Not many of us have lived a life worthy of a memoir. And then there’s Garrett Stalker.
The 14-year-old has lived through experiences that could fill a book—so naturally, he’s decided to write one.
Considering what he’s been through, he’ll likely fill those pages with anecdotes about fear, anxiety and pain associated with being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and the long road to recovery.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that affects the white blood cells of the immune system, forming tumours or lymphomas that can spread to almost any tissue or organ in the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream.
His chemotherapy treatments began in January 2015 and were expected to last four to six months. When he was two cycles away from the completion of his treatment, his PET scan was not as clear as his family and caregivers had hoped. He now needs four more cycles of chemotherapy.
Throughout the course of Garrett’s struggle with NHL, schoolmates and hockey teammates have been raising funds, a testament to how well he’s liked and the support that surrounds him.
The teenager is determined to stay up-to-date with schoolwork and to stay positive.
That sense of hope is well earned. The end of treatment has been a long time coming.
Even today, Garrett’s mother Kate Stalker remembers the phone call she got the day before Christmas Eve.
The words from the family’s physician were all it took to shake up the family’s world. In a phone call, the pediatrician apologized, and admitted he may have missed something big the last time Garrett saw him—and the family needed to get to BC Children’s Hospital immediately.
Just a moment before, Kate, Garrett and the family were preparing for Christmas at their Victoria home; in what seemed like the next minute, the Stalkers found themselves at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, learning about Garrett’s condition and getting him ready for treatment.
Within that week, they heard the diagnosis: Garrett’s cancer had progressed to an advanced level in which the cancer tumours are larger in size and have grown more deeply into the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes.
An active teenager and a massive fan of the Vancouver Canucks, Garrett played on his high school ice hockey team despite the persistent cough he’d had since childhood. Doctors had dismissed it as mild asthma and nothing to worry about; over time, the family hardly even noticed the coughing.
Then in September last year, Kate did notice that her normally good-natured son was beginning to act out with flashes of extreme anger; Garrett himself would often apologize for his uncharacteristic behaviour. He began to suffer from severe headaches and seemed to be constantly tired -- unusual for a teenager with such an active lifestyle.
A doctor’s visit provided a diagnosis of mild pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart) from a viral infection. But as the weeks went by without any improvement in Garrett’s health, doctors ordered a chest X-ray in November, and further tests in December, leading to his stage 3 NHL diagnosis, and a prescribed course of chemotherapy.
Garrett admits those treatments were difficult to bear.
“The first week after chemo is very tough; I’m extremely sick and can’t do much,” Garrett says. “But after that week I feel 100 per cent normal again. The chemo is hard, but I feel safe at BC Children’s Hospital.”
In spite of his challenges, his mom Kate says that Garrett seems mature beyond his years, has no anger toward his situation, and is grateful to all the inspiring people he has since met inside and outside of the hospital. He said he plans to write about his experiences.
Garrett recalls meeting a four-year-old boy in the BC Children’s oncology unit who was so happy and full of life, he gave him hope, he says.
“If a four-year-old can do this, so can I.”