By ANDREW NELSON AND MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writers | Published September 26, 2013
ROSWELL—Five young men, all with lives touched by childhood cancer, all from the same school community in Roswell. Four are students at Roswell’s Blessed Trinity High School, and the youngest is from nearby Queen of Angels School. All have stories to share about what it means to have survived cancer.
Will Hennessy, a junior, is the son of Phil and Jane Hennessy and a parishioner at St. Ann Church, Marietta. He was diagnosed at 5 with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer. He said, “A tumor was found in my left leg—wrapped around my left fibula. I was in kindergarten at Queen of Angels Catholic School.” Treated locally at the Aflac Cancer Center at Scottish Rite and in Texas at MD Anderson in Houston, today he is “currently cancer-free.”
Sean Dever, a senior, is the son of John and Mary Beth Dever and a parishioner at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell. He was diagnosed at 11 with osteosarcoma, a bone tumor on his distal femur (above knee). After three months of chemotherapy, amputation (rotationplasty) and six more months of chemotherapy, today he is “perfectly healthy, cancer-free.” He was treated at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Shands Hospital at the University of Florida.
Andrew Appert, a junior, is the son of Dave and Maryann Appert and a parishioner at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (a type of blood cancer) at age 5. After three years of chemotherapy with frequent spinal taps and bone marrow biopsies, he is “considered cured.” He was treated at the Aflac Cancer Center at Scottish Rite.
Andrew Vassil, a senior, is the son of Vince and Dina Vassil and a parishioner at St. Peter Chanel Church. At age 6, he was diagnosed with a rare inoperable brain tumor. After eight weeks of experimental pinpoint radiation therapy, today he is “in remission.” He was treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Benjamin P. Smith is a seventh-grader and the son of Chris and Belinda Smith, parishioners at St. Peter Chanel Church. He was diagnosed at age 2 with biphenotypic acute leukemia and at age 6 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He had chemotherapy for six years and cranial radiation for one year. He is considered to be “in remission.”
Recently the five thriving young men, who are all enjoying busy and active lives, answered questions from The Georgia Bulletin about their experiences and how they’ve changed.
What is a memory you treasure during your treatment?
Hennessy: “I don’t treasure that many memories because it was a hard time. But I will always remember my dad, sleeping in my room every night at home during treatment, making sure my meds were working correctly. And during my surgery at MD Anderson in Houston, my dad drove across the city to buy a chicken biscuit from Chick-fil-A so I could eat it when I awoke from surgery.”
Dever: “The BT football team coming into my hospital room on my birthday to hang out with me, and they gave me a Wii.”
Appert: “I have a lot of positive memories from the time I had cancer. … I attended Camp Sunshine, a camp for pediatric cancer patients and survivors, where I first met Andrew Vassil, Sean Dever, and Will Hennessy before we were even students together at Blessed Trinity. I still go to Camp Sunshine every summer; I have made lasting friendships there with campers and volunteers. I also attended the Lighthouse Family Retreat, where families battling pediatric cancer get together for a seaside retreat in Florida to focus on having fun, supporting one another and growing closer to God. My family and I were fortunate to go on several retreats while I was a cancer patient, and last spring break we volunteered for the Lighthouse to help families currently struggling with pediatric cancer. It was incredibly rewarding to serve families who are in the same position my family was in years ago. And I will always remember and be grateful for my Make-A-Wish trip to Legoland, Disneyland, and the San Diego Zoo. I think because I was able to do so many special things as a result of my cancer, it was easy to forget that I was sick. This was a great blessing.”
Vassil: “My favorite nurse used to chase me down the halls to kiss me on the cheek. When I was having a good day, I could outrun her.”
Smith: “My friends and family visiting me in the hospital.”
How did the cancer diagnosis change your view of the world, relationship with God and your priorities?
Hennessey: “It strengthened my faith in God and my faith in humanity because so many people stepped forward to help me the year I was sick.”
Dever: “Now I don’t let small problems faze me because life is too valuable to worry about things that hardly affect it.”
Appert: “Having cancer definitely played a major part in my relationship with God. I always trusted that he would take care of me. Because of my diagnosis, my parents decided to send me to Catholic school where I could get spiritual support. My parents said they couldn’t imagine me going to school and not being able to openly pray or have people pray for me. I was fortunate to attend Holy Redeemer Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade and to now be at Blessed Trinity. I’m very grateful to my parents for the gift of my Catholic education, which has helped me grow even closer to God. Also, I have learned through my experience to not take things for granted—to appreciate the gifts I have in my life, like my family, my school, my community and my faith.
