Radiothon to raise funds for Cure Kids Cancer
EDGERTON — Some people can rattle off important dates in their life — birthdates of their children, wedding anniversaries or the anniversary of a parent’s death.
For Jill and Michael Fennema of Edgerton, the dates of Aug. 21 and Aug. 28, 2007, are etched in their minds for reasons equally as significant. Those are the dates their sons — the first and second-born — were diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Seth was 4 years old at the time and the first to become sick. He was feverish, had nosebleeds and “just laid on the couch” in misery, recalled Jill Tuesday from her family’s home in Edgerton.
Within a week and two trips to the doctor’s office, the Fennemas learned their young boy had cancer.
“That same week, we were doing a story on Cassie Hulstein, an Edgerton girl with leukemia,” said Jill, the owner and editor of the Edgerton Enterprise newspaper. “You start to recognize some of the symptoms.”
After the paper was put to bed on that Monday night, Jill went home and fired up the Internet, searching WebMD and Google.
“I thought all these symptoms just seemed too close,” she said.
Even though she’d put some pieces of the puzzle together, Jill said the doctor’s diagnosis on that Tuesday morning was devastating.
By the end of the day, Seth was at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., to begin his course of treatment.
“They said if you’re going to get cancer, this is the best one to get,” recalled Jill, adding that at the time six and a half years ago, ALL had an 80 percent survival rate. ALL is a cancer in the bone marrow, which shows up in the blood.
In Seth’s case, the white blood cells were crowding out the important red blood cells that provided oxygen to his body.
Within 24 hours at Sanford Children’s, Seth received vital blood transfusions and began a regimen of steroids and chemotherapy treatment.
Jill and husband Michael, an electrician for Wassink Electric in Edgerton, stayed with Seth in Sioux Falls, while her parents took care of Micah, then 5, and Lucas, then 2.
Days after Seth’s diagnosis, Micah became sick. Swollen glands — one the size of a baseball in his neck — sent Micah and his grandma to the doctor’s office on Aug. 28. In virtually unheard of circumstances, doctors diagnosed Micah with cancer — the same Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Seth was diagnosed with a week earlier.
Jill received the news from her mother over the phone while in the hospital.
“You’re standing in the hallway thinking, seriously, this can’t be happening again,” Jill recalled.
Micah was admitted to Sanford Children’s the same day and shared a room with his younger brother.
Doctors would later tell Michael and Jill that the medical reports for the boys were identical, except for their names and birthdates. Both boys underwent bone marrow testing and were deemed to have low-risk forms of ALL.
“We felt really good about being at Sanford,” Jill said, adding that doctors there consulted with experts from Johns Hopkins, St. Jude’s and the Children’s Oncology Group.
The Fennemas spent 28 days in the hospital, and when the boys were released to return home, Jill said the next phase began. As parents, they had to administer meds and deal with their aftermath. Steroid treatments made the boys both hungry and crabby, she said.
“They’d wake me up at 1 a.m. and be hungry,” said Jill, adding that she’d be cooking noodles in the middle of the night and making spaghetti and sandwiches at 3 a.m. “It was crazy.”
Seth and Micah endured intense treatment for six months and then were on maintenance for three years — until November 2010. The years of maintenance included intravenous chemo once a month and spinal taps of chemotherapy every three months.
“When they tell you in the hospital that your kids are going to go through chemo for the next three and a half years, you think you’re not going to make it,” Jill shared. “But God is good.
“We had a lot of support from the community — especially during that first year. People I hardly knew were bringing meals over, and our church was very supportive. Everybody’s a big family, in a way. It was hard for all of us.”
Today, Micah is almost 12 and Seth nearly 11 (they were born 12 months and six days apart) and they are doing well. Micah is a sixth-grader and Seth is in fourth grade at Edgerton’s Free Christian School.
“You wouldn’t know to look at them,” Jill said of their battle with leukemia.
While the boys haven’t had any signs of their leukemia returning, Jill said it’s never far from her mind.
“You’ve heard of kids who have relapsed,” she said. “We are thankful every day.
“I don’t know how people do it if they don’t have faith — to know that God has a plan and his plan will prevail in the end,” she added.
No one has ever been able to explain why the boys both were diagnosed with cancer, and why they got sick at the same time. The family is considering having Seth and Micah take part in a sibling cancer study, although they realize it’s a long-term commitment.
Meanwhile, Jill said the entire experience has enriched their lives.
“You can see in hindsight how much your life has been blessed … by the people you meet that you would have never known,” she said. “Sometimes the hardest things in your life are the things you’re blessed the most by. You learn things about yourself.”
The Fennema boys, along with about half a dozen other children from southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, are some of the faces of cancer for Sanford Children’s Hospital and Results Radio’s seventh annual Results Radio Cure Kids Cancer Radiothon Thursday and Friday. The radiothon will be broadcast in a 24-hour event on seven Sioux Falls-area radio stations, and can also be heard online at MIX 97.3, KIKN Country 100.5, B102.7 and HOT 104.7.
More than $270,000 was raised during last year’s radiothon for Cure Kids Cancer, a program of Children’s Miracle Network. Organizers are hoping to raise even more funds this year.
“It does make you think about how important research is,” Jill said of the fundraising. “Thirty years ago, kids who got cancer all just passed away. The prognosis was bad. Now, with research, lives are saved.”
The Fennemas have helped organize Relay for Life events in Edgerton in the past, and know the money is raised for a good cause.
“We’ve been blessed by (it),” said Jill. “When you donate to Cure Kids Cancer or Relay for Life, you know that your money really does help people — it does good.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.