Terry Olson’s most cherished holiday decorations are paper-plate angels made by several MD Anderson nurses while her 6-year-old son Kevin was in isolation, recovering from a stem cell transplant in December 2000.
“We hang those paper angels inscribed with messages of hope every Christmas,” says Olson, an elementary school registrar who lives with husband Mike and their two sons in Austin, Texas.
Kevin’s cancer journey began in February 1999 when he was diagnosed with advanced Wilms’ tumor, an uncommon kidney cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and into both lungs.
After surgery to remove his diseased right kidney and some lymph nodes, Kevin had radiation and chemotherapy. Additional aggressive chemotherapy did not destroy the metastatic tumors, leaving a dismal outlook.
“Our doctor in Austin arranged for us to go to MD Anderson to discuss having a stem cell transplant. The specialist told us the chances were low — perhaps only 5% — that Kevin would respond and survive,” Olson remembers.
Kevin’s stem cells were collected, purged of cancer cells in a laboratory and then returned in a two-part infusion while he was in isolation. The goal was to help his body produce healthy blood components and reduce his risk for life-threatening infections.
Olson smiles when she recalls the day Kevin had his stem cells removed.
“I’ll never forget Kevin with a big Tootsie Roll pop in his mouth, playing with a bag of Legos as his blood was withdrawn. Some adult patients undergoing similar procedures commented on how calm he looked,” she relates.
Kevin recovered faster than expected and went home two days before Christmas to celebrate with his father and brother Scott, who is two years older. The paper angels were hung carefully.
Today, Kevin is a sophomore at a magnet school for students who excel in science and mathematics. Turning 16 recently was a big milestone.
“I’m thinking about studying medicine so I can become a doctor and help lots of people. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to others with cancer,” he says.