A 12-year-old boy from Regina is leading a busy life, biking around the neighbourhood with friends and winning tournaments with his local lacrosse team.
Gabriel Reaume does it all with one lung and a white scar along his torso — a stark reminder of his long and terrifying battle with cancer.
It all started in April 2012 when Gabriel was eight years old. His parents started to notice differences in his behaviour and grew concerned that he may be suffering from depression. Gabriel himself was aware that he was not acting normal.
“My parents going to buy groceries. They’d leave and I’d get sad and cry and be like, ‘why am I crying’? Gabriel said.
His parents, Woody and Allana, took Gabriel to the family doctor. His blood was tested as a precaution. The Reaumes never believed that they would receive the news that came that afternoon.
“The GP called and said, we’ve got a pediatric team waiting for your son at the hospital. Something’s really wrong,” Woody Reaume recalled.
The blood tests revealed that Gabriel had cancer. However, it wasn’t until the family had further testing done in Edmonton that doctors realized just how bad the cancer was.
“It was considered to be Mesothelioma, which is a really rare cancer in adults, in anyone. But in pediatric patients it’s incredibly rare,” Allana Reaume said.
“The prognosis was very, very poor. He was given a chance of five per cent survival over two years.”
Mesothelioma, commonly associated with exposure to asbestos, is an aggressive cancer with no known cure. The tumour on Gabriel’s lung was bigger than doctors first anticipated, and left them only one option for treatment.
Gabriel went in for surgery to have his right lung removed.
The procedure appeared to work. Post-surgery, Gabriel immediately felt better and was soon released from hospital.
“When I got back home, I felt really good. I was riding my bike around and playing outside. That was the best,” he recalled.
The Reaume family took time off work to celebrate Gabriel’s miraculous recovery at the family cabin. It was there that Gabriel and his parents discovered a lump on the boy’s leg. The lump grew bigger and more irritating — resembling a boil.
Gabriel was brought back to the hospital less than two months after he had left, seemingly healthy. The growth was removed and Gabriel’s parents received the devastating news they had been dreading.
The growth was cancerous. It was removed and Gabriel stayed for more imaging, machines scanning his body for more of the aggressive cancer. Before long, doctors found another tumour in the cavity where Gabriel’s lung once was.
Woody and Allana were in disbelief that the state of Gabriel’s health had shifted so quickly.
“Having a palliative nurse come and talk to you about end of life care. Getting the home ready. Well you say, ‘this is ridiculous’. The kid was in a piano recital three weeks ago and he was fine. And now he’s not,” Woody said.
Gabriel’s parents told their son he would have to fight hard for the rest of his life. The family was not ready to give up.
“If there was anyone who was going to be able to pull it off, it was him. He just seemed so ready to fight,” Woody recalled, wiping tears from his eyes.
Gabriel continued to fight — undergoing chemotherapy, a process that would make the boy endlessly nauseous.
“Think of everything that makes you sick and put it together,” Gabriel said.
As uncomfortable as the process was, it was effective. Gabriel’s tumour shrunk to the point where it could be removed. Doctors removed five of his ribs in order to get to the cancerous growth. They managed to remove the tumour successfully and installed a plastic shield in place of Gabriel’s ribcage.
The surgery was deemed a success.
“He’s had six scans in a row now every six months for three years that have been clear,” Allana said.
Gabriel beat the incredible odds and is currently living his life as an everyday 12-year-old boy. He won bronze in the provincial championships with his lacrosse team. He plans to finish school and find out “what he’s good at” before answering too many questions about his future goals.
For his parents, the threat of cancer’s return will always exist. Allana noted that the longest known survivor of Mesothelioma was another woman who lived 18 years after her diagnosis.
But with the fear also comes optimism. Gabriel’s cancer came at a much younger age and his scans have been the best his parents have seen since his last surgery. Woody Reaume also takes comfort in the fact that the kids he met in the children’s hospital were the strongest people he had ever met.
“You don’t need a comic book. If you want a hero just go down to any children’s ward of a cancer hospital in any part of this country and you’ll see kids doing remarkable things,” he said.
Through Gabriel’s journey he armed himself with a slogan, used by his family to help keep spirits high. When asked what advice he’d give to childhood cancer patients locked in their own battles, he smiled and responded with that same slogan.
Childhood cancer is the second leading cause of death among Canadian children, more than asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and AIDS combined.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month across the country.