Khalique Vialva acts like most 13-year-olds when he gets home from school.
“I’m hungry,” Khalique says as he places a container of leftover barbecue chicken, beans and mixed vegetables in the microwave.
As he gobbles the after-school snack, he’s thinking about the upcoming homecoming dance, rocking out some rap tunes after he eats, and worrying about test results.
But Khalique’s test results won’t determine his grades. They’ll determine his destiny.
While he and his family prayed that his cancer would be in remission, Khalique’s latest test results from a PET/CT scan showed a new spot on his lung. He’ll be retested in several weeks.
Khalique is battling rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer that affects four out of every 1 million kids, according to David Dickens, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group pediatric hematologist-oncologist.
Although he says he’s feeling great these days, Khalique knows life can change in an instant.
Like it did for him during the summer of 2015.
‘I already knew it was cancer’
At the time, the then 12-year-old Khalique noticed a growth on his left testicle.
Doctors at a nearby community hospital removed his testicle and sent tissue samples to pathology, according to Khalique’s mom, Malikah Stewart.
I was thinking, ‘I just want to get through this.’ I wanted to not make cancer a big deal and try to focus on my life.
But instead of feeling better, Khalique only got worse. He had difficulty eating and breathing.
He got winded walking up stairs.
Then, he noticed a lump on the left side of his abdomen.
“I felt like I already knew it was cancer,” he said. “It just all added up to me.”
Malikah said she didn’t want to believe it.
“Before the diagnosis, he said to me in the car: ‘Mom, I think I have cancer,’” Malikah recalled. “I said ‘Khalique, why would you think something like that?’ I kind of brushed it off. I thought he may have some sort of obstruction in his bowel because of the knot on his side.”
Unfortunately, Khalique turned out to be correct. On June 22, doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, with lung and abdominal involvement.
After Malikah heard the diagnosis, she called her mom.
“I couldn’t even get the words out to tell her,” Malikah said. “I was just crying. They said what they removed from him was cancer. I never once thought the cancer could be anywhere else. It never dawned on me it could have spread to other areas. It truly didn’t register, even though they told me he needed a CT scan and full bone scan.”
Malikah refrained from telling Khalique the news right away. She wanted to wait for the full summary from the medical team.
“Those couple of days were the longest couple of days of my life,” she said. “I kept looking at my son who didn’t look well, who had lost so much weight.”
Community hospital doctors referred Khalique to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for a CT scan and full bone scan on June 24.
Albert Cornelius, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group pediatric hematologist-oncologist, told the family Khalique had a tumor the size of a Nerf ball on his left side that affected his kidney.
Khalique took the news in stride.
“It wasn’t that much of a surprise to me,” he said.
54 rounds of chemotherapy
“From that Friday we stayed 13 days straight (at the children’s hospital),” Malikah said. “They were able to see his kidney was under distress. It was causing injury to his kidney, not allowing his kidney to function properly.”
Khalique started chemotherapy on June 29. To date, he’s had 54 rounds.
Throughout it all, Khalique has remained steadfast. And positive.
“I was thinking, ‘I just want to get through this,’” Kalique said, sitting on a barstool in his family’s Zeeland, Michigan, living room. “I wanted to not make cancer a big deal and try to focus on my life.”
He balanced chemo and classroom work during his eighth-grade year. Although he made the basketball team, he could rarely play. He reserved his energy for healing.
But unless he was hospitalized, which happened frequently, he somehow found a way to make it to school.
“I pushed myself,” Khalique said. “For me, I like pushing myself really hard.”
He’s done with chemotherapy now. He hopes for good. But more test results are on the horizon.
‘Khalique has a gift’
While he waits, he spends time doing the things he loves, like cooking—breakfast food mostly, playing basketball, hanging with friends, rapping and sitting in his room listening to music.
“Oh, and I like girls,” he said. “Girls are like everything to me, to be honest. Like when I was a little kid my mom used to ask me who loves you and I’d be like ‘the girls.’”
He’s just a warrior. I always say he has the spirit of a lion.
Mom is perhaps the No. 1 girl right now, the one who most admires his attitude and fortitude.
“I think through his strength and watching him, he has allowed me to not fall apart,” Malikah said. “How could I fall apart when my son, who was 12, accepted it and was ready for the challenge of fighting this disease?”
No one knows what the future holds. But Malikah is proud of her son, and carries a fond wish for his future.
“I just hope he does great things with this experience he’s been through,” she said. “I hope he can challenge himself to help other children. He’s just a warrior. I always say he has the spirit of a lion. I don’t think many 12-year-olds would have taken this on the way he has.”
When Malikah cried for his circumstances, Khalique comforted.
“Mama, I don’t mind,” he would tell her. “I’m OK. I know I’m going to beat this.”
Dr. Dickens said Khalique’s attitude has been amazing. And inspiring.
“Khalique has a gift,” Dr. Dickens said. “His cancer journey has not been easy. First came discussions about having cancer, kidney damage and the possibility of not being curable. Then his body was exposed to high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which created numerous side effects and setbacks. Yet, throughout his treatment he remained kind, grateful and positive.”
Dr. Dickens said Khalique is a positive role model for others facing adversity.
“He is living proof that cancer and its treatment may change what you look like, but it doesn’t have to change who you are,” Dr. Dickens said. “There are some people, like Khalique, who don’t just retain their inherent qualities, but become in the process even better versions of themselves. That is his gift.”
Dr. Dickens also praised Malikah for her part in Khalique’s journey.
“Apples don’t fall far from their trees,” he said. “His mother instilled in him the expectations, love, security and values, which created this incredible young man and she deserves a lot of credit for being an excellent mother.”