Austin: Conquering Cancer

Austin

Twelve-year-old Austin Gatus is holding his own after a 2½ -year battle against leukemia.

Twelve-year-old Austin has endured more than most adults do in their entire lifetimes. In his battle against leukemia, he has dealt with chemotherapy and severe complications. He has had seven surgeries and spent months at a time in a hospital bed at Rady Children’s. He missed out on the activities he enjoys most – shooting basketballs and playing the saxophone.

Austin is not yet a teenager and he has lost countless friends to cancer.

“I think cancer sucks and nobody should have to go through this,” writes Austin in his journal. His mother also rails against the unfairness of it all. “It’s still hard to believe Austin, my innocent child, got cancer,” she laments. It’s a rare outburst against the disease that has turned their lives upside down. For the most part, Austin and his entire family take his battle in stride.

In retrospect, his mother Eva realizes that there were signs that something might not be right. But, at the time, Austin’s early symptoms – muscle aches or occasional stomachaches and headaches – seemed inconsequential. It wasn’t until they were returning from a family vacation that his symptoms seemed severe enough to warrant an emergency trip to Rady Children’s. After blood tests and a bone marrow aspiration, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (also called Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia) is a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells. It is the most common leukemia in children. Last year, 5,200 new cases of ALL were diagnosed in the United States – an average of 6 out of 100,000. It appears most often in children younger than 10.

“Over the last three decades, we have made remarkable progress in ALL therapy,” says Dr. Eric Anderson, Austin’s oncologist. “Hopefully, over the next three decades, ALL will become a universally curable disease with minimal associated side effects.”

While the side-effects of chemotherapy can be extremely unpleasant, for Austin they were life-threatening.

He had a severe allergic reaction to the drugs, leading to pancreatitis (an inflammatory condition that occurs when pancreatic digestive enzymes attack the pancreas itself). Only 0.5 percent of children on chemotherapy get pancreatitis, but Austin was one of the unlucky few. He spent 45 days in the Ernest Hahn Critical Care Unit at Rady Children’s, with a collapsed lung and other complications.

For six weeks, Austin wasn’t allowed to eat or drink. His fluids were measured out in small medicine cups, which Austin hoarded so he could quench his almost unbearable thirst. Because of the severe pancreatitis, Austin had surgeries to remove his spleen and part of his pancreas, leaving him with a half-moon scar on his abdomen. Miraculously, he recovered.

Now he is doing everything he can to beat the cancer, including Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (see box below). Austin also gives back to other kids with cancer. He speaks at fundraisers, even playing his saxophone at the Dale Donnelly Memorial Golf Tournament to benefit Rady Children’s Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

For kids with leukemia, the overall survival rate after chemotherapy is nearly 80 percent. While the statistics are encouraging, Austin has had to watch too many friends who didn’t survive.

The hardest death for Austin to bear was his friend, mentor and fellow basketball aficionado Marlon Howe. The 21-year-old Marlon, 6 feet 9 inches tall and a McDonald’s All American Basketball Team nominee, was considered the ambassador of the Peckham Center and beloved by staff and patients alike. Despite their age difference, Marlon and Austin formed a special bond during the many months they were both hospitalized. Marlon’s death from bone cancer was a painfully difficult blow to Austin.

Despite all the hardships and setbacks, on some level, Austin’s multi-year odyssey is seen as a blessing. It has brought his family closer: mother Eva, father Willy and his three sisters, Angel, Katie and Aimee. Members of his extended family live nearby and have rallied around him. The 4th and 5th grade classes at his school in Rancho San Diego made Austin 1,000 golden-colored cranes. Their church, St. Luke’s, has nurtured the family’s faith and surrounded them with prayers. Most of all, Austin’s ordeal has taught all of them not to take anything in life for granted.

Austin is convinced he is going to beat his nemesis. “I don’t like cancer, but if I stay strong, take my medicine, and think happy thoughts, I will win my battle.”

And when he’s stronger and able to play competitive basketball again, Austin will dedicate every game to his buddy and hero, Marlon.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Cancer

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is a non-invasive medical treatment that is said to enhance the body’s natural healing process by exposing it to 100 percent oxygen at much higher than normal atmospheric pressure. Proponents of HBOT claim that broken bones will heal in about one-third of the normal time. Bacteria and fungus can be killed. And for cancer patients like Austin, it can boost the immune system.

Dr. Jennifer Willert, one of the specialists at Rady Children’s Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, has supported families who want to use HBOT as a supplement to their children’s conventional medical treatment for cancer. However, she is quick to point out that HBOT is controversial and any evidence of its benefits is mostly anecdotal. She is working with HBOT providers and other caregivers to research the effects of HBOT on Rady Children’s patients whose families have chosen to try this supplemental therapy.

Austin received two or three treatments a week at Healing Chambers of America, each session lasting an hour and a half. His mother, who accompanies him on his “dives,” thinks she receives positive benefits, as well. “What’s not to like about sitting quietly for an hour and breathing good, clean air?” Eva asks. For kids like Austin, it’s one more bit of ammunition in their arsenal of weapons against their potentially deadly disease.

Austin’s Battle against Leukemia by the Numbers

(Two years, from April 2006 through April 2008)

  • 5,726 pills taken orally
  • 135 clinic visits
  • 100 X-rays, MRIs, CT scans and echocardiograms
  • 89 days on steroids
  • 60 needle pokes/venal punctures
  • 29 injections via port
  • 15 spinal taps
  • 15 infusions (lipids)
  • 8 blood and platelet transfusions
  • 5 bone marrow aspirations
  • 5 surgeries, including a splenectomy (removal of the spleen) and a partial pancreatectomy (removal of part of the pancreas)

Originally published in Kids’ NewsDay, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 7, 2008.