Dance Marathon: Teenager fights toward cancer recovery


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Bryce Campbell doesn't get out much these days.

When he does, it's brief.

The 14-year-old bundles up in snowy weather — even if he is outdoors for a few minutes. He can't go fishing, even though it's one of his favorite activities. No sledding. No canoeing. Instead, he wears a surgical mask in large crowds. And while his family will attend Dance Marathon's Big Event this weekend, Bryce will need to stay at home.

Bryce is a recovering cancer patient.

The Campbells have faced many hardships. But for this family — whose motto "BELIEVE" is prominently displayed in capital letters on their mantelpiece — recovery has always been a possibility.

"They say Bryce was a miracle," said mother Tonya Campbell while recalling his ordeal. "We think so, too."

On a Saturday afternoon in late January, Bryce had just awakened from a nap in his parents' home in Silvis, Ill. Brother Toby and sister Abigail sat at the nearby dining room table, munching on their mother's homemade pizza burgers. Dylan, his 19-year-old brother, was at work.

Bryce sat up in the recliner, staying warm in a plaid ear-flapped hat and new winter coat. The son of electrician Glenn Campbell and housewife Tonya Campbell lightly tapped his blanketed thighs, identifying the corner love seat as his "spot" in the house. His cheeks were puffy from the medication he had been taking.

In his cancer battle, the young Boy Scout said, the early struggle didn't seem to be a fight for his life.

"Everyone's freaking out, but I'm just thinking blankly," Bryce said. "It never went through my head, 'This is a death situation.' "

Bryce was diagnosed with stage four t-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoblastic lymphoma at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in May 2008, roughly a week after he turned 11. The cancer affects the lymph nodes.

A few weeks beforehand, Bryce had experienced severe swelling that first began in the neck. His head, he said, was "three times the size it should have been."

The family grappled with the symptoms, not knowing whether the situation was serious. Despite local doctors' hesitance, Tonya Campbell demanded to take her child to UIHC.

The 41-year-old said the initial uncertainty about his condition turned into fear upon hearing his diagnosis.

"You just want to scream, because you don't know if your kid is going to make it at all," she said.

For the next two years, Bryce went through inpatient and outpatient treatments. Chemotherapy, he said, "works like a bomb" because it destroys both the good and the bad in the body.

"You have to think, 'This will all be over, eventually,'" Bryce said. "Keep on pushing through. That's how you can get through it."

Sometimes, he lost his positive attitude. Once in a while, he said, there didn't seem to be a point to try. Bryce said he soon learned not everything would go perfectly.

Yet meeting with other families in the same situation helps, he said. And groups such as Dance Marathon try to cheer up children missing their everyday activities.

"They're a comfort," Bryce said. "They just kind of help bring a little bit of joy into your life as you're going through this gloomy time."

The frequent treatments made education a challenge. Bryce, who has been homeschooled his entire life, said he struggled to focus on his studies. And after his diagnosis, Abigail and Toby enrolled in a local private school their older brother Dylan attended in high school.

Abigail, now 10, said she didn't always understand the events transpiring in her brother's life.

"[It was] confusing, with school and everything," she said.

The younger siblings supported their brother, often playing video or board games with him.

After a successful two years of treatment, he relapsed at the end of 2010.

On Sept. 9, 2011, he underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Though his body reacted positively to it, complications from chemotherapy and radiation conditioning ensued. By day 17 after the procedure, negative side effects of the chemotherapy struck his liver. He was forced to stay in the UIHC pediatric care unit for two weeks.

And the hardships continued. He later faced a respiratory issue. His gastrointestinal tract was affected. His kidneys threatened to shut down, and he went on dialysis for eight weeks.

The Christian family relied on their faith during the ordeal.

Believe, their one word motto, is derived from the Bible's Mark 24:11 — "whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

It is the family verse that gives them hope, Tonya Campbell said.

"We cling to that, in those moments when you are scared and full of fear, and your child is sick," she said. "And we just trust that everything is in God's hands. And you have to have something to believe in."

Bryce and his mother stayed at the hospital for nearly 11 weeks after his transplant.

On Nov. 15, they went home.

Though Tonya Campbell admits the family is still experiencing a few setbacks following his discharge, she said many prayers have been answered. His doctors recently said his kidneys are "amazingly responsive," she said.

"We were just choosing to believe that he would be healed," she said. "And he's healing, so we're very thankful."

Three and a half years later, Bryce is on his way to recovery.

By the time of his 15th birthday in May — almost four years after his diagnosis — Bryce said he should be back in the outdoors. The teenager said with excitement; it is the perfect time of year as everything is "drying up but not burning hot."

And Bryce knows his first plan of action.

"I can't wait to go canoeing again."

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