June 05, 2013 - Watching Ava Ferguson run, laugh and play Sunday at the Kingsbury Country Fair in Addison Township, it's hard to believe she spent two-and-a-half years literally fighting to stay alive.
Ava Ferguson and her mother, Andrea. (click for larger version)
The good news is all that fighting paid off because the Elba Township resident's cancer is in remission.
"We just learned a couple weeks ago that her PET scan was NSOD, which (means) no sign of disease," said her mother Andrea.
What a great birthday present for Ava, who will turn 9 next month.
"I was happy," said Ava, who's father is Norman Ferguson, a 1987 graduate of Oxford High School and former Wildcat football player and team captain. "I was excited to tell my friends and my aunts and uncles, and my cousins."
"I have mixed emotions," Andrea said. "I'm elated, thrilled, excited, happy, fearful of the future, hopeful for the future. I feel a large amount of gratitude to all the people and organizations that helped us get through this."
Andrea especially appreciated all the people who went out of their way to drop off meals or show up to clean the family home.
"That was the stuff that blew me away – the selfless acts of so many people," she said. "The people at Immanuel Congregational (United) Church (of Christ in Oxford Village) were so unbelievably supportive in so many ways. I can't even express my gratitude to them."
Back in September 2010, Ava, who's a third-grader at Bishop Kelley Catholic School in Lapeer, was diagnosed with T-cell Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after a softball-sized tumor was found in her chest.
Ava's cancer was the result of her T-cells, which are an essential part of the body's immune system, becoming malignant. T-cell lymphomas account for about 15 percent of non-Hodgkin lymphomas in the United States.
This type of cancer has a five-year survival rate of 75 percent, meaning three-quarters of the patients live at least five years after being diagnosed.
"Several friends (of ours) lost children who had similar cancers," Andrea said. "You just never know. There's always a 50-50 chance, so you hold on to every day and try not to think about those things because you never know what can happen in life. You have to live each day to its fullest and not sweat the small stuff."
After her diagnosis, Ava underwent chemotherapy every day for two-and-a-half years. Her treatments ended in February.
Her chemotherapy ranged from taking pills nightly at home to ingesting medication through a port in her chest to undergoing more than 27 lumbar punctures to inject chemo drugs directly into her spine.
Through all this Ava also battled "multiple life-threatening infections" and having two types of influenza back-to-back.
"It was very, very scary right to the bitter end," Andrea said. "We had multiple hospitalizations. At one point, she was in the hospital for almost two months. We almost lost her to (three simultaneous, life-threatening infections in spring 2011). She's been hospitalized so many times, I've lost track."
Ironically, when asked what the hardestpart of this experience was for her, Ava didn't cite any of her medical procedures or brushes with death. Instead, she lamented not being able to "go to school and see my friends or have sleep-overs."
When asked what pulled Ava through this, Andrea replied, "God – number one. Lots of prayer and support from friends and family."
She also attributed the recovery to her daughter's "sheer will."
"Ava is a strong, tough fighter," Andrea said. "(Despite) all the pain and suffering she (endured), she fought very hard through the whole thing."
Ava said the most important thing was "believing" that she could get through this and maintaining a positive attitude.
Although she's in remission, Ava won't technically be considered cancer-free until she's gone five years without any sign of the disease. She must continue to visit Children's Hospital in Detroit on a regular basis for checkups.
Ava must also deal with the "tons of side effects" from undergoing so much chemotherapy for such a long period.
"Ava was very sensitive to her chemotherapy, so she suffered more than most," Andrea said.
She's dealing with nerve damage in her foot, hand and neck; changes in her vision; and rotted teeth.
"It's going to be a long road," Andrea said. "We're seeing multiple doctors. She sees a gastroenterologist, a urologist, an oncologist, a physical medicine doctor. She's on multiple medications for all the side effects."
"Everything's doing better now," Andrea continued. "We're getting everything under control."
This experience with Ava has given the Ferguson family a new purpose in life.
"It's really become our mission to talk about it and build awareness," Andrea said. "September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Gold is the color. We want to make people aware because awareness brings research dollars and research dollars are going to fund the cures for all these horrible cancers."
Andrea noted that within a 20-mile radius of Lapeer, there are at least 12 to 15 children with pediatric cancer.
"It's important to remember that there's a lot of kids in our community fighting," she said. "Now that things have settled down for us, that's going to be our new mission – to help other families, other kids."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.