both good health and hope.
A fundraiser benefitting the two families will be hosted on Saturday, July 20 at Reece Farms in Farmington. Gates open at 5 p.m. and tickets are $15 per person. A no host bar, food vendors and a concert will be part of the event. For additional information or to make a donation contact Bob Lutz at (209) 649-0950.