Mary Lou Bradley spent her days balancing her two son’s baseball, soccer, and basketball schedules. The only thing she knew about leukemia was that her nephew had passed away from it in 1988. So when her son Chris, 9, complained that his legs hurt, cancer was the last thing on her mind.
Mary Lou initially thought that Chris was experiencing growing pains. As it turns out, this was not the case.
Chris was diagnosed with leukemia in April 1994 after his doctor noticed that his spleen was slightly enlarged. Mary Lou’s world turned upside down as she watched her youngest son begin the fight of his life.
Mary Lou’s mother Jeanne Armstrong was at the doctor’s office at the time of diagnosis. She vividly remembers how Mary Lou responded to the bad news.
“She fell into my arms, sobbing. We went into a room and we cried together for a few minutes. Then, she pulled herself together, came out and greeted Chris…she was very strong,” says Jeanne.
Mary Lou says that the diagnosis was the hardest part. Chris was pulled out of school that April and did not return until October of the following year. Chris went through chemotherapy for three years, losing his hair and becoming so weak that he had to be put in a wheelchair.
“He wanted to be a professional baseball player. I mean, he was 9 years old, so that was his dream. And I noticed that the sicker he got, and weaker and stuff, his goals changed. He decided that instead of being a professional baseball player, he was going to be a computer programmer or something because he could be at his desk,” says Mary Lou, with a tinge of pain in her pale blue eyes.
Chris’ brother Matt was 12 at the time of diagnosis. Mary Lou tried to evenly divide attention between her two sons, but it was never easy to do. Matt would often complain that he was left out of the family because of the focus on Chris.
“There were a couple times when he (Matt) said ‘You don’t even say goodnight to me anymore.’ It was awful. It broke my heart.”
When Candlelighters, a local support group for families who have children with cancer, reached out to Mary Lou, it was just the support she needed. They invited her to their annual Christmas party and shortly afterwards invited her to become co-chair for the group.
With Candlelighters, Mary Lou advocates for families with cancer and organizes fun activities such as horseback riding and snowmobile trips at no cost to the families.
“It’s super expensive to have a child with cancer and we have quite a few families who really can’t afford to do these things on their own,” says Mary Lou.
Mary Lou advises that families going through childhood cancer seek some sort of support rather than going through it alone, because it is can be overwhelming at the very beginning. It is important to have people to really talk to and cry to.
Today, Mary Lou’s son Chris is thriving, and he came through treatment without having to go through radiation. Mary Lou continues her fight to end childhood cancer and is on her fifteenth year working at Candlelighters.
“You don’t want to say you’re lucky when you have a child with cancer, but we had a lot of things that we were really lucky with,” says Mary Lou, “It made me stronger. Once you’re thrown into it, you have to do what you have to do…so it makes you very strong.””
Sign up now for the University of Oregon Relay for Life event on May 11th, 2013.