Classmates recovering from cancer form special bond

By Steve Wideman | For The Compass | April 9, 2014

Catholic school system offers support for Neenah students, holds ‘Be Brave, Go Bald’ event

NEENAH — On a recent morning at St. Margaret Mary School, fifth-grade classmates Hanna Sherwood and Luke Peters, along with second grader Nathan Schraven, stand near the school office.

Fifth graders Hanna Sherwood, left, and Luke Peters and second grader Nathan Schraven, are students at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School in Neenah. Hanna and Luke are recovering from brain cancer while Nathan is recovering from leukemia. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)
Fifth graders Hanna Sherwood, left, and Luke Peters and second grader Nathan Schraven, are students at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School in Neenah. Hanna and Luke are recovering from brain cancer while Nathan is recovering from leukemia. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)

They are waiting to get their photograph taken in connection with a fund-raising event in which they all have a personal stake — the fight against childhood cancer.

Hanna and Luke, both 11, are in remission after being diagnosed and treated for brain tumors while Nathan, 7, is feeling the freedom of being off chemotherapy and a 15-pill-a-day regimen in his battle against leukemia.

Having three children with cancer in the same school brought students and staff closer together, said St. Margaret Mary principal Eleanor Healy.

“It’s caused a real awareness of how precious life is and how something like cancer can hit without notice,” Healy said. “It made all our students more caring, like the group of students who asked to have a lemonade and popcorn stand to raise money for children in hospitals. Besides making students aware of the fragility of life, it made them more spiritual. They pray every day for Hanna, Luke and Nathan and for some of our parents who have cancer. The whole school is more aware of doing things for each other.”

Healy said a number of St. Margaret Mary fifth-grade boys plan to shave the hair off their heads in solidarity with Hanna, Luke and Nathan during a Saturday, April 12, fundraiser for childhood cancer research at St. Mary Central High School.

The Twin City Catholic Education Systems (TCCES) is holding its first-ever event called “Be Brave! Go Bald!” in which students and adults shave their heads as part of a program sponsored by the national St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the largest private fundraiser of childhood cancer research grants.

“The girls are going to wear yellow hair extensions. Yellow (or gold) represents childhood cancer awareness,” Healy said.

Luke was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 5. Hanna, 7 years old at the time, was also diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Within a week, Hanna had the tumor removed during surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“Her tumor was very aggressive,” said Hanna’s mother, Mona Sherwood.

Hanna was transferred after two months to Madison for nine months of chemotherapy.

“She lost 30 percent of her weight and lost all her hair. She looked like a chemo-baby,” Sherwood said.

Hanna attended just seven days of school in second grade, but thanks to lesson plans prepared by her teachers, Mona Sherwood was able to teach her daughter at home.

Hanna is currently considered in remission.

“There is no evidence of the disease, but they won’t consider her cured until she has gone five years without a recurrence. Until then there is a 50 percent chance the cancer could return,” Sherwood said.

Meanwhile, Hanna copes with the side effects of her disease.

“The combination of cancer drugs and radiation produces hearing loss, which is permanent. Just in the last six month Hanna lost 50 percent of her hearing and needs hearing aids for the rest of her life,” Sherwood said.

Hanna struggles with periodic bouts of nausea.

“She worries about having to throw up after lunch because she’s had a headache all day,” Sherwood said. “She worries about the cancer coming back.”

Hanna gets an MRI every three months, “so it’s in her face all the time that she had cancer and it might come back,” Sherwood said.

The aggressive nature of her tumor meant Hanna received the highest dose of radiation possible.

“As a result, her processing of information at school has slowed down. It’s not that she can’t learn. Her brain is just moving slower,” Sherwood said.

Cancer treatment side effects also mark the days of Luke Peters and Nathan Schraven.

Luke still suffers seizures affecting his speech and experiences slowness in learning, said his mother, Sue Peters.

“Luke is five and a half years out from treatment and is doing well, but gets tired, dizzy and suffers from stomach issues,” she said.

Dave Shraven said his son, diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3, has yet to experience learning difficulties, but has treatment-related breathing troubles.

“Nathan is doing very well. He lost all his hair from chemotherapy, but his hair and his eyebrows have grown back,” Dave Schraven said. “Once Nathan gets five years out his chance of getting cancer is the same as you and me, but chemotherapy in itself can cause cancer. He could get a different type of cancer altogether.”

The parents of all three children credit God, church and school with helping to cope with their child’s cancer diagnosis.

“I don’t know how we were able to get through it without help from God,” Dave Schraven said. “When we first learned Nathan was sick it was hard always repeating to people what was going on, but God helped us get through all that.”

Hearing your child has cancer is a very difficult thing, but Sue Peters never blamed God for Luke’s illness.

“I never got mad at God,” she said.

God guided a family decision not to have Luke undergo traditional chemotherapy, which, given his tumor’s location, could have left him blind.

“God had a hand in that decision,” she said.

Mona Sherwood said she felt initial anger toward God.

“I asked, ‘Why Hanna?’ Why would God do this to a child? What could she have possibly done?” Sherwood said. “But over time you realize God doesn’t give people cancer. God helps us get through it. You just have to pray and know he will be watching. At the end of the day you have two paths. You either put your faith in God and get through it or just spiral downward out of control.”

God also provided support through the parish, Sherwood said.

“I don’t know how we got through everything other than by the grace of God and support from all the parish members he put around us. They were like angels that carried us through all this.”

Community support continues with the St. Baldrick’s event.

“It shows solidarity to feel what cancer patients feel. Hanna was bald for an entire year,” Sherwood said.

Third- and fifth-grade students from St. Margaret Mary, along with students from St. Mary Central High School and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, signed up to have their heads shaved.

“You might not be able to feel the pain of cancer like our children, but you’ll be able to see the effects,” Sherwood said.

Related Posts

Scroll to Top