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A faraway place and an unimaginable path– this is what cancer is to a young parent. It is always an unexpected diagnosis regardless of family history or past exposures. Words do not matter anymore; nothing does, not after you hear that terrible word come from a pediatrician’s mouth, “cancer.” All you hear next is the dull throb of your pounding heart and the room-silencing ringing of denial in your ears. I am writing this on a two-year-old child’s birthday. This two-year-old is suffering from a form of childhood cancer known as a Wilms’ Tumor. His name is Abel McBride.
I had the chance to talk with Abel’s mother Danielle McBride about their journey through childhood cancer and the unique path they have chosen for their child. Abel’s father Andy could not be present. Andy has to remain back home in Pilot Rock, a small town in Eastern Oregon to take care of their six-year-old son, John, and continue working his job.
Abel was diagnosed on March 17th, 2013, with stage two Wilm’s Tumor (nephroblastoma), which in his case was a very large tumor that completely overtook his right kidney. Complications during surgery led to his tumor rupturing during removal, which ultimately boosted him to a stage three diagnosis. This is his story.
BRANDON KRENZLER: As parents, would you take us back to that fateful day Abel was diagnosed, and tell us about it?
DANIELLE MCBRIDE: The emergency room visit that led to the discovery of the tumor was because we thought he had a stomach virus. Abel had been experiencing bouts of nausea; he complained of stomach pain and began refusing food. When the doctor ordered a blood test and an MRI, Andy and I realized the situation was much more serious than we had initially thought. After the tests were performed, the doctor came back with the most terrifying word we had ever heard, cancer. Next we were told that a Nephrectomy (kidney removal) was necessary in his treatment, this added to the terror. We were frightened for his life, this was our little boy.
BK: How did you react to the news?
DM: I remember being relatively calm. To be honest when the doctor said ‘tumor’ it really never crossed our mind it could be cancerous. When that part was discovered, we were devastated. That’s the word you hope you never have to hear, especially concerning your children. We knew it was going to change his whole life and ours as a family.
DK: Between the time of the diagnosis and the onset of the use of the cannabis, can you describe Abel’s condition?
DM: He was, of course, miserable. Surgery took its toll on him, but it was when he started treatment that we began to see horrifying changes. When radiation started he became violently ill. He was constantly throwing up, he couldn’t keep food down, so he again began refusing to eat. He was very lethargic, he would pass entire days just laying around. He cried a lot from pain, we would see tears rolling even if there were no cries attached to them, and those are sometimes the most heartbreaking. Shortly after radiation started taking its toll, the chemotherapy he was prescribed started. With the new treatment, Abel’s nausea, pain and lethargy only grew worse. He lost about five or six pounds. He was so little I could see every rib in his side, and every vertebra in his spine. We had to watch our little boy suffer, living with a miserable quality of life.
BK: Would you share how you learned of cannabis, its medicinal properties and how you made the decision to use it on your son?
DM: We owe our education about cannabis to my longtime friend, Erin Purchase’s daughter, Brave Mykayla. My husband and I followed her story for months; we were so inspired by it. My mother suffered from cancer when I was a child and though I was young, I can remember what she went through, what she looked like… she looked sick. As Mykayla’s journey progressed, we continued to see how happy she was and how healthy she looked, I decided then, not knowing what was to come, that if I were ever to be in the same situation as her parents, I would also choose cannabis to save my child. As soon as Abel was diagnosed, we reached out to Mykayla’s mother, Erin, and asked her to guide us and to help get this medicine for our son.
BK: What went through your mind the first time you administered medical marijuana to Abel?
DM: I was absolutely excited. I wasn’t afraid. I had seen the amazing results with Mykayla, and Abel was deteriorating so quickly right before our eyes, I was ecstatic at the possibility of seeing some positive results. That day was the first time I saw him truly smile in weeks. Shortly after his first dose took effect, he was hungry and asking for food. His horrible nausea completely disappeared, and soon he was up and playing, tugging at me to play along.
BK: What observed effects has cannabis had on Abel in terms of improving his quality of life?
DM: I believe cannabis is saving his life. Witnessing the difference before and after has been black and white. If a random person were to see him walking down the street, they wouldn’t even be able to tell he was sick. Abel looks, acts and eats like a normal toddler. This natural medicine is helping him maintain some of his childhood. It is giving us as parents’ reassurance he won’t ever have to face this again. With cannabis, he has more energy and is generally happier throughout the days. Just like every other little boy, he plays, laughs and smiles like there’s nothing wrong at all. He has gained back a large portion of his lost weight. Our little boy is not just surviving, he’s thriving right through childhood cancer, and the treatment associated with it.
BK: What was his doctor’s reaction when you told them you were treating Abel with cannabis?
DM: His doctor is currently aware of his cannabis use. To be honest I don’t know how to answer this question because we almost never see her. The nurses he interacts with daily are shocked he hasn’t had to take any of his prescribed medicine (two nausea meds, laxatives and pain medicine). Every time they see him, they shower him with compliments on how healthy and happy he appears to be.
BK: What will you do when Abel has achieved full remission? Will you still allow him to use cannabis if you feel he needs it?
DM: When it comes to cancer, there is always the risk of relapse, so I would still want him to continue to use it. I, as a mother, never want him to face this again. “A little cannabis a day keeps the cancer away.”
BK: Does cannabis have health benefits beyond just improving the side-effects of chemo for your son?
DM: I’m sure it hasn’t been completely proven, but from the research I’ve done, I believe it cures cancer, along with a number of other ailments within the human body. I also believe it has helped his body guard itself and heal from some of the potential long-term effects of chemo & radiation.
BK: What does it feel like to be the parent of a child with cancer?
DM: For the most part it is the same as being a normal parent. You care for them and worry for them. You worry for their safety, health and happiness, it is just intensified. There is always a constant fear in the back of my mind because cancer is unpredictable; you never know what to expect.
BK: How do you deal with the powerlessness inherent in childhood cancer?
DM: It was hard at first because there is nothing you can do to change what has happened or is happening to your child. However, with cannabis, we no longer feel completely powerless. We feel like we have a way to contribute to his good health and happiness. It’s the one decision we as parents got to make concerning his treatment and we believe it has been the best choice made for him so far.
BK: Do you use cannabis yourselves?
DM: No we don’t, but we do support it, the use of it and legalization, 100%.
BK: After this experience, what has been the message you have taken away from your experience that you would like to share with others?
DM: I’ve done my fair share of research through this. I would want others who are facing this with their children, or themselves, to know there is hope. Forget your preconceived notions about cannabis and do the research for yourself. Do not be afraid to do what’s necessary to save your child’s life, as Brave Mykayla would say, “Cancer doesn’t have to be so scary.”