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Young Cancer Survivor's Father Helps Others

CancerWise - March 2008

By Dawn Dorsey

Richie Desonier and his father, David

When David Desonier's son, Richie, was at one of his lowest points during treatment for sarcoma, a young
M. D. Anderson nurse quietly confided to the family that she had survived a similar cancer.

"My son's eyes lit up to meet a healthy adult who had survived sarcoma and was doing well," says Desonier, a dentist in Houma, La.

Her gracious admission made a lasting impression on Desonier and influenced him to volunteer for M. D. Anderson's Pediatric Caregiver Telephone Support Network. The support line connects caregivers of children with cancer to telephone volunteers who are either caregivers of pediatric cancer patients or adult survivors of a pediatric cancer.

"Whenever I think of volunteering, I think of that moment," Desonier says of his son's reaction to the nurse. "Especially when the diagnosis is new, it really helps to hear from someone who has been through it."

Diagnosis was terrifying

In late 2004, when Richie was 16, he began to complain of back pain. Then one day when he was shooting some hoops in the driveway with his brother, Richie fell and had a hard time getting up. When Desonier examined his son's legs, he found Richie's right thigh was severely atrophied.

The family's physician ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test and discovered a large mass in Richie's lower back. With these results in hand, the family traveled to M. D. Anderson in Houston where Richie was diagnosed with stage 3 spindle cell soft tissue sarcoma.

"We were terrified when it happened," Desonier says. "I got out all my anatomy books and started reading. The doctors were giving him about a 50-50 chance of survival."

Cancer introduced a new world

Through Richie's surgery and 14 chemotherapy treatments, the family had to learn a new reality of hospital waiting rooms and seemingly endless tests.

"The whole episode was painful," Desonier says. "You go along, living a sheltered existence, and nothing really happens. Then all of a sudden your world falls apart."

Desonier describes 2005 as the best and worst year for the family, which includes two other sons and a daughter.

"The mundane, just going to work and school life, ended that year," he says. "Life became precious, and we learned to appreciate every day. We felt a lot of pain, but we also had a lot of victories."

Richie missed a year and a half of school due to treatment, but he will graduate from high school this spring at 19 and attend Louisiana State University in the fall. Before cancer, Richie was ranked fourth in the state in golf. Now, although he still has problems with his right leg, he's able to walk and beginning to play golf again.

Parents should keep hope

Desonier was one of the first volunteers for the Pediatric Caregiver Telephone Support Network, which was launched in September 2007 to coincide with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Desonier says parents need to remember they will have moments when everything looks dark, but the next day the situation may look brighter.

"The child who you are afraid might not make it through the night may be sitting up having breakfast in bed when you see him or her the next morning," he says.

Volunteer offers his most important tip

When asked what advice he would give parents of children with cancer, Desonier recalls a line from the movie Castaway. Tom Hanks, who played a character marooned for years on a desert island, finally was able to construct a raft from materials that floated ashore.

"After Tom Hanks' character was picked up by a boat, someone asked him how he managed to survive all those years on the island," Desonier says, "He said, 'You have to just keep on breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring?' "

"That's the best advice for dealing with cancer, I think," Desonier says. "Just show up every day, get through it the best you can and do what the doctors tell you to do. Above all, don't give up hope. You never know what tomorrow will bring."

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