By Erica Thomas, managing editor
TRUSSVILLE — Every three minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer. Despite billions of dollars pouring into cancer research around the world, only 4% of money raised for research and support go specifically towards childhood cancer. That is why September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and why five Trussville families are speaking out.
Four elementary-aged children in Trussville are currently fighting cancer and one passed away earlier this year. Their families hope the community spreads awareness by putting up gold ribbons during the month of September and donating to the cause.
Here are their stories:
For a year and a half, Ford Bertram has been battling leukemia. His mother, Amelia Bertram has been experiencing a part of motherhood she never expected. After realizing just how many children are diagnosed with cancer each year, Bertram said she felt the need to spread the word.
“I think considering we have so many kids in the community that are currently battling it, it should be known and people in the community should be aware,” Bertram said.
Ford is currently in the “maintenance” phase of his treatment. He still has to take chemotherapy every day. His mom says that at one point during his treatment he lost all of his hair. Although his hair has now grown back, Bertram said that doesn’t mean his battle is over.
“People see a child with their hair and think that child doesn’t take chemo anymore,” Bertram said. “That just means he’s taking a chemo that doesn’t cause hair loss.”
Bertram says she has learned that the cancer treatments that children go through are no different than the cancer treatments adults go through. That means their little bodies are pushed to the limit to fight off the disease. Even after they get to ring the remission bell at the hospital, all parents of children with cancer know the impact treatment has on their bodies can be felt for years to come.
“Ford still suffers from all sorts of side effects of chemotherapy and it’s really going to be a lifelong thing for him, even after the cancer is gone,” Bertram explained. “That’s why I feel it’s important to spread awareness.”
The people of Trussville and surrounding communities have come together to support the Bertram family throughout Ford’s fight for his life. And as Amelia Bertram continues to help her son get through the bad days, she has needed that support more than ever.
“It’s bad enough to see anyone go through cancer but it’s really bad to see a child go through it and they do it with such grace,” Bertram added.
Ford goes to Paine Elementary School, where his grandmother, Lisa Lothspeich, is the principal. Lothspeich hopes the community gets behind the worthy cause.
“There are financial donations that can be made for research,” Lothspeich said. “But I think the other thing is just to learn from the situation because I know for me personally, it’s just taught me, being around these kids and having this in my own family, this is a place we never thought we would be. It’s taught me so many things about showing empathy to people and just showing kindness.”
Lothspeich said although she is an educator, the children have taught her more than she could ever teach them.
“They have taught me to look for blessings in every situation, regardless of how difficult,” Lothspeich continued. “And just to learn from these kids who are so resilient. They’re such an inspiration and they can inspire us to be better people.”
Ford’s grandmother said going through this with her grandson has put things into perspective.
“The little things don’t get to me as much,” Lothspeich added. “He has just inspired me in that way. If there’s ever something I want to complain about, I just look at him and say, ‘No, you’re not going to complain about that, that’s nothing.’ His resilience and his sheer joy that he shows every day. Even though he’s been through so much, he’s joyful and he finds good in people and he doesn’t complain.”
A first-grader at Paine Elementary, Nolan Trowbridge is in the midst of a tough fight. He is currently doing his work from home because he is undergoing treatments for leukemia.
His father, Stewart Trowbridge, said the family got the diagnosis when Nolan was only three years old.
“Our world just collapsed, more or less,” Trowbridge said.
It all started when Nolan began to have frequent fevers.
“He just kept getting a fever and he got a couple of fevers three or four weeks in a row,” Trowbridge said of the beginning of his son’s journey. “He would get better and then once he would get off the medicine, he would get sick again.”
Blood tests showed something was very wrong, so the family was sent to Children’s of Alabama, where they found out the problem was acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
On Dec. 5 of 2020, Nolan had fought off the leukemia and was told he was in remission. But just a few months later, in March of 2021, they learned the cancer had come back. So, he is currently continuing his fight by undergoing aggressive treatments.
