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COLUMN ONE

An open battle against cancer

A mother resumes her online chronicle of her teenage son's courageous fight against the disease years after they thought he'd beaten the odds.

July 14, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

He needs more chemotherapy. Then another bone marrow transplant or stem cell infusion. But his first donor isn't available and only one other person on the donor registry matches. The family can only wait.

"We're in the race of our life right now," says Kim Quickel, 50, a marriage and family counselor.

Chase, a wiry young man with a dry sense of humor, says he is willing to tell his story only in order to raise awareness about bone marrow transplants.

Testing to be placed on the worldwide registry is pain-free -- a cheek swab or blood test. Then, if a patient finds a match on the registry and the match agrees to donate, stem cells -- the workhorses that create blood -- can be removed in one of two ways.

In a surgical marrow donation, the donor is sedated, and a physician punctures the hip bone with a hollow needle and withdraws marrow, spongy tissue found inside bones. Though the patient feels some pain, he or she will be able to walk the next day and return to work in a week.

Alternately, a stem cell transplant requires the donor to have IVs hooked up in both arms. Blood is taken from one arm, run through a machine that filters out stem cells and put back into the other arm. Recovery time is shorter than for bone marrow donation.

Chase recovers from the initial round of chemotherapy and gets to go home for a few days. His doctors think the reprieve will shore up his spirits before he is readmitted -- probably for months -- to the oncology intensive care unit at the Children's Hospital of Orange County.

During his brief stretch of freedom, Chase spends time with Kelsey; Blake; his oldest brother, Kyle, who has taken a month's leave of absence from his job in San Francisco; and other friends and family.

They attend an Angels game, cruise around Newport Harbor in an electric boat and fish for calico bass on a family friend's boat. His mom wants to throw a get-together before he reenters the hospital. Chase objects.

"I don't want a party," he says. Eventually, they compromise on a parent-free Cinco de Mayo celebration. After ordering platters of bean burritos and chicken taquitos, Kim leaves the house, and Chase's girlfriend and friends arrive. Chase and his brother jokingly bicker about the faded gray T-shirt that Chase wears.

"That's my shirt!" Kyle says.

Chase smirks, "Yeah, I took it. You left it here."

"On accident!" Kyle retorts.

The days pass quickly, and the family learns that the lone bone marrow match, a 53-year-old woman, has agreed to donate. Chase will endure eight days of intense chemo, then the woman's stem cells will be injected into his blood.

On May 7, after Chase packs his nubby white blanket, laptop and Gatorade, he and Kelsey drive to the hospital. Unlike prior visits, when he has had to stay in a cramped room without a door, he is assigned to spacious Room 308. One wall is mostly glass, on which his friends draw fish, flowers and messages with markers.

Chemicals begin streaming through Chase's veins early the next morning, and he sleeps through the first two hours.

"Ready to fight?" asks Dr. Ivan Kirov, a pediatric oncologist, as he probes Chase's abdomen and back. "This time we're not taking any prisoners."

Kim and Kyle arrive with take-out chicken strips, eager for Chase to eat while he still has an appetite. The patient, who is wearing his brother's purloined shirt, is already feeling antsy.

"I know I'll be in here for a while," he says. "It's easier when you don't know that."

He fills his time text-messaging friends, watching DVDs and chatting with visitors.

"I just . . . think about the future, like fishing and hanging out with my girlfriend," he said. "I don't really think about the present."

He's been fishing since he was a little boy. "It's just really relaxing," he said. "You can have any kind of problem during the day, you just go out on the ocean and it's gone."

He refuses to dwell on his disease.

"It's not a big deal to me," said Chase, who has declined to speak with hospital therapists about his feelings. "I don't need to talk about it."

His parents deal with the stress in different ways. Dan Quickel, Chase's stepfather, who has helped raise him since he was an infant, hits the gym; he hopes to avoid what happened the first time Chase had cancer, when he gained 40 pounds.

Kim relies on her faith and her blog. Chase professes not to read it, but every now and then when she writes something particularly sad, he'll tell her she's being a "drama queen."

Most of all, Kim and Dan try to hide their fears in front of Chase. "When you have a son who is going through this and is diligently strong, it would be hypocritical for me to have a pity party," Kim says.

On Mother's Day, the family watches an Angels game in Chase's room.

I have truly received the greatest gift today, to have us all together, the boys are rough housing, there is laughter in the room and we are relaxed.

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