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Ex-football player's daughter tackles cancer



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Ava Ferguson and her little sister, Sophia. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
October 20, 2010 - Back when Norman Ferguson was playing football for the Oxford Wildcats, he faced some pretty tough opponents on the gridiron every Friday night.

But none of them could prepare the 1987 Oxford High School graduate for the battle he's waging right now – the fight to save his young daughter's life from cancer.

"You don't have much of a choice but to be positive and to be strong for your little girl," said Norman, who resides in Lapeer County's Elba Township. "They look up to you and you've got to let her know that she's going to be okay."

Last month, 6-year-old Ava Ferguson was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's T-cell Lymphoma after a softball-size tumor was found in her chest.

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Ava's cancer is 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.

To help Ava win her fight and pay some medical bills, Immanuel Congregational United Church of Christ – corner of Hovey and Dennison streets in Oxford Village – is hosting a spaghetti dinner fund-raiser from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 29.

The cost is $6 per adult and $3 for kids ages 5-10. Kids under 5 eat free.

Even though he doesn't live here anymore, Norman still has strong ties to Oxford.

"I'm a big Oxford football fan. Me and Coach (Bud) Rowley are really close," he said. "My family still lives down there including my mom."

The road to Ava's diagnosis began with her complaining about a stomach ache on Sept. 10.

At first, her parents thought it was just nerves from the first week of school.

When the pain worsened, her mother, Andrea, took Ava to the pediatrician's office where she was diagnosed with a possible bladder infection.

The pain continued, plus Ava now had a low-grade fever. But the blood test showed no bladder infection.

An X-ray soon revealed there was no air in Ava's left lung. It had collapsed.

She was immediately rushed by ambulance to the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, where medical personnel drained nearly two liters of fluid from the lining of her left lung.

There was so much fluid that it was pushing Ava's trachea (windpipe) and heart to the other side of her body.

Ava couldn't breathe on her own, so she was placed on a ventilator.

Once the fluid was drained, Ava underwent a CT scan that showed a softball-size tumor sitting on her airway, heart and lung.

Ava was then rushed by ambulance to Children's Hospital in Detroit. On Sept. 19, Norman and Andrea were told the tumor's cells were abnormal. The next day, the mass was confirmed as cancer.

Chemotherapy began immediately and will continue for the next two-and-a-half years, according to Norman. Right now, Ava receives treatments once or twice a week.

"It's hard to see her losing her hair, not being able to play and not having any energy to do anything," he said. "She has a very hard time walking. I have to carry her up and down the steps."

Steroids helped shrink Ava's tumor to the point where her airway opened up again and she was able to come off the ventilator.

The good news is Ava is back at home and has a 75-80 percent chance of survival.

"They're optimistic," Norman said. "They said that they can cure it, but it's going to be a long, hard road."

"We know what we're up against and we know there's a treatment," he noted. "Now, we just have to do it and keep going. We're very positive and we're sure that Ava's going to get through this."

Fortunately, Ava's got a terrific attitude.

"Ava is a little trooper. She's very brave," Norman said. "She's being very upbeat and very positive. She said she doesn't care if she loses her hair as long as she gets to see her mom. She's being stronger than me and my wife."

Ava's 3-month-old sister, Sophia, is the best medicine of all. Watching the infant laugh and play, never fails to put a smile on Ava's face.

As for Norman and Andrea, they're taking things one day a time. "It's definitely overwhelming," he said. "But we're a strong family. We're going to be strong for each other and for Ava."

Faith in God and the outpouring of support from the community have really comforted the family.

"The cards that Ava gets everyday help her spirits," Norman noted.

He's asking people to pray for his daughter as much as possible.

"There are no guarantees with this thing. The prognosis is good, but you never know," Norman said. "There's that percentage of kids that don't make it. We just hope and pray that we're not in that percentage."

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.
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