“Right now, he goes to the hospital once if not twice a week to get various types of chemo,” said Trowbridge. “Last week he got a blood transfusion, he got platelets. One day he is going to be admitted into the hospital to get put on a medicine 24/7.”
The Trowbridge’s hope Nolan can go back to school in January or February of next year. Until then, Stewart Trowbridge said he wants to help raise awareness about childhood cancer.
“My big thing is, I want people to know that it’s a longer process than people really realize,” he added. “Even though a child has hair, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the cancer is gone. Nolan has his hair right now and he looks like a typical kid, but he’s still fighting the battle of his life.”
The family moved to Trussville in 2010 and had their two boys here. They said they appreciate the support they have received from the community, Paine Elementary School, and First Baptist Church Trussville.
The church has helped with a T-shirt fundraiser, as well as with schedules at the WEE Center. The people in the Rivercrest subdivision, where the Trowbridge’s live, have put up gold ribbons on their mailboxes to raise awareness and the annual Trussville Witches Ride will benefit Nolan this year.
The Trowbridges said they have bonded with families at Children’s of Alabama, including the Bertram family. He said having that support system has been beneficial for everyone.
Of the three children at Paine Elementary currently battling cancer, 10-year-old Caleb Wilson has a unique case.
Caleb has neurofibromatoses, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form along nerve tissue.
When he was born with multiple birthmarks, his mother, Heather, said doctors told her it wasn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, it became a big deal. He eventually was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Then, Wilson noticed something different in her son’s foot. She said one foot looked flat.
“Just one of Caleb’s feet was flat,” said Wilson. “The pediatrician said it was fine and he was just flat-footed, but I’m like, ‘Only in one foot?” said Wilson. “So, at that time, we knew that he had a brain tumor. It wasn’t an issue. It hadn’t moved or grown but when we got the new pediatrician, he wanted a full MRI scan.”
It was in 2018 when the new pediatrician learned that the tumor in Caleb’s foot was wrapped around his sciatic nerve and it was causing a lot of pain.
“That foot that wasn’t just flat, it was really a plexiform tumor and those kind of tumors aren’t a solid tumor, they grow like a bag of worms,” Wilson explained. “We found that out and then they called and said, ‘By the way, his brain tumor has grown.”
Although the growth of the brain tumor wasn’t significant, the doctors noticed there was cancer in it. Caleb was put on a chemotherapy pill but it was too strong for Caleb’s body.
“So, all last school year, he had no chemo, his tumor in his brain hadn’t grown anymore and his foot tumor had kind of stayed stable,” Wilson said. “But then on the last week of June, they called me and said that after his last MRI, his tumor had grown and it is now two centimeters big in his brain and his vision has decreased. He went from 20/20 to 20/40 vision in eight weeks.”
At that point, the Wilsons decided to put Caleb back on chemotherapy. Although the cancer in Caleb’s brain is isolated, it sits on his optic nerve. Caleb has a port and is currently on two types of chemo, but he isn’t letting it stop him from experiencing life with his peers at Paine Elementary School.
“I’m telling you, he is a trooper,” Wilson exclaimed. “Last week, he had chemo on Wednesday and he wanted to go to school on Thursday.”
When he woke up Thursday morning, Caleb insisted on going to school like every other child.
“He woke up and he looked at me and he said, ‘Mom, I want to be normal, and I want to go to school,” Wilson said. “And so we got in the car. He was throwing up all that morning before he went to school. He went to school all day, got in the car, he was really tired when he got home but he went ahead and laid his clothes out and he was determined to go to school and be with his new friends.”
Caleb has a long road ahead of him and that isn’t something that is lost on the Wilson family. He has 70 weeks of treatment for the brain tumor and has to wear a leg brace, in the meantime, for the tumor in his foot. After he completes treatment for the brain tumor, Wilson said Caleb will then begin treatment on the foot tumor. Heather Wilson said her son will continue this cycle throughout his life.