Vassil: “Having cancer changed my view of everything in my life. I met so many kids my age who fought so hard for their lives and unfortunately did not make it. Cancer taught me that every day that I am able to wake up and live my life is a gift.”
Smith: “With God, you can do anything.”
What gave you hope during your diagnosis and treatment?
Hennessy: “The support from all my family and friends that I would get through it. And especially Chris and Tommy Glavine because they helped me with many things when I was sick, and now do a lot to support childhood cancer research.”
Dever: “The thought of playing lacrosse again.”
Appert: “God continually put people in our lives to help us. From doctors and nurses and volunteers to family, friends and even complete strangers, there was not a single moment during my three years of treatment when my family and I did not feel the support of the community. At St. Brigid, I was included in the prayer intentions at Mass for the entire three years of my treatment. I know many, many people were praying for me and that gave me a lot of strength.”
Vassil: “I was surrounded by people I love who supported me through everything.”
What would you say to other young people and adults who are just beginning their journey of cancer treatment?
Hennessy: “Never give up!”
Dever: “Think positive and make the good days really good and try to find the good parts of the bad days.”
Appert: “I know it is very scary, but it’s important to trust in God and to turn to Him for help. Never give up hope and never stop praying.”
Vassil: “Every day fighting cancer is a battle for your life. That battle will never be easy, but there are so many people who care about you that are praying for you and want to support you. Embrace that.”
Smith: “It’s not your fault so don’t let it stop you from doing things you like to do.”
What was the most challenging aspect of your treatment and how did you overcome it?
Hennessy: “When the nurses accessed my port to give me chemo, and when they flushed my port. I would often cry or get sick to my stomach.”
Dever: “Having to learn how to walk again. I overcame it by hard work in PT and the thought of the lacrosse field.”
Appert: “I had a seizure one time at school because I was neurologically sensitive to the chemo. I woke up in an ambulance and didn’t know what was going on. I ended up in an ambulance another time when I had a complication from a surgery and had to be rushed from Scottish Rite to Egleston Hospital. Sometimes it was hard to go through all the procedures and side effects, especially when I didn’t really understand what was happening, but my parents always reassured me. I knew they were doing everything they could to get me the care I needed. Also, God sent me amazing doctors and nurses (especially Dr. Bergsagel and Nurse Mary) at Scottish Rite’s Aflac Cancer Center. Not only were they good at the medical side of their jobs, but they were also very nice and caring. I remember Dr. B joking around with me sometimes, and I always loved playing video games with some of the hospital staff. God was putting all the right people in my life to help me overcome any struggles.”
Vassil: “The most challenging aspect of cancer was the change of my appearance. I wasn’t comfortable with how different I looked. My hair fell out. I lost weight, and that change of appearance made me insecure about myself. However, all of these bodily side effects go away. You have to focus on beating cancer before you can focus on getting yourself back to normal.”
Smith: “I hated shots. I just told myself I had to do it. Sitting on my mom or dad’s lap helped too.”
Where did you find your support during the illness or what helped you through the rough times?
Hennessy: “I found support from my friend, Carter Martin. He had Ewing’s Sarcoma the same time as me, and we went through our cancer together. He knew what I was going through which was a big help to me. He passed away nine years ago, which has been very tough.”
Dever: “My family was there for me every day throughout the entire process.”
Appert: “I was blessed to receive a lot of love and support while I was sick. To be honest, I don’t recall a lot of rough times—partly because I was so young at the time, but also because I met so many amazing people and received so many great opportunities like Camp Sunshine, The Lighthouse Family Retreat, Make-A-Wish, and CURE programs, etc., that I didn’t focus on the negative aspects of being sick. I think all the people and organizations that became a part of my life were provided by God to help me through my battle with cancer.”
Vassil: “My family and friends were constantly around me to support me, but as a cancer patient, you learn how to be mentally strong. Without knowing it, you become an anchor in a sea of unknowns. You develop an inner strength that you never had before, an intense will to live, to destroy this disease within you. That is what I drew upon most to fight my battle with cancer.”
Smith: “My family and friends.”