In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of funding pediatric cancer research, one mom shared photos of her son's battle with leukemia in a powerful, heartbreaking Facebook post that has since gone viral. And while there's no angle from which you can make a child's battle with cancer seem like anything less than the painful, gut-wrenching journey it is, her photos have shed light on a side of childhood cancer that is rarely seen: its effect on siblings.
"One thing they don't tell you about childhood cancer is that it affects the entire family," Kaitlin Burge, a mother of three, recently wrote on Facebook. "You always hear about the financial and medical struggles, but how often do you hear about the struggles families with other children face?" Embedded in the post were two pictures, both taken in January, that show Burge's 5-year-old daughter Aubrey comforting her 4-year-old brother Beckett as he leans over the toilet to vomit from the nausea his chemotherapy causes.
"Vomiting between play sessions. Waking up to throw up," Burge wrote. "Standing by her brother's side and rubbing his back while he gets sick. Going from 30 lbs to 20 lbs. This is childhood cancer. Take it or leave it."
Burge tells Romper that Beckett was diagnosed with pre-b acute lymphoblastic leukemia and respiratory failure in April 2018. Initially, he spent more than a month following his diagnosis fighting for his life in the hospital. Now classified as "very high risk," Beckett will undergo chemotherapy until August 2021.
Since his diagnosis, Beckett has lost his hair and has had to relearn to walk twice. Burge says he's also had to relearn to potty train. Currently he's in a maintenance phase of treatment, meaning he takes a chemo pill each night and visits a clinic once a month to receive spinal taps and chemotherapy through a port. As part of his treatment, Beckett also takes steroids and the chemotherapy drug methotrexate.
And through it all, Beckett's older sister has remained by his side. "She has always been very nurturing towards him," Burge tells Romper of Aubrey. But Burge says she and her husband didn't make the decision of how much to involve, or not involve, Aubrey in Beckett's treatment lightly. "After seeing the effects chemo had on Beckett, we discussed how we would move forward with her," Burge says. "Would she cry? Would it be too much for her to handle? We didn't know what life past the induction phase looked like." Ultimately, the couple decided to let Aubrey decide how, and how closely, she wanted to participate.
"Aubrey jumped right in," Burge tells Romper. "She was ready to help and she wanted to help. That was her brother and that was her best friend. She was the older sister and she felt comfortable with him."
In her Facebook post last week, Burge acknowledged that some might find it difficult to see how the siblings' relationship has changed since Beckett's diagnosis. "My two kids, 15 months apart, went from playing in school and at home together to sitting in a cold hospital room together," she wrote. "My then 4 year-year-old watched her brother go from an ambulance to the ICU. She watched a dozen doctors throw a mask over his face, poke and prod him with needles, pump a dozen medications through his body, all while he laid there helplessly. She wasn't sure what was happening. All she knew was that something was wrong with her brother, her best friend."
While Aubrey has stuck by her brother's side throughout his treatment, she has, of course, had questions about why "the lively, energetic, and outgoing little brother she once knew was now a quiet, sick, and very sleepy little boy," Burge wrote. "She didn't understand the different therapies he had to attend to gain his strength back. To her, it was something special he got to do that she didn't."
Burge tells Romper that she and her husband have opted to be as open as possible with Aubrey, letting her ask whatever questions she has and preparing her for the next stages in Beckett's treatment, such as when his hair fell out. "We feel that by being open and letter her participate, she has a desire to be more hands on with him," Burge says. "She seems to be his biggest cheerleader." In fact, Burge says she and her husband have heard Aubrey coaching Beckett about his chemotherapy clinic visits.
While Burge Facebook post sheds a necessary light on how children's cancer can impact a family, she ultimately hopes her post brings comfort to other families in similar battles and increased awareness to the fight against childhood cancer.
"I hope that the families fighting the same battle know that they are not alone," she tells Romper. "For those who aren’t fighting it, I hope they gained an insight of what a day in childhood cancer is like. It’s definitely different from the commercials we see. These kids fighting and their siblings are heroes and these families are amazing. They deserve more funding than what they have and by getting this photo out there, we are hoping to raise awareness for these kids."