“We won’t ever hit remission,” Wilson added. “We see it time and time again, and it’s such a beautiful thing in Children’s Hospital, where the kids walk out and all of the family is there with cookies and signs and balloons for their last day of chemo. With this being a genetic disease in Caleb, we’ll never hit remission. It will be something he will have to live with his whole life.”
Heather said when she was pregnant, like all other moms, when someone asked if she wanted a girl or a boy, she always said she just wanted it to be healthy. Although most moms usually say the same thing, she said her experience with Caleb has really put the weight of that statement into perspective.
“I don’t think we realize how much power is really behind what we’re saying,” Wilson explained. “That right there, we are learning to count the small victories like, waking up and being pain-free. As a mom, I am learning that the small victories throughout the day are huge and I’ve overlooked some of them. Every day is a beautiful thing that I get to wake up and my body functions normal. Caleb doesn’t have that.”
And another blessing for the Wilson family has been finding out that their eight-year-old son, Gavin, has no signs of the genetic disorder.
Cahaba Elementary second-grader Roy Yu was diagnosed with leukemia less than two months ago. At just six years old, the little giver is now taking on the fight of his life.
“He always remembers his family and friends,” said his father, Kenny Yu. “He always says, ‘Do you need anything? I will make something for you.’ If we go to a restaurant, he will give his hamburger to everyone.”
Amy Lee, Roy’s grandmother, said at first, the family thought Roy’s lack of energy was due to laziness. She said there’s a lesson there.
“We used to just think that he was lazy,” said Lee. “You know, when we used to go out he would always say that he was tired or sleepy. We just always said, ‘Come on boy, let’s move! But maybe we should listen more to a child. When they say something, we just have to listen to them.”
The family also noticed that Roy would fall down a lot. But it wasn’t until he was pushed and had a leg injury that they found out the problem was much bigger. The leg injury wouldn’t go away and his pain was excruciating for weeks. After several trips to the emergency room, he was admitted into the hospital for two weeks for tests. Roy now undergoes chemotherapy treatments every week.
Even though the treatments take a toll on his little body, Roy is still concerned about everyone else. When they go shopping, the family said, Roy always has a list of what everyone else wants from the store.
“He is really a really sweet boy, explained Lee. “Instead of us comforting him, he wants to comfort us.”
And for his mother, Ivey, and his father, it is hard to watch.
“When he cries, I want to cry,” Kenny Yu said. “I can’t do anything. It makes me so sad.”
The treatments sometimes make Roy irritable, so the family has had to explain to his sister, Amy, why he is having mood swings.
“Roy knows he has leukemia but he doesn’t understand what leukemia is,” Kenny Yu said. “We have to explain to his sister what it is so they don’t fight as much.”
Roy’s chance of survival is 90% but he will have to continue treatment for at least two years.
Lee said she would like to know of other families dealing with childhood cancer so they can learn from each others’ experiences.
“We were going to do whatever we could to give her the best chance.”
Those are the words of a grieving mother. A mother that has fought alongside her daughter. Lori Richey, and her husband, Shon, dedicated the past two years to try their best to help their daughter, Avery, as she battled cancer. On May 17, 2021, their little girl took her last breath.
Avery’s journey began in 2019, at the age of five. The family noticed some changes and knew they had to get her checked out.
“She started randomly complaining about some headaches and was having some balance issues,” Lori Richey said.
After visits to the doctor, she was sent for an MRI. The day before Avery was supposed to start kindergarten, the Richey’s heard the news that they knew would impact the rest of their lives.
“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘She’s supposed to start kindergarten tomorrow,” Richey remembered. “It was shocking to know that the rest of everything that we had planned was going to be changed significantly.”
Avery had a brain tumor. It was the last thing the family expected and it was the beginning of an almost two-year battle for Avery’s life. Instead of starting school, Avery was hospitalized for 12 days while undergoing surgery to remove the tumor. During that time, the family learned the diagnosis was cancer: medulloblastoma, to be exact.
