Heart-wrenching photos of a 5-year-old girl gently supporting her 4-year-old brother as the side effects of chemotherapy disrupt their playtime have gone viral after their mother shared a raw post about how childhood cancer impacts the whole family.
“One thing they don’t tell you about childhood cancer is that it affects the entire family,” Kaitlin Burge, a mother of three from Princeton, Texas, wrote on Sept. 3. “You always hear about the financial and medical struggles, but how often do you hear about the struggles families with other children face? To some this may be hard to see and read. My two kids, 15 months apart, went from playing in school and at home together to sitting in a cold hospital room together.”
Burge had posted the photos on the “Beckett Strong” Facebook page, which was created after her son, Beckett, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in April 2018.
ALL is the most common form of leukemia found in children, and accounts for about 30 percent of all pediatric cancer. The disease affects the immature forms of white blood cells, called lymphocytes, which identify and destroy foreign proteins in the body. But with ALL, the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes that do not mature correctly and do not have the ability to fight infection, according to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
Symptoms may present as anemia, bleeding or bruising, bone and joint pain, recurrent fevers or infections, abdominal pain, swollen lymph nodes or difficulty breathing. Treatment typically takes place in three or more states and may consist of chemotherapy, blood transfusion, antibiotics, radiation or blood, and marrow transplantation.
In a previous post in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness, Burge said that Beckett’s daycare had called her on April 23, 2018, to ask her if she could come get him because he had been running a fever. An after-hours pediatric center diagnosed him with an ear infection and prescribed antibiotics. His regular pediatrician said that if his symptoms didn’t improve to come back or go to the emergency room. The next day, Beckett’s fever spiked to 104 and his doctor sent them to Children’s Health in Plano.
“I was expecting to hear he had a punctured eardrum or something he would bounce right back from with a few days of antibiotics. The ER nurse walked in about an hour later and had a portable cell phone in her hand,” Burge wrote, on Sept. 15, 2018. “She said ‘your pediatrician is on the phone and would like to speak with you.’ I figured he was just checking in. That’s the kind of guy he is and that’s why we love him. He informed us that the CT scan came with pneumonia in his left lung and his labs came back with a hemoglobin of 5.5 and a white blood cell count of 150,000. He then informed us that Beckett had leukemia.”
In the same post, Burge said she didn’t know much about leukemia, but that “this was cancer and cancer is never good.”
They were then transferred to a hospital in Dallas because Beckett was also suffering from acute respiratory failure and pneumonia in his left lung. After an initial stay in the ICU, he was well enough to transfer down to the pediatric cancer unit, and in September 2018, they were given his timeline for treatment, which is slated to end in August 2021. But it was her Sept. 3 post that caught most people’s attention, with photos of Beckett bracing himself on the toilet getting ready to vomit, and his older sister, 5-year-old Aubrey, gently rubbing his back.
“My then 4-year-old watched her brother go from an ambulance to the ICU,” Burge wrote. “She watched a dozen doctors throw a mask over his face, poke and prod him with needles, pump a dozen medications through his body, all while he laid there helplessly. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her brother, her best friend.”
“A little over a month after he was released from the hospital, she watched him struggle to walk and struggle to play,” Burge continued. “The lively, energetic, and outgoing little brother she once knew was now a quiet, sick and very sleepy little boy. He never wanted to play. She didn’t understand how he was able to walk before this, but now he can’t even stand unassisted. She didn’t understand the different therapies he had to attend to gain his strength back. To her, it was something special he got to do that she didn’t. Why couldn’t they go to their favorite trampoline park anymore? Why couldn’t they go to the splash pads they previously went to? Why didn’t he have to go back to school, but she did?”
Burge then explained why they allowed Aubrey to tag along for her brother’s treatments.
“Children need support and togetherness, and should not be kept at a distance from the person who is ill,” she wrote. “The most important thing is to show that they are taken care of regardless of the situation. She spent a fair amount of time, by his side in the bathroom, while he got sick. She stuck by him. She supported him and she took care of him, regardless of the situation. To this day, they are closer. She always takes care of him. Vomiting between play sessions. Waking up to throw up. Standing by her brother’s side and rubbing his back while he gets sick. Going from 30 lbs. to 20 lbs. This is childhood cancer. Take it or leave it.”
Burge’s post has been shared over 28,000 times, prompting her to share an updated photo of Beckett getting ready for his first day of school, as well as another of him sharing a bear hug with Aubrey. The post also inspired supporters to share photos of their own children supporting a sibling through a cancer diagnosis and illness.