Vickroy: 10-year-old a profile of courage, hope
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy May 24, 2013 6:54PM
Brenda Valadez with her son, Adam Sanchez, at their home in Chicago, Illinois, Monday, May 13, 2013. Adam is a survivor of Ependymoma, a type of brain cancer. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 27, 2013 6:55AM
Adam Sanchez is a builder.
Houses, bridges, whole cities.
Lately, though, the 10-year-old fan of Legos and the game Minecraft has become an architect of resilience.
The son of a Chicago police officer, Adam was diagnosed with brain cancer the day before Thanksgiving. He has since undergone two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. He lost the hair on the right side of his head but didn’t miss a day of school and even landed on the B honor roll.
“He is amazing,” said his mom, Brenda Valadez, a single mother who works in the evidence and recovered property section of the Chicago Police Department.
Adam, a fourth-grader at St. Bede the Venerable School, nods and nudges closer to his mom.
The media is flush with stories of people bravely battling all kinds of cancers. Today, we bring you Adam’s story, one of hope and courage and, as of today, success.
Even before his health took a turn, Adam was no stranger to adversity. Four years ago, his beloved uncle and godfather, Chicago cop Alejandro “Alex” Valadez, was shot and killed in the line of duty.
“He was always looking out for me,” Adam recalled. “He took care of me just like a dad.”
Alex was working the midnight shift on June 1, 2009, out of the 7th District in Chicago’s Englewood community when a call came in that shots had been fired in an empty lot. He and his partner went to check it out. While Alex was questioning a passer-by, a car pulled up and someone in it started shooting.
The officer was hit in the leg and the head. He died later that day.
“He was only 27 and had a baby on the way,” Brenda said.
“That was a very sad time,” Adam said.
Brenda and Adam keep a portrait of Alex in the living room of their home in the Scottsdale neighborhood.
For a few years after, Adam got to be exactly what he was: a little boy who loves school, especially science club. But last fall, as the weather was turning and many of his peers began catching colds and flus, Adam started to get headaches, then he started projectile vomiting for seemingly no reason.
Brenda assumed it was the change of seasons. When the nosebleeds started, lasting up to an hour at a time, she sought medical help.
Ironically, she says, doctors told her the nosebleeds had nothing to do with Adam’s cancer diagnosis, yet they were her primary reason for taking him to the doctor the day before Thanksgiving.
An MRI was ordered, and before Adam was even off the table, a doctor at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn was waiting to deliver the bad news, Brenda recalled.
Ependymoma is a rare form of pediatric cancer. Two days after Adam was admitted to the hospital, doctors removed a tumor the size of a tangerine from his right frontal lobe.
Recovery was excruciating, Brenda said.
“I could hear him screaming and crying across the hall for three hours,” she said.
“But he never complained after that,” she said.
Not even when he was delivered another bad blow just weeks later. In December, Brenda took Adam to Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago for a second opinion. Doctors there saw what they suspected was a leftover tumor, she said.
Adam had a second surgery on Dec. 18.
Proton radiation, an advanced form of radiation treatment for cancer that is especially effective for the treatment of pediatric cancers, was prescribed. Adam and his mom traveled to the ProCure CDH Proton Therapy Center in Warrenville to undergo the treatment.
Chemotherapy is not typically prescribed for ependymoma. But doctors at Lurie told Brenda about a clinical trial they were conducting to see if chemotherapy would have a positive effect on such a cancer.
It was experimental and it meant Brenda faced a daunting decision.
“I didn’t know what to do. Should I let them put poison in my son, my baby, my only child? What if it doesn’t work? But what if I say no and the cancer comes back?” she said.
“This was the first time I really felt scared. I had to make a life-and-death decision. It was all on me,” she said. “I have always been a single parent but I never felt more alone than at that time.”
She fell back on her police training to help her settle the inner conflict that was tearing her apart. She organized every doctor’s order and medical form into a big blue binder. She wrote down every question that popped into her head. And once she received the answers, she wrote them down, too.
After studying the evidence, she decided to enroll Adam in the clinical trial.
He finished six weeks of chemotherapy on Feb. 20 and 61/2 weeks of radiation on Feb. 25.
“He went to school every day during the treatment,” she said. “He didn’t get sick at all.”
He did, however, drop from the A honor roll to the B honor roll. But, Brenda said, laughing, “I told him, ‘I forgive you because you had a brain tumor.’ ”
Last month, Adam got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a White Sox game.
They won’t know the results of the clinical study for years. But for now, they are happy in the moment. An MRI on April 7 showed no signs of cancer. A few weeks later, Adam turned 10.
Because ependymoma has a 50 percent recurrence rate, Adam will have to have an MRI every three months for the next five years.
“I think I’m sort of like Iron Man,” he said.
A few months ago, Brenda launched a campaign to bring awareness to the disease. She was successful in getting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to declare April 18 Ependymoma Awareness Day.
“I’m going to shave my head every April 18,” Adam said.