In so many ways, Jackson is similar to many seven-year-old boys. He is a sweet, fearless and energetic boy who loves sports and dinosaurs. A die-hard fan of the Washington Capitals, Jackson can often be found with a hockey stick in hand. Jackson also loves playing with his younger siblings, Mason and Jillian. His parents couldn’t be prouder of their young leader.
So far this story likely sounds fairly familiar and quite typical – a young kid with boundless energy, always on the move, looked up to by his siblings. However, where Jackson’s story differs is that he was diagnosed with an aggressive, fast-growing and potentially terminal tumor in his brain. The most complex organ in his body that exerts total control over every other organ was under attack by a group of cells whose sole purpose was to expand exponentially and uncontrollably.
The Dundon’s heart-wrenching encounter with brain cancer began when Jackson was only two and a half years old. His mom, Kristin, noticed something was different with his gait and he had become very clumsy.
Jackson’s pediatrician immediately sent him to Children’s National Medical Center. While there had not yet been a clear indication of what was causing Jackson’s problems, doctors wanted to take a closer look at his brain.
A CAT scan confirmed the Dundon’s worst fears. Jackson had a mass on his brain stem. The brain stem is structurally continuous with the spinal cord and serves as an extremely important part of the brain as nerve connections from our bodies pass through the brain stem. The brain stem plays an important role in the regulation of cardiac and respiratory function. It also regulates the central nervous system, and is pivotal in maintaining consciousness and regulating the sleep cycle. The brainstem has many basic functions including heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating.
One of Jackson’s most important organs was under attack by an aggressive and fast-growing tumor. Just days after the mass was found, Jackson lost his ability to walk and suffered weakness on his left side.
Initially, Kristin was told that Jackson’s brain cancer was likely terminal. The sudden realization that your child may soon die is something that our brains are not meant to process. Needless to say, Kristin was left numb and at a loss.
As time went by Jackson’s tumor showed two atypical signs, which made the diagnosis unclear initially. The tumor was stage IV and highly aggressive. Jackson’s doctors recommended that he start with chemotherapy in the hopes that his tumor would respond. Jackson had six rounds of high-dose chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation at Boston Children’s Hospital. The effect of the radiation on his body was brutal but the tumor did respond to each treatment, giving him a fighting chance.
Doctors now believe that Jackson had a rare neuroectodermal tumor (PNET). This type of tumor usually occurs in children and young adults under 25 years of age.
Jackson is now four years post treatment, which is a miracle. His strength and resilience is inspiring to all. He and his doctors have used every tool in their arsenal to battle this awful disease. On February 15, 2015, Jackson will celebrate five years post diagnosis, an amazing milestone for the type of cancer Jackson fought. Once he hits the five-year anniversary, doctors will deem Jackson “cured.”
While the intense chemotherapy and radiation helped Jackson defy the odds, they also left him with life-long side effects. Jackson has high-frequency hearing loss, low muscle tone and fine motor delays. His side effects have made school a challenge. He needs more time processing information due to damage from the radiation. He was held back a year in school.
Jackson has 11 adult teeth damaged from the chemotherapy, which will result in extensive dental work in the future. In addition, he suffers from extreme low-bone density. His bones are as brittle as an elderly woman’s. As a result of this low-bone density he has broken his foot and both bones in his shin. Jackson gets IV infusions every three months to help strengthen his bones. The chemo and radiation also caused his hair to come back thinner and it did not fully grow back. His metabolism was affected by the treatment and weight gain is a constant struggle for him.
Along with all of the physical side effects, Jackson also suffers from extreme anxiety from his cancer. He has been in therapy for 18 months, which is helping with the anxiety.
Most of these side effects will be a struggle for the rest of Jackson’s life. Kristin would not change a thing to have Jackson still here, but it breaks her heart to still see him have so many complications after everything he has already endured.
While the treatments Jackson received saved his life, they have taken a toll on his body. Doctors battling pediatric brain cancer need more treatment options, which can stop and kill the cancer without destroying other parts of children’s bodies. This requires research and funding. Brain tumors are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children 10 years and under, but only about one percent of the American Cancer Society’s public revenues are spent on pediatric cancer research. This is not nearly enough to help save the lives of the 11 children like Jackson who are diagnosed with a brain tumor every single day. That is more than 4,000 children each year.
Children like Jackson need your help. Click here to learn how you can help raise awareness and money for pediatric brain cancer.