Dexter boy begins second cancer battle

Thursday, December 13, 2012

DEXTER, Mo. -- When 10-year-old Gaige Willems took to the basketball court last Tuesday night at Dexter's East Park gymnasium, he looked like a typical fourth-grader -- full of energy and enthusiasm. He spent the duration of the contest running up and down the court, rebounding and taking some solid shots. In Dexter's city leagues, the player's T-shirt color depicts the team's name. On Monday night, Gaige Willems' Black Team crushed the Blue Team 22 to 12, with significant credit going to Gaige.

The game was a special one for Gaige. It was almost certain that it would be his last game of the season, even though his team has a full schedule yet to play. The morning after the win, Gaige was in a St. Louis hospital to begin chemotherapy. Gaige has leukemia -- again.

Gaige won the hearts of the Dexter community in 2007 when, at 5 years old, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells most commonly found in children from 4 to 5 years old. Life for Gaige and his parents, Gerald and Misty Willems, and younger brother Jaydan changed forever.

Gaige was treated at Children's Hospital in St. Louis. At the time of his diagnosis, his bone marrow was already 48 percent involved. His treatment in 2007 was expedited in hopes of preventing the spinal cord from being affected. A Portacath was inserted near his collar bone, through which his chemotherapy was administered. Christmas was put on hold. The family remained initially in St. Louis for 28 days while Gaige underwent further testing and treatment.

Through 2008, the family traveled to St. Louis for treatments on a weekly basis, often returning two and even three times when Gaige's fever would spike or he would have other negative reactions to chemotherapy drugs. On three occasions during the winter of 2008, returns to Children's Hospital required multiday stays until doctors felt Gaige was stable enough to go home.

When Gaige took his final chemo treatment in April 2011, his parents decided to celebrate. They hosted a "No More Chemo" party at West City Park for the community that had seen them through the worst of times with monetary and other donations to help ease the financial burden of a cancer diagnosis.

Since then, Gaige was cancer free. He went back to school and thrived. Over the past year and one-half, the Willems have seen their son return to a picture of health. The puffiness caused by the therapy finally disappeared. His hair returned, and no more ball caps were needed to cover Gaige's bald head. His color came back, and finally, their son was healthy -- until last Monday.

The second time around

Misty Willems was prepared on the first of December to celebrate. In just a week, Gaige would reach the five-year mark since his initial diagnosis. The healthy, ball-playing fourth-grader was about to pass a milestone, and the family was going to mark the occasion. But the blood that was drawn during his Dec. 3 visit to Children's Hospital revealed the news. Gaige's acute lymphoblastic leukemia had returned.

It was a heavy blow. Misty was told the news first. Even though she had noticed the telltale signs of bruising on her son's legs like those that had prompted his initial doctor's visit five years ago, Gaige assured her it was from ball practice.

"They play hard," she explained, "and I guess a part of me knew, but I didn't want to believe it. He looked so healthy, and he was feeling so good, that I just couldn't believe it. I took it pretty hard. I was crying before the doctor got the words out of his mouth."

Because of his compromised immune system, Gaige continued to make monthly visits to Children's to receive therapy that strengthens his blood. His parents now credit those visits with the early finding of the leukemia's return.

Gaige's physician, Dr. Robert Hayashi, who serves as Children's Hospital Director of Hematology/Oncology Department, told Misty he himself wanted to tell Gaige.

"When I joined him, he was pretty upset," his mother recalled. "He kept telling me, 'I just got rid of it. I just want it gone.'"

And then he asked his mother, "Why?"

It's a question Misty and Gerald Willems had never entertained.

"I tried to tell him that there was a reason for everything -- that maybe another little boy would be helped later on from what he's going through right now."

Last week, Gaige underwent a bone marrow biopsy and a spinal tap in St. Louis and then began, once again, six different chemotherapy medications.

Misty Willems, in her usual fashion, is looking at the bright side of things.

"If we hadn't still been going back each month, they probably never would have caught it in its early stages," she noted. "And we've wanted the doctors to take the Portacath out for months, but now we realize there was a reason for that."

Hometown reaction

When the news of Gaige's leukemia recurrence reached his hometown, a plan was quickly developed to honor Gaige before Tuesday night's ballgame. A group of supporters managed to get Gaige a basketball jersey with his name on the back. After its presentation, Gaige's parents were presented with a $1,000 love offering from Scott Kruse, who heads the 18 Fore Life Charity.

"I think we overuse the term 'hero,'" Kruse told the crowd at the gym. "This little boy is a true hero. He knows what he's facing and all he wanted to do was to come out here tonight and play ball, and he did." Kruse further praised the courageous attitude of Gaige and the positive attitude of his family.

And so, for the second time in Gaige's brief 10 years, the holidays have taken an unexpected turn for the Willems family. But once again, with a caring community, an abundance of prayer lines and hopeful hearts, the family will go forward with every confidence of another positive outcome.

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