By a Staff Writer
Since emerging from the fog she and her family were trapped in for nine months in 2012 and 2013, Jennifer Stahlecker has remarked time and again, “As a mom, this experience helped me appreciate every little moment.”
Stahlecker was an expert in recognizing the telltale symptoms of childhood cancer, among them, an unhealthy pallor, fever, headache and other physical complaints. For a decade, she had worked as an oncology nurse at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, helping dozens of little cancer patients through brutal, but medically necessary treatments and offering both her expertise and a shoulder to cry on to their parents and siblings.
But in July 2012, Stahlecker, who had just earned a nurse practitioner degree, noticed her son, Tyler, acting strangely. She was eight months pregnant, and thought perhaps he had the “terrible twos” or somehow sensed his life was about to change with a new baby in the family. He was wakeful at night and seemed a little pale, but Stahlecker didn’t think much of it at first.
When Tyler’s preschool teacher mentioned his paleness to Stahlecker, she immediately took him to the doctor.
It was leukemia.
“I felt paralyzed,” the 34-year-old Gilbert mom said. “I didn’t know what to do. My husband (Zach) and I just cried and cried.”
But Stahlecker did know what to do, and she knew all the right people at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a co-beneficiary with Children’s Cancer Network of Grand Canyon University Foundation’s seventh-annual Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, Saturday, March 11, on GCU’s campus. An estimated 3,500 people, including 2,500 participants in 5K and 10K races, are expected to attend.
Since the first race, the event has attracted an estimated 17,000 participants and raised more than $450,000. This year, organizers expect to surpass $500,000 for research on more effective diagnoses and treatment options for children with cancer and for education and resources for patients and their families.
“In some ways, it was such a blessing to know the tricks (for caring for him) and the people who began treating him,” said Stahlecker, who was caring for young cancer patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital just the day before Tyler was wheeled up to the oncology floor. “But at the same time, I knew all the horrible things that can happen and the kind of road that was ahead of us.”
Right away, Tyler started a month of intensive treatment before he and his parents got a weeklong break. Baby Charli, blessedly, chose to arrive during those seven days off. His treatment resumed, and his parents and sister rarely left his hospital bed.
“He was amazing — it’s funny how 2-year-olds don’t know any different. The meds were a struggle at first, but he got used to the port in his chest,” Stahlecker said. “It was much harder for the rest of us to adjust.”
Today, Tyler is doing well. He completed cancer treatment in November 2015 and is in remission. A healthy, happy first-grader, he also is a star player in his youth basketball league.
Everything is back to normal. Well, as normal as can be expected for a bustling young family. Charli is now 4, and Tyler’s brother Luke, who was born in January 2015, is a busy, joyful 2-year-old. Stahlecker now works as a pediatric nurse practitioner in Phoenix Children’s bone-marrow transplant department. She wouldn’t trade her nursing experience for anything.
“I’m amazed by all the relationships I’ve had with the families and the kiddos themselves,” Stahlecker said. “It is so inspiring. I’ve seen kids go from the very worst moments, not knowing if they are going to survive, to thriving in school, and I’ve found strength in their families.”
Thinking about the little ones who don’t survive cancer is heartbreaking, Stahlecker said.
“Knowing that this goes on whether I’m part of it or not makes me want to be a part of it,” she said about the fight against childhood cancer. “I’ve had such a unique opportunity, because it’s such a fragile point in people’s lives. You could be there on the very worst day of their life and have the opportunity to help.”
Sometimes, Stahlecker shares with other families the details of Tyler’s cancer, if she feels it may help give them hope.
“This experience changed me,” she said. “As a nurse, I have walked the path that this mom is on, and I have some idea of what the family is going through. I appreciate everything about life because it’s without the complications of cancer.”
To register for GCU Foundation’s Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, visit runtofightcancer.com.