Twelve-year-old Cameron McGeorge swings an empty milk jug in his left hand, explaining that he’ll use it to make an African mask in his social studies class the next day. His face is animated as he talks about forming an elephant trunk from the plastic, hands flying to point out which parts to cut, which to bend inward.
His favorite class is language arts, he says. He tells a funny story he’d like to write someday about two boys who get sucked into an elaborate scheme involving an endangered species.
Today, Cameron is a vibrant young boy on the cusp of adolescence, the very picture of health and vitality. But his parents can recall a time when Cameron’s body was so weakened by chemotherapy that he had to crawl to reach his toys, only to find that he was then too tired to play with them.
The McGeorges’ nightmare began one day when Cameron was only 3 years old. He was at his grandparents’ house when his grandmother found a lump that could be felt on his back and stomach. Startled, Cameron’s mother and father, Carla and Marvin, called their son’s pediatrician. He wanted to see Cameron immediately.
“The doctor knew right away, as soon as he felt it,” Carla says. An ultrasound at Boone Hospital Center confirmed that Cameron had a Wilms’ tumor, a rare kidney cancer that most often afflicts children younger than 5. Standard treatment involves surgery to remove the affected kidney followed by chemotherapy and, if the cancer is advanced, radiation.
“I think we were all in shock,” Carla says. “I was in ‘mommy survivor mode.’ I didn’t really react too much at the time. You want your kid to survive and you’ll do whatever it takes.”
The McGeorges set off that very day for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis where Cameron was to undergo surgery. While they waited for the scheduled operation, Marvin and Cameron went to a barber shop and had their heads shaved.
But when the oncologist attempted to remove the affected organ, he found that the stage 2 tumor was actually wrapped around both of Cameron’s kidneys.
“He said it was unlike anything they’d ever seen before,” Carla says. “He couldn’t remove the kidney because the tumor was attached to both, so he tried to save both kidneys. They didn’t know if either kidney would work,” she says.
Cameron’s family and supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief when the doctors soon found that his kidneys were functioning properly. Nevertheless, the toddler still had a very difficult recovery ahead of him. In the days following his surgery, the McGeorges would watch helplessly as their child’s lips sometimes turned blue and his alarms went off.
“He would say, ‘Help calm me down, Mommy,’ and I would sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ ” Carla says.
One week later, Cameron was cleared to return home to Ashland. Marvin and Carla brought him to his Columbia pediatrician once a week for one type of chemotherapy treatment and to Cardinal Glennon every three weeks for another. The medication made Cameron so ill that he still remembers waking up and discovering that he’d been sick in the middle of the night. His parents had to monitor the 3-year-old very closely.
“There was one night when we were sitting in the bathroom and he was sick,” Carla says. “I sat on this little stepstool in there and Cam sits in my lap, and I’m crying. And he looks at me and says, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘Because you’re so sick and there’s nothing I can do to help you.’ ” Cameron then began patting his mother’s back, telling her it would be OK, “and that just made it worse,” she says. She was trying to comfort her son but instead he was comforting her.
The support of the McGeorges’ family and friends never faltered. “I remember people being kind and showing a lot of sympathy,” Cameron says.
But sometimes strangers were unintentionally cruel. Cameron lost so much muscle mass that his arms often fell out of their sockets, and he rarely had enough energy to play. Marvin and Carla pushed him in a stroller or carried him because he was too tired to walk.
“People would get onto me for packing him,” Carla says. “They’d say, ‘He’s too old for you to pack him like that. He should be walking.’ ” Didn’t they notice how thin he was, his bald head and pallid skin tone? she wondered.
But much like the night sky is scattered with the occasional star, those dark days were punctuated by some rare moments of transcendent clarity and sometimes even happiness.
One such moment occurred about a month after Cameron’s surgery, when he told his mother that he saw angels.
“I didn’t really know what to say, so I just didn’t really say anything,” Carla says. She thought her son was just expressing an odd, stray thought, as children often do, and believed that he would forget all about it. Instead, “he was persistent,” she says. One day when Cameron brought it up again, Carla asked, “Well, what do angels look like?”
Cameron told her that when he was in the hospital, he’d gone to the gates of heaven and played with little boy and little girl angels who were all bald like him. God had told him it wasn’t time, he said, and a really good angel had brought Cameron back to his hospital bed.
Cameron then asked Carla about a man in a family photo that had always been displayed in their home. When she explained that it was a picture of Cameron’s Great-Uncle Billy, the little boy replied, “Oh. Well that’s the really good angel that brought me back to my hospital bed.”
Billy Mordica, the relative in the photo, had died of cancer many years prior.
Angels and illness aside, Cameron was still a regular little boy who was thrilled to go to Disney World, a trip The Dream Factory facilitated for him. “That was really fun. I remember petting dolphins,” he says. The not-for-profit organization also arranged an extra, smaller trip to Six Flags in St. Louis for Cameron and other kids with cancer, another good memory from a period when good memories were too few. Now Cameron gives back by making and donating model Corvettes to be auctioned off for The Dream Factory.
That autumn after Cameron’s surgery, he completed his chemotherapy and was officially in remission from cancer. Thin and short-haired but in good spirits, the boy attended the American Cancer Society Relay For Life for the first time that June. He was named the honorary chairperson for the fundraiser.
It was the beginning of an important family tradition. The McGeorges have become very involved with Relay For Life, and Cameron’s relay team, Cam’s Cancer Crusaders, has attracted a following so large and loyal that a second team had to be added.
Cameron has been in remission now for nine years. He has been diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes, both likely caused by the chemotherapy treatments he had to endure.
“It’s been a hard journey,” Carla says. “It’s changed me completely. For the better, because we like to give back to the American Cancer Society and The Dream Factory. I’d say it’s brought us a lot closer as a family. It was very hard to cope with, but I think it’s made us stronger. I don’t take things for granted like I used to.”
Cameron, too, says he has been changed “a little” by his battle with cancer. Despite his young age, he has already lost friends to cancer. Some of the elements of his “Cam’s Cancer Crusaders” T-shirts honor one such friend. His parents believe that Cameron is more caring and braver than other kids his age because of the crisis he endured.
“The only thing that makes me a little jittery is going to the dentist,” he says matter-of-factly.
Spoken like a true 12-year-old.
Relay For Life: ‘Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back’
The Relay For Life began in 1985 with a Tacoma, Wash., doctor who had a big heart and incredible physical stamina. Surgeon and marathon runner Gordy Klatt first ran on a university track for 24 hours to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Friends and family members donated money to be permitted to run or walk with Klatt, and that night the doctor raised $27,000 while logging more than 83 miles.
Klatt believed that an overnight, team relay event could become a successful fundraiser. He and a woman named Pat Flynn decided to organize such an event, and in 1986 the American Cancer Society Relay For Life was born. Today’s relay participants form fundraising teams and at least one member of each team walks or runs on the track at all times, a representative act that acknowledges that cancer never sleeps.
At Relay For Life, team members and supporters participate in activities that embody the event’s motto: “Celebrate, remember, fight back.” Cancer survivors walk the Survivors’ Lap to celebrate life. Luminaries are lit to remember those who have lost their lives to cancer, and a Fight Back Ceremony encourages people to make a personal commitment to fighting cancer.
This year’s Boone County Relay For Life is June 11–12 at the Rock Bridge High School track. At press time, Boone County teams had raised $47,000. To make a donation or learn more, visit the national Relay For Life website at www.RelayForLife.org or the Boone County event website at www.relayforlife.org/boonecomo.