Cancer survivor, 9, to walk at Surrey’s Relay for Life

Owen Hopkins beat his cancer, now he joins others walking for a cure, better treatment options

Two days before Owen Hopkins, 8, was admitted to BC Children’s Hospital for cancer treatment, he played a game of hockey with his Cloverdale Colts team. He hadn’t been feeling well and he hadn’t had much of an appetite. His mother, Amanda, thought he might have allergies.

He didn’t. He had Burkitt lymphoma, an extremely aggressive, non-Hodgkin’s form of cancer. Owen had a tumor that was doubling in size every 24 hours.

In January, a story on Owen appeared in the The Reporter when the Vancouver Canucks organized a surprise skate at the Cloverdale Arena with Owen and his Colts team. Owen had had major surgery the week before and had been struggling with chemotherapy sessions, and wasn’t able to dress in his hockey gear and hit the ice with his teammates.

On April 7, Owen was declared cancer-free, a prognosis that shocked everyone—the pathologists had to check the results twice.

Today, aside from a healing scar on his chest that marks where his central line was, Owen looks like an average kid with a buzz cut. He recently celebrated his ninth birthday. His first full day back at school was last week. He’ll be able to play hockey again this fall.

But according to Owen’s mother Amanda, his story would have had a much different ending 15 years ago.

“His cancer was so aggressive. If someone hadn’t sat down and put in the work 15 years ago and created the treatment that we have today—flat out, we just wouldn’t be here,” she said. “We wouldn’t have the opportunity to volunteer or to tell our story because it would have been a very short story.”

Even before Owen and his family knew he was cancer-free, he was volunteering for the Canadian Cancer Society. Now Owen and his family continue to give back. They have a team entered in the upcoming Relay for Life in Surrey, where he will walk the opening lap for survivors.

“The more awareness, the more funds we raise, the better,” said Amanda.

Funding the research isn’t just about finding a cure, she said, but also about finding kinder treatment options and solutions for kids who will grow up to face major side effects from undergoing chemotherapy treatments at a young age.

“Seeing what he went through, the treatment is so, so awful,” she said. “It’s one thing for adults to deal with it, but it’s so much worse to watch little kids go through it.

“There’s only so much you can do to make them feel better. When you have a 60-pound child, how much morphine can you give that kid to ease their pain?”

Owen’s cancer treatments have impacted the portion of his brain responsible for executive function, said Amanda, affecting his attention span, memory and his ability to stay on task. Certainly not the most severe side effects known to be caused by the treatments—some of which includes diagnoses of secondary leukemia—but they will go on to create noticeable differences in Owen’s life and Owen and his family will need to keep an eye on any other symptoms that may appear.

“We’re grateful that they’re here,” said Amanda. “We’ll take them however they are. But what can we do to make it better for the next group of kids that makes it? How can we make their lives better?”

‘Oops, you stopped breathing’

“My darkest memory was when I had that medicine,” said Owen.

His mother Amanda asked him which memory he was recalling, because she could think of a few that might fit the bill.

“When I had the allergic reaction,” said Owen.

Amanda explained further. “One of the drugs, and they have no idea why, but almost every kid is having an allergic reaction to it. They have to be prepped and ready with what we call the ‘Oops, you stopped breathing’ box,” she said. “It’s a box full of epinephrine and all that.”

“He had a reaction after a few millimetres, so less than three minutes in. I wasn’t even there. I show up and he’s beet red. Itchy, swelling, trouble breathing,” she said.

“Trouble breathing?” asked Owen. “I was having a lot of trouble breathing.”

“They had the epinephrine up and ready because they were afraid he was going to have sudden cardiac arrest,” said Amanda.

Owen was administered Benadryl and other drugs to reverse his reactions. And then, after a few hours, they started administering the drug again.

“There wasn’t an alternative,” said Amanda. “There wasn’t a ‘this doesn’t work? Let’s try something else.’ There was, ‘this doesn’t work? Let’s try it slower and hope it still doesn’t kill him.”

“We need better treatment for our kids. Kinder treatment,” said Amanda. That’s what Owen and his team walks for.

Until We Meet Again

More than 200 people are expected to walk at Surrey’s Relay for Life fundraiser on June 17, and each have a story, a memory and a loved one that they walk for.

Local Grade 7 student Emma Walsh is raising money in memory of family members she has lost to cancer. Emma and her mother, Monica Wright, have volunteered for Relay for Life in the past by running the activity table for kids, marching on the track and handing out waters to walkers. This year Walsh is fundraising with lemonade stands, selling bracelets, and organizing garage sales with the help of her family.

If she raises her goal of $1,000, she has pledged to cut her hair and donate it to cancer.

“I wanted to do it last year, but it wasn’t long enough,” she said. “I want to go as short as I can. They need eight inches, but I want to donate more because eight inches isn’t enough.”

Walsh has lost a few family members to cancer, including her grandmother. Her grandfather is fighting cancer right now.

Walsh and her family’s team is called Until We Meet Again.

“It was hard to think of a name, and in the end, it’s such a small part,” said Monica Wright, explaining that it wouldn’t have felt right to name the team after one family member. “So we thought, let’s do it in memory for everyone.”

As well as raising money for cancer research, the Relay for Life supports services for people living with cancer and their families. If Walsh raises her goal of $1,000, she won’t just have the money to cut her hair, she’ll have a good portion of the money needed to send a kid like Owen Hopkins to Camp Good Times this summer. The camp brings children and teens affected by cancer together at no cost to participants, as a way for them to experience camp and make friends in a safe, medically supervised environment.

Surrey’s 16th-annual Relay for Life fundraiser will take place on June 17, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the Bill Reid Millennium Amphitheatre in Cloverdale. The 12-hour fundraising event brings teams together that participate in an all-day relay. One team member walks the track at all times, and participants take turns switching off whenever they wish.

“Cancer doesn’t stop, why should we,” said Nicola Romaniuk, Coordinator Annual Giving.

For those off-track, there are activity booths, entertainment and a camp-like atmosphere to enjoy.

“We encourage survivors to go online to register for the event,” said Romaniuk, “The survivors walk the opening lap, and the volunteers, family, teammates cheer them on. It’s very emotional.”

“When it gets dusk, we light things called luminaries in honour or memory of someone who has passed away,” said Romaniuk. “We walk the track and remember.”

In 2016, 438 Relay for Life events held in communities across Canada raised more than $28 million. To learn more about Surrey’s relay, to register or donate, visit www.relayforlife.ca/surrey or call Nicola at 604-837-6837.

To donate to Owen’s team, visit: https://tinyurl.com/teamowen17

To support Emma’s team, visit: https://tinyurl.com/teamemma17

 

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