Garrett and Gatlin Stringer, Leukemia

Two Sons, Two Diagnoses — One Strong Family

From the outside looking in, the Stringer family looks like your typical all-American family. Their year revolves around school programs, team practice, church activities and spending time together as a family. One wouldn’t know that only five years ago, they were living through a nightmare as both sons were undergoing treatment for leukemia before the age of 10.

Garrett Stringer was 7 years old when he woke up one morning with pain in his thighs. Parents, Marsha and Don, thought it was growing pains, but when the Tylenol didn’t work, they took Garrett to the doctor. After two weeks of tests, their pediatrician came to the Stringers’ home in Huntsville to break the news that Garrett had acute lymphocytic leukemia.

The next day Garrett and his family came to the Children’s Cancer Hospital at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where they met Michael Rytting, M.D., a pediatric oncologist who specializes in leukemia and lymphoma. Rytting started Garrett on chemotherapy that day.

“The hardest part was getting through the chemotherapy and the steroids,” said Garrett, now 14 years old. “The steroids made me moody, and I lost my hair twice from the chemotherapy. I went into the third grade as a bald kid with chubby cheeks.”

While at the hospital, Garrett would participate in the Children’s Art Project art classes and events organized by Child Life staff.

“I loved playing in the PediDome and on the PlayStation 2. Those things, and the art classes and child life specialists, helped keep my mind on something other than the chemotherapy and cancer,” said Garrett.

Two years after his diagnosis, Garrett was in remission from his cancer. He had completed his most intensive chemotherapy regimen and was receiving maintenance treatment. During that same time, Garrett’s 3-year-old brother, Gatlin, came down with a virus that wouldn’t go away.

Starting Over Again

“In the back of my mind, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to raise anyone’s fears, so I kept my suspicions to myself,” said Marsha.

Instead, she took Gatlin to the pediatrician to have blood work done. His platelets were low, but a local pathologist didn’t see any cancer cells.

Marsha still felt something was wrong, so she called Rytting that Friday afternoon to discuss Gatlin’s condition. Rytting met the family at the Children’s Cancer Hospital on Saturday to look at Gatlin’s pathology slides with hopes to put the family’s mind at ease.

“I will never forget the look on Dr. Rytting’s face when he came around the corner. I could tell just by looking,” said Marsha. “I really cannot remember the ride home. I just felt numb. I really could not even process that we were going to have to do this again and what that could mean.”

According to Philip Pizzo and David Poplack’s Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology, a sibling of a child with cancer is two to four times more likely to get childhood cancer than the healthy population.

“Don and I did the only thing we knew how to do—we turned it over to God,” said Marsha. “Plus, we had an extremely strong support system of family, friends and our local community who helped us along the way.”

Even while undergoing treatment, Garrett stepped in to help his quieter, younger brother through the tough chemotherapy rounds and its side effects.

“It was good having my brother in the hospital with me because we ran around shooting each other with syringes filled with water, but it was bad because we were in the hospital,” said Gatlin.

There were times when the entire family stayed at the hospital, such as when both Garrett and Gatlin were admitted for low blood counts.

“My parents and my faith got me through it all,” said Garrett. “My parents were always there for us. I never had to stay alone at the hospital, and they made decisions for me so that I didn’t have to worry about anything. My faith, though, was the biggest thing that got me through.”

Moving Forward

Today, both sons are in remission and back to their normal routine of sports games, school and other family activities. This year, 8-year-old Gatlin was recognized for his artwork “Flower Power,” which was selected by the Children’s Art Project for their 2009 collection. He also plays on a tournament baseball team.

Garrett has played both football and basketball at school, but baseball is his favorite sport. He plays baseball on both a league team and a select team this year. Garrett’s dad coaches his league team and helps him with his baseball skills.

Garrett’s dream is to attend Texas A&M University and to become a professional baseball player. Right now he is getting experience playing outfield, first base, third base and pitching.

“I love playing baseball with my dad. He even helped me play ball while I was going through cancer,” said Garrett. “If there’s one thing my dad has taught me, it’s that you always have to give 100 percent toward whatever you do, go to God if you have questions or are scared, and don’t give up.”

Gatlin wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a professional baseball player, too, but first he has some other to-do’s on his list.

“I would like to play outfield on my tournament baseball team, and I would like to go to the Caymans and go to the beach,” he said.