Young cancer survivors to meet at Relay

June 18, 2009|By JANET HEIM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Caleb Hawbaker of Hancock and Asher Hopkins of Leitersburg have never met, but this weekend's Relay for Life of Washington County will bring the two together for the first time.

Each boy has battled Wilms' Tumor, the most common form of childhood kidney cancer, and each had checkups this week that showed they remain cancer-free.

Julie Hawbaker, Caleb's mother, learned of Asher's experience through her homeschooling support network.

Hawbaker called Maria Hopkins, Asher's mother, who proved to be a lifeline because 6-year-old Asher already had gone through treatment.

They communicate via phone, e-mail, Facebook and have met for coffee, and attended a moms' retreat together.

"It was amazingly helpful. She'd been down the same road. Her son was doing well, which was very encouraging," Hawbaker said.

Maria Hopkins said Asher prayed for Caleb, even though she doesn't think he understood what cancer is all about. She said it helped her to be able to talk to Hawbaker about what she was going through.


"No one can truly understand what you're going through. It was a godsend to walk through it with Julie, too," Hopkins said.

Caleb, 5, was diagnosed with cancer on May 15, 2008. He had blood in his urine about six months earlier, but the symptom went away and the doctor thought it had been a virus.

Caleb began getting recurring fevers, but his mother didn't think much about it because they didn't last long.

When Caleb's father, Jeff, suffered a broken ankle, the specialist he needed to see was across the hall from Caleb's pediatrician at Robinwood Medical Center.

While Jeff Hawbