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‘Am I going to die?’

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11-year-old cancer survivor will speak at Relay kickoff Sunday

By Brad Bowman

Alex Mason started losing her appetite not just for food but school and her mother knew something was wrong.

Shelly Mason said she knew her child’s personality well enough that the change in behavior didn’t make sense. Within a six-week time frame, Alex, then 9, didn’t want to do her homework, had shortness of breath and was really tired. She stopped eating her dinner. Her mother thought maybe it was hormones or that Alex was getting bullied at school. Knowing her child saved her daughter’s life.

“I took her to a pediatrician. The symptoms didn’t seemed linked to anything specific, but I know my child,” Mason said. “I had doubts, but I encourage every parent to listen to their children and know their emotional needs. If I hadn’t been persistent, her diagnosis would’ve been delayed.”

Alex had a slight fever and after two days her mother made her a doctor’s appointment. Her flu test came back negative. Doctors thought Alex may have a virus and advised her mother to wait a couple of days.

“She had a fever of 99 degrees for 48 hours and I didn’t know what it was,” Mason said. “They did her blood work at the hospital. A pediatrician, not Alex’s normal doctor, called us at 8 p.m. that night. He didn’t tell me anything other than her blood work was bad and scheduled her the next day with a hematologist.”

Alex stayed in hospital and underwent a battery of tests: Parvovirus, mononucleosis, meningitis and immune disorders. After conducting a bone marrow aspiration, a sampling of Mason’s liquid marrow, the doctors found a mother’s fear to be true.

“She was getting worse by the day,” Mason said. “The doctors came and took me to a room, four of them, my legs felt like lead. They told me she had leukemia. They didn’t know which kind.”

Mason asked what the cure rate was and the doctors couldn’t give her an accurate answer. They didn’t know what type of leukemia Alex had. Some cells are more resistant to treatment than others depending on the type of leukemia, her age and whether the cancer  spread to her brain or spinal column.

“I didn’t know how to tell her. She knew they were doing a lot of tests. She knew they were looking for answers as to why she was sick,” Mason said. “I went back in her room and told her she had leukemia.”

Alex, then 9, asked two questions.

“I asked my mom if I was going to die and if I would lose my hair,” Alex said. “She told me my hair was going to fall out and she didn’t believe I was going to die.”

Alex’s doctor at Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati, was a childhood cancer survivor. She asked her doctor the same questions. After 28 days in the hospital, she found out the cure rate for her type leukemia — pre B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia — is 80 percent.

Mason worried about missing school. The hospital had teachers for childhood cancer patients. The aggressive chemotherapy treatment Mason takes in her spine accumulated to multiple hospital visits and a change of lifestyle.

“A few months after I had been diagnosed, I wore a hat and had no hair on top of my head,” Mason said. “For a while I wore wigs, I started wearing a bandanna because it wasn’t so hot. I would tell my mom I wish people would stop staring at me. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”

The Mason family is active at their church in Dover and the support was overwhelming. She received more than 300 cards in a matter of days of being hospitalized.

“She has had some setbacks with infections, that healthy people wouldn’t normally get, overall she has done very well,” Mason said. “Most adults wouldn’t be able to withstand the chemo she has had. The protocol for treatment is two and half years. She has been resilient.”

The oncologist told Mason in June 2011 that she was cancer free. She still receives treatments and will receive her last one in June with a five-year follow up. Mason’s cancer will be considered cured if it is in remission for five years.

“She left school as a fourth grader and now has returned as a sixth grader,” Mason said. “ As a mom it was hard for that, first time in my life I was her primary care giver and I had to stop working and she wanted to go to school and couldn’t. She is on the honor roll now and unless she is out for treatment she goes to school as often as she can. It’s been hard to adjust to normal after cancer. It has made us all different.”

Mason and her school counselor held an assembly after she went back to school. Her friends and other students had a lot of questions like if it hurt when she lost her hair. She told her classmates what having cancer felt like. The Mason family wants to do what they can to repay the kindness they received.

“She talks to other kids and adults who have cancer. A friend of mine said it was because of Alex that their dad lived a bit longer with cancer and continued to fight,” Mason said. “The uncertainty of what the future holds definitely puts a new perspective on things. If someone has cancer Alex wants to talk with them. We want to give back to others through Relay so we can repay what everyone has done for us.”

At 11, Alex has her own Relay for Life team and co-chairs the junior committee in her county. She spoke in Alabama for the American Cancer Society. Mason will be the guest speaker at the Relay for Life Kick Off Jan. 20 at the Henry County Extension Agency. Alex loves talking in front of people and it helps her by helping other people.

“Don’t give up, just keep God with you and pray,” she said. “You have to hope for everything good to happen. Don’t look for the negative things, never surrender, and stay strong.”