It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and Isaac Parris has just returned home from school.
Within minutes, he’s tied a Superman cape around his neck and is pretending to fight anything and everything with a plastic sword, giggling the whole time. In a few minutes, Isaac — all of 6 years old — will be upstairs in his room, playing with his Star Wars LEGO sets.
In most ways, he seems like your average 6-year-old kid. In fact, there are only two visible clues that, over the past four months, he has endured more than any 6-year-old should ever have to. The first is that he is completely bald, and the second is the scar on the back of his neck.
Isaac’s mom, April Adamo, a schoolteacher in St. Charles, calls him a tough kid, and says he’s grown up quickly over the past few months. Isaac and his sister Ivy live with their mom and her longtime boyfriend Pat Schippers on Montgomery’s west side, and their family life is as normal as can be. You’d never know what this foursome has been through.
In June, Isaac Parris was diagnosed with brain cancer, and was given only two weeks to live without immediate surgery. Scant months later, the surgery and weeks of radiation therapy behind him, Isaac is feeling good. He’s going to school, he’s playing with friends, and even though he begins a round of chemotherapy in a few days, he’s not scared.
Isaac Parris, all of 6 years old, is beating cancer. Here’s the story of how he’s doing it.
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At first, she thought it was just a headache.
During the last week of the school year, in early June, Isaac complained of head pain, according to April. But it wasn’t until she brought him to church on the first Sunday of his summer vacation that she knew something was wrong.
“He started screaming in church. ‘My head, my head,’ ” she said.
Scared, she brought her son to the pediatrician. Initially, the doctor thought he might have a torn muscle in his shoulder and neck, but when it didn’t get better, they were sent to a chiropractor. X-rays were taken, and that doctor thought perhaps Isaac was experiencing some compression on his brain stem.
Three days after that, Isaac began arching his back and screaming in pain at home. Frustrated, April took her son to the chiropractor’s office right away, to show him what it looked like when Isaac was in pain. They were sent to an emergency room, where doctors found a fast-growing tumor, called a medulloblastoma, on his brain stem.
And April was given a choice no parent wants to hear. Do nothing, and her son would likely die within two weeks. Agree to surgery, and he would have only a 25 percent chance of survival. And there was a chance that surgeons would not be able to get the entire cancerous growth.
She was stunned. Everything had happened so fast, she said.
“I thought, this is a headache,” she said. “It’s crazy. They’re supposed to give Tylenol for this.”
April didn’t have much time to think about her options. But even after she’d decided to take a chance on surgery to save her son’s life, she second-guessed herself.
“Even when I was signing the papers, I thought, ‘What if he doesn’t make it through the surgery? We could have enjoyed the last two weeks of his life together."
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It was a success. Doctors told April they removed 100 percent of the tumor. And Isaac, just weeks away from his sixth birthday, went through it like a trooper.
April said she talked with Isaac before the surgery, and told him that he’d be going to sleep soon, and when he woke up, he’d have a scar on his neck for the rest of his life. Isaac, she said, listened, but changed the subject.
It wasn’t until he returned home that he started to ask about what had happened to him. And April relied on a coincidental encounter the two of them had the day Isaac was diagnosed. While at a store, the two of them saw a little girl with no hair, and Isaac laughed.
So April took the time that day to tell him about cancer, little knowing that hours later, she would be in the emergency room, hearing that word in a much more frightening context.
“I don’t know what he’s heard,” April said. “We haven’t told him that he can die from cancer. When the time comes that we need to, we will. But hopefully that will be after he’s in remission.”
Isaac has always been a contemplative boy, April said. He can be as silly as any 6-year-old, but when it comes to some topics, she said, he’s very quiet. Isaac began chemotherapy and radiation treatments soon after surgery, and would not talk about it all day, until night fell.
Then, his mom said, he would suggest a conversation about his treatment instead of a bedtime story.
April mused that perhaps this illness happened to make Isaac realize his own strength.
“He was always a handful, always wanting mommy,” April said. “He has definitely grown up. Now he still wants mommy, but his reasons make sense."
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Shortly after the surgery, April and Isaac met Dr. John Chang.
Chang works for ProCure, an organization that specializes in proton radiation therapy. ProCure’s Illinois CDH Proton Center opened in October of last year, in Warrenville. And it offers exactly the kind of treatment Isaac needed.
Chang explained that proton therapy uses a focused beam of radiation to target a specific area of the body. Unlike other forms of radiation, which can send beams through vital organs, causing permanent damage, ProCure’s proton devices direct that radiation where it needs to go.
The result, he said, maintains the high rate of success of radiation treatments, while dramatically reducing the side effects. When it comes to brain cancer, those side effects can include hearing loss, long-term memory impairment, and a loss of reading comprehension.
“I’ve been treating kids with pediatric cancer for 12 years,” Chang said. “With this new treatment, I’m impressed at how little it disrupts their quality of life. Before, you’d see a lot of nausea and headaches, which would resolve with time, but it was an issue as they were going through it."
Doctors at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge recommended ProCure. And in fact, April said, they told her that if the Warrenville branch did not exist, Isaac would have to go to Florida to get the same therapy.
Isaac finished his radiation therapy a couple of weeks ago, Chang said. He had trouble with the anesthesia at first, but other than that, he said, Isaac “sailed through the rest of the treatment.”
April said Isaac has experienced some loss of fine motor control from the surgery, but has seen no side effects from the radiation treatment.
April and Pat have nothing but good things to say about ProCure and their time there. The family made several friends there and said the staff cared about Isaac as an individual. They asked what he liked before he arrived, and when he said “Star Wars,” they decorated his medicine calendar with cut-outs of Yoda and Chewbacca.
Now Isaac says he wants to go back and donate some of the toys he received while he was going through treatment. He’s made pen pals with other kids, and the family has received support, kindness and help whenever they’ve needed it.
“It’s good when you see so much ugly in the world, you go though something like this, and you see that there are good people in the world,” Pat said.
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Isaac starts up another round of chemotherapy on Oct. 7. He’s attending , and he says none of the other kids have given him a hard time about his baldness, or his illness. Life at his house has settled into a routine — a different one than anyone expected, but still a routine.
“We go about our lives, but they’re dictated by doctor’s appointments and treatments. Half the time, we don’t even realize he has cancer,” April said. “It just becomes your new normal.”
She realized her son’s strength when, shortly after his surgery, Isaac’s sister Ivy, one year his junior, landed in the hospital, suffering from asthma and allergies. When Isaac walked into the hospital room, he saw his sister in the bed, an IV in her arm and an oxygen tube down her throat.
“He held her hand and started to cry,” April said. “He would have traded places with her in a second, because he knew what she was going through.”
Most of the time, though, their lives are as normal as anyone else’s. On this particular Thursday afternoon, April is trying to convince Isaac to eat his entire dinner later that evening. She waves a plastic magic wand at him, pretending to cast a spell.
Later, after he leaves the room, April talks about her hopes. By this time next year, she says, Isaac will be in full remission. It will have been one rough year, she says, and a story he can tell for the rest of his life. The story of how he beat cancer before even turning 10.
“We’re gonna beat this,” she says. “There’s no question, at least not in our minds.”