‘No family should have to go through what I went through’
The dates lodged in Ellen Grant’s mind are not related to birthdays or anniversaries. Instead they mark heartaches along the journey that began when her son was diagnosed with cancer.
“There’s a line between before and after; it’s never the same,” she said of receiving the news that a loved one has a tumor. “Mine was a death sentence; there was no cure ... Just about everybody is touched by cancer in some aspect, whether it’s family or friend, but a child’s the hardest … Until you’ve lived it, you have no idea what others go through.”
Six months to a year to live
Her 18-year-old son, Justin Elliott, was home for a weekend visit from college in 2008 when he suffered a brain hemorrhage.
“He was in pain,” Grant said, before recalling her own initial fears that he was experiencing an aneurysm – something her own mother had.
Instead, doctors discovered a tumor and diagnosed him as having glioblastoma multiforme. Originally, the physicians believed the tumor was encapsulated and could be easily removed.
It was not, and the family received the devastating news that Justin had only six months to a year to live.
What followed was a roller coaster of watching her son undergo a variety of difficult procedures, including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and all the while hoping his blood counts remained high enough where he could continue treatment.
Through it all, Justin sought to maintain his independence and live as normal a life as possible.
“We were blessed. He functioned the whole time ... He was amazing,” Grant said, recalling how he continued to attend college and was in the honors program at The University of Georgia.
Speaking of a trial medication her son tried, the mother added, “I have no doubt it kept him alive. (He lived for) three years, not six months ... At the end, he hemorrhaged again.”
He died April 16, 2011, at the age of 21.
“It’s just horrible,” Grant mused about pediatric cancer. “There’s who you were before and who you are after ... Justin was my only child ... I will always remember him at 21. I’ll never know what he’d be like at 35.”
Optimists promote awareness campaign
As Kathy Romanick, who volunteers with Grant in the Gilmer County Optimist Club, observed, people tend to think of childhood cancer as something rare that does not impact those near them.
“It’s happening right here in our community,” she pointed out. “There have been kids in our school system who have had cancer – some who are still living, some who have passed away.”
September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, and the Optimist Club of Gilmer County is joining the fight to help young people who are battling for their lives.
“Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for children. More than 15,000 new cases of childhood cancer are diagnosed each year, and almost 2,000 children die each year when affected by cancer,” shared Romanick. “Optimist International established the Childhood Cancer Campaign in hopes of bringing greater service to affected families, helping to fund research for a cure and supporting projects at the community level.”
She went on to describe how the Gilmer County Optimist Club is partnering with the Ellijay IHOP and Accounting and Tax Services of North Georgia to hold a Childhood Cancer Campaign fundraiser during the month of September. Money is being collected at the restaurant for cancer research.
“Whatever we can do to help those families and put an end to cancer is a good thing ... It felt really personal to me ... I’m a cancer survivor myself,” added Romanick who had breast cancer less than two years ago. “I know how devastating it is. I can only imagine how much worse it is for a child or for parents to hear. You just miss out on months and years of your life. It’s hard to have a normal childhood.”
Grateful for community support
Grant noted she decided to join the Optimist Club of Gilmer County in the hopes of repaying and showing appreciation to the community for the support and encouragement she received during her son’s illness.
Along with her fellow club members – a group about 60 strong – she has enjoyed living out the organization’s mission to “bring out the best in youth, our communities and ourselves.” A large part of this effort is community service, and the Gilmer chapter participates in such activities as spearheading the county’s annual Stuff the Bus school supply drive, providing gifts for children in foster care at Christmas and serving meals for low-income children through work with the Gilmer Community Food Pantry and the school system’s Seamless Summer Nutrition Program.
But the project related to pediatric cancer particularly hits close to home for Grant.
“I lived it, breathed it, slept with it and will for the rest of my life,” she said.
Grant observed there are many challenges that come along with cancer, ranging from the initial shock of hearing the diagnosis to balancing relationships with spouses and other children to repeatedly traveling long distances to treatment centers.
In the midst of the chaos, she explained, “Your head’s gone, you’re not thinking clearly ... You’re just flying by the seat of your pants.”
The mother said the process of learning to accept the help of others was gradual, but ultimately, the emotional, spiritual and physical support she received from the community was invaluable and “humbling.”
“I feel sorry for people who don’t live in a community like this,” she said, describing how the whole community, not just her neighborhood, came together to offer encouragement. “There are such good people here. We would not have made it through without them.”
‘Never give up ... He
Grant also pointed out that thankfully not every pediatric cancer story ends the same way her son’s did.
After describing a young woman she knows who overcame leukemia, she said, “That’s what we’re hoping for.”
“Research on new treatments is making a difference,” added Romanick, noting survival rates are increasing for many types of cancers.
Grant agreed she has “seen strides in cancer research” and after referencing the medical trial her son participated in, added, “Hopefully his journey helped someone else.”
“Justin’s my favorite subject,” the mother continued. “After you lose someone, people don’t bring them up. I don’t want people to forget him. I’d rather they said something about him.”
When asked what she learned from her son, Grant responded, “Never give up. He never did. He was always more concerned about someone else than himself … Live like Justin did. He lived the whole time. That’s what keeps me going. I could wallow around in my self-pity, but he certainly wouldn’t want that … Out of the darkness there is light, and you’ve got to look for the light.”
Grant concluded by inviting members of the community to join the effort to raise awareness and funds.
“It’s childhood cancer. Let’s find a cure,” she urged. “No family should have to go through what I went through. If we can send people to the moon, why can’t we beat this?”
To learn more about the local Childhood Cancer Campaign initiative, visit the Gilmer County Optimist Club Facebook page.