Austin Craymer sat in a chair in a 10th floor Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital infusion room this spring, studying vocabulary for his ninth-grade English class.
Austin’s vocabulary has grown a lot since last September. He’s using words in his everyday vocabulary that he never thought he would have to learn, let alone experience—lymphoma, chemotherapy, infusions. And he’s putting into action words that have never been more meaningful to his heart—trust, perseverance and determination.
They said it wasn’t going to be pretty and it wasn’t. But he’s a fighter.
His world unraveled on September 3 when his dad, Kirk, took him to freshman orientation at Grand Haven High School.
“I was walking around, up and down steps, and I couldn’t catch my breath,” Austin said as he waited for his thrice-weekly chemotherapy treatment at the children’s hospital. “I thought maybe I was out of shape or something.”
Austin’s parents took him to a doctor in Grand Haven, but his lungs were clear, ruling out what they had initially thought—allergies, bronchitis or pneumonia.
The doctor initially wanted to prescribe an antibiotic, but Austin asked for an X-ray. Something suspicious showed up, which prompted a scan.
The scan illuminated a large mass in the center of his chest, pressing on his lungs, and more suspicious activity in his kidneys.
“My husband looked like he was going to faint,” Malinda recalled. “The doctor used the word ‘lymphoma.’ Austin asked, ‘Is that cancer?’ The doctor said, ‘Yes, Austin.’ I think I kind of went blank.”
The doctor called Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and asked for Austin to be seen immediately.
He told the family to pack a few things and head there immediately, not stopping for anything unless they needed gas.
“We knew about the hospital, but we didn’t know exactly where it was or what exits to take,” Malinda said. A friend of the family drove them there.
“We got there about 7:30 p.m. and that’s when everything kind of unfolded,” Malinda said. “Austin knew it was cancer but we were trying to be cheerful and funny and ignore the actual topic.”
Austin’s sister, who was away at college on the east side of the state, arrived that night.
“Her whole basketball team brought her up to the ER,” Malinda said. “They were telling jokes, trying to keep the mood light. It was a whirlwind that night. We had met five or more physicians that evening.”
A September whirlwind
After being admitted that Thursday night, Austin’s chemotherapy commenced Sunday.
“They found out both of his kidneys were also full of cancer,” Malinda said. “They had to find out what type of cancer.”
Because of the tumor, Austin had difficulty breathing while lying flat so a traditional biopsy wouldn’t be an option.
Why be down? Why?
“He could have gone into respiratory failure under anesthesia because of the tumor,” Malinda said. “They talked to another specialist and decided to put him out to a certain point in a sitting position so they could get some spinal fluid and some fluid from the tumor in his chest so they could find out if it was in his bones or his brain, and what kind of cancer it was.”
Sharon Smith, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, determined Austin suffered from T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
T-cells are a type of white blood cell present in the bone marrow and lymph nodes.
“These cells multiply excessively and do not die without intervention, thus taking up room in normal organs and making it hard for the affected area to function,” Dr. Smith said. “His disease was in his chest and kidneys at the time of diagnosis, causing him difficulty breathing, high blood pressure and poor function of his kidneys.”
Dr. Smith said her patient is doing well.
“He has more than an 80 percent chance of being cured from his lymphoma,” Dr. Smith said. “Austin’s first month of therapy was intense, requiring hospitalization to both kill the cancer cells themselves and manage the possible damage to his kidneys that the lymphoma cells cause as they break apart and die. Although the treatment becomes much less intense, the standard of care to cure this disease is more than two years of therapy.”
Austin is expected to complete his chemotherapy in 2017. His thrice-weekly infusions will gradually drop to once every 10 days, then eventually, once a month.
On this day in clinic, two days after his 15th birthday, which he celebrated playing video games with friends, Austin sat patiently as a nurse cleaned the port access area in his chest, preparing for chemo.
He would also need three shots in the leg, simultaneously, by three nurses.
“We were basically told this is an all-out war on cancer,” Kirk said. “They said it wasn’t going to be pretty and it wasn’t. But he’s a fighter. He’s really tolerated it well.”
Why my son?
Kirk said he struggled for answers.
“Everyone wants a reason why,” he said. “I was wondering if it was because he mowed the grass all summer or had campfires in the backyard with his buddies. Was it a bad log? Treated lumber? We don’t know. We’ll never know. But he’s been an absolute trooper.”
Austin is losing his hair for the second time. He wears a Miami Dolphins color-scheme hat.
But he’s OK with it all.
“Why be down?” he asks, with a voice as innocent as his smile. “Why?”
Austin attended school all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, half-days on clinic days the rest of the week.
He made the honor roll.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Pulling out a pencil from his blue backpack, he begins drawing on his vocabulary sheets. He gets extra credit for creating pictures that represent the words he is studying.
“Autocratic,” Austin reads from his homework. “Absolute in power and authority.”
The meaning continues: “Taking no account of other people’s wishes or opinions, domineering.”
Like the cancer.
“It’s incredibly difficult missing so much school,” said Austin, who also misses skateboarding, rollerblading and playing basketball and soccer in his spare time. “Incredibly. Not only are you missing classes, you’re missing assignments, missing what you’re learning. Making up assignments when you’re not there is incredibly challenging. But it’s something that’s got to be done, so you do it.”
He loves math “when I get it,” English and history.
His career sights are set on technology. He loves computers and smartphones and recently did a school presentation on Apple legend Steve Jobs.
“I’m very tech-savvy with gadgets,” he said. “I love discovering cool new things to do with them. I just love how innovative technology is and how it makes your life easier and all the cool possibilities.”
A positive prognosis
He’s excited about his own possibilities, like beating this cancer, despite the long road it will take to do so.
It’s no doubt difficult to think about what college you want to attend, and other futuristic details, when more than two years of your young life is being consumed by chemotherapy, needles in and needles out.
He’s looking forward to relearning the meaning of words like “free time,” “beach,” “boardwalk” and “skateboarding.”
And the meaning of Dec. 20, 2017, when chemotherapy is scheduled to conclude.
“I just can’t wait for that day to get here,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to getting back into my normal, everyday stuff.”