Eighth-grader Cole Eicher says he’s back to doing “regular things.” By this he means going to school, playing soccer, and negotiating with his parents about how soon he can start learning how to drive a car. For the past year or two, however, Cole’s life has been anything but regular.
In January 2014, Cole became sick with nausea and vomiting. He also began having balance problems and double vision. Before then, he’d rarely been sick. Alarmed, his parents took him first to the pediatrician, then the eye doctor, and finally to a specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. An MRI found a golf ball-sized medulloblastoma – a tumor in the back of Cole’s brain. The doctors told Cole’s parents he would need surgery immediately.
“In hindsight we now know surgery was crucial for his recovery,” said Laura Eicher, Cole’s mother. “Two pediatric surgeons took out almost all of the tumor. Most of the lifelong challenges survivors face stem from that surgery, and you often have only one day to make the decision. You really don’t know whether your child upon waking up will be the child you knew before. Often children do not speak or walk and that doesn’t return.”
When Cole woke up after surgery, he could walk, but not well. He couldn’t dress himself or eat. He began a year-long routine of physical therapy, working for hours every day to regain the skills he’d lost. He also endured 30 rounds of radiation followed by a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. The treatments left him with nausea and vomiting, fatigue, hair loss, and mouth sores. He lost 20 pounds, dropping from 93 to 73.
“You have to fall back on faith, trust in the surgeons, and think of the good: how healthy he was, that he can fight back, and then just hope,” said Laura. “After time goes by and we read and learn more, we realize how fortunate we were.”
In September 2014, Cole rang the bell at All Children’s Hospital to celebrate the successful completion of his cancer treatments. “It was a nice birthday present,” says Cole. Two days later, he turned 13.
Support from family and friends helped Cole throughout his treatment and recovery. When he was finally able to walk onto the soccer field, Cole was greeted by both teammates and opposing players wearing “Cole Strong” wristbands and T-shirts. The gesture inspired him to try to help other kids.
"When I was on the cancer floor and I would walk by all the rooms filled with kids, I saw that they were often too small or too sick to be able to speak out and help others. I knew then that I must speak for them and other kids fighting cancer."
The Eichers had long been involved in their local Relay For Life event in St. Petersburg. American Cancer Society Relay For Life events are held every year in communities around the world, raising money to invest in cancer research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers. Before Cole got sick, he and his family began a Relay For Life team to honor his grandmother, who had died from pancreatic cancer. With his own cancer experience behind him, Cole shared his story at the event and his team raised $20,000 over the past 3 years.
“Cole has been through harsh treatments, but he was lucky to have a treatment plan, because a plan equals hope. Some kids don’t have many options available to them. We need more research to develop effective and gentler treatments,” said Laura.
Cole also worked with his local professional soccer team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, to raise money for the American Cancer Society and other organizations that help fight childhood cancer. He hopes to expand his “Go Gold For Childhood Cancer” initiative to all the teams in the North American Soccer League.
“When I was on the cancer floor and I would walk by all the rooms filled with kids, I saw that they were often too small or too sick to be able to speak out and help others,” said Cole. “I knew then that I must speak for them and other kids fighting cancer. Even healthy kids like me can get sick. Some kids’ cancer cure rate is 0%. We can do more for them.”
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