” At first, I was thinking a concussion, maybe even nothing,” said Richey. “So that was definitely not what we were expecting.”
Avery went through chemotherapy on and off from September of 2019 until the end of January 2020. The treatments were hard on her body and things never seemed to go as planned.
“We had three different rounds for four days,” said Richey. “Usually, you’re supposed to go home around day seven. We always ended up either not getting to leave or ending up back in the E.R. with a neutropenic fever, which means when your immune system is completely gone and you have a fever and have to be treated.”
From August through January, Avery spent 150 nights in the hospital. In January of 2020, a hopeful treatment: A bone marrow transplant. Avery was her own donor and the family had hope.
“You’re given statistics and we were given numbers but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter,” Richey said. “You know, it’s either you’re going to survive or you’re not. It’s hard to put your child in a number range, in a statistic. But when we came out of bone marrow, all of her scans showed no evidence of the disease. So, recurrence was possible but we were thankful that we had gotten it.”
Avery was discharged from the hospital in February and was given scans every three months. Her May 2020 scans were clear. But in August of 2020, things changed.
“We found out in her scans that her cancer had come back very aggressively,” Richey said. “She had multiple tumors on her brain and throughout her spine.”
During this time, the family knew they had to explain things to their 10-year-old twins, Ella and Lexi.
“We obviously tried to remain hopeful and we knew we had options to treat but our team was very honest and we knew upfront that our chance of a forever cure was very, very small,” Richey said. “But we were going to do whatever we could to give her the best chance.”
Having that discussion with two children about their sister was very difficult, Richey said.
But the fight continued. From August 2020 until April 2021, Avery was given the best treatments available at Children’s of Alabama. At that point, the family said days and holidays became a blessing. They were thankful for every moment and appreciated the small things much more.
“It wasn’t so much fear at that point, it was just gratitude for what we were given,” Richey explained.
Avery’s body had a positive initial response to treatment but then, Richey said it stopped working.
“Her body was just so tired,” she said. “While we did receive good results initially when we had scans in April, it showed progression. There’s only just so much you can take.”
Avery’s hearing was already impacted to the point she would’ve needed hearing aides and she lost her vision due to the cancer being in her brain. The family made the difficult decision to stop treatment on April 28, 2021. From that point on, her mother said she slept a lot and was in palliative care at Children’s. Her mother and father were able to be by her side during that time.
On May 17, the fight ended. Little Avery passed away.
“As much as it hurt, we had a peace with knowing that she wasn’t suffering anymore,” said Richey.
Richey said that’s all the family could ask for. Her pain and suffering was over, although theirs had only just begun.
“We wanted her to be healed,” she said with tears. “My husband and I said over and over again that we would take her suffering and trade places with her in a minute. And essentially, that’s what happened. You know, she was healed and went to Heaven, and now we’re suffering without her.”
Throughout the heartbreaking process, the family has realized more can be done for childhood cancer.
“Until we became a childhood cancer family, we didn’t know how many families in Alabama, and let alone now in Trussville, were going through this battle,” Richey said. “We didn’t know the odds that were stacked up against these kids and the lack of funding.”
The Richey family wants more money to go towards pediatric cancer research.
“All of the chemotherapy drugs that Avery was on were for adult cancers,” said Richey. “None of them were made specifically for children and none of them were even invented in the past 20 or 30 years. Kids are not just little adults but that’s how they’re treated in the cancer world. They’re having to get things that may not affect adults so badly but for a developing, growing child, it could be detrimental to their future life.”
That is why Lori Richey is speaking out. She is now fighting for other families.
“As a parent that’s lost a child, it drives me to help raise awareness and get help for these other families,” Richey added. “And maybe one day, in the not-so-distant future, maybe another family won’t have to go through what we’ve gone through.”
If you want to join the cause, Children’s of Alabama is “Committed to a Cure” and has several ways you can help. Click here for more information.