RICHEYVILLE – When Kieran Stenson began to go through puberty, his parents were a bit surprised. He was only 8 years old, and in three short months, he grew 6 inches, and his voice was rapidly changing.
But never did Ed and Abby Stenson think a brain tumor was causing their son’s accelerated physical maturation.
“His testosterone levels were off the charts,” Abby said.
Turns out, a 1-centimeter nongerminomatous germ cell tumor was growing on Kieran’s pineal gland, which produces hormones that influence sexual development and sleep-wake cycles.
Following a slew of tests, including a decisive spinal tap, the diagnosis was confirmed by the Mayo Clinic and relayed to Abby by phone while she was visiting a friend on Christmas Eve. Ed, who is a paramedic for Washington Ambulance and Chair and a firefighter at Richeyville Volunteer Fire Company, was at work.
Of course, Abby shared the news with Ed, but the couple told no one else – neither Kieran nor their three other children – until after Christmas.
“We didn’t want our Christmas to be any different, or ruin anybody’s Christmas. We were going to try to enjoy the holiday,” Abby said.
Since Kieran’s oncologist, who also happens to be the chief of neuro-oncology at Children’s Hospital, initially suspected the tumor was cancerous, a treatment plan had been arranged, and Kieran had a port implanted on New Year’s Eve so he could begin chemotherapy.
“She took him as a patient because she has never seen a tumor that size. Normally, it’s five to 10 times bigger,” Abby said, noting that patients with this type of tumor typically develop other medical problems, such as hydrocephalus.
“He’s an extremely healthy child,” Abby said. “The only reason they caught it as early as they did was his testoterone level was so high.”
Kieran recently finished his sixth – and final – round of chemotherapy, alternating between three- and five-day regimens to shrink the tumor, and blood work results on Wednesday showed his counts are high enough to start radiation as early as next week. He will undergo radiation five days a week for six weeks.
“It’s at the bottom part of the brain. That’s why they couldn’t biopsy it,” Ed said, “and surgery is a last resort.”
Kieran said he was upset when he started chemo, but talking with other children with cancer at the hospital helped ease his anxiety.
“I knew it made you sick, and the closer it got to the end, the more I got sick,” said Kieran, who became nauseous and developed stomachaches.
However, he needed only three blood transfusions and never developed a fever.
“We were very, very lucky he did not get a fever,” Ed said. “Where I work, I could bring anything home.”
Added Abby, “The last treatment was the roughest. Kieran kept asking, ‘When can I go home?’”
Kieran’s most recent spinal tap also showed that his hormone levels have returned to normal, and he is taking hormone medication to maintain those levels.
Kieran is a second-grader at Bethlehem-Center Elementary School and is the second-tallest student in his class. But it doesn’t bother him because not only have his classmates and the staff rallied around him, but also the entire Richeyville community, holding fundraisers and offering both emotional and financial support.
They’ve sold Team Kieran T-shirts, they’ve held bake sales and a spaghetti dinner, made gray and gold survivor bracelets – gray to represent brain cancer and gold to represent childhood cancer – and students raised money with a hat day at school. A cousin serving in Afghanistan also had officers on his mission sign a T-shirt for Kieran, who is a military buff.
In addition, some of Kieran’s classmates, his dad and his brother, Kaden, 6, shaved their heads after Kieran, who previously sported a mohawk, lost his hair.
“Kaden said, ‘I want to cut my hair for my brother,’” Ed said.
A representative from Children’s Hospital also talked with Kieran’s classmates, and Kieran participated in Monkey in My Chair, a program designed to help cancer patients stay connected to their classmates. Kaden was responsible for taking the monkey to school each day and placing it in his brother’s chair. The monkey even directed the school’s drum band.
Kieran chose not to play spring soccer because of concerns regarding his port, but his oncologist said he should be fine to play football in the fall. Kieran is a tight end.
Still, the couple’s voices become choked with emotion as they recall the support and think about what Kieran has been going through.
“You feel different when it’s a kid with cancer, It’s not like an adult. He’s an 8-year-old,” Ed said.
Added Abby, “You always have that fear. The prognosis is good, but it could come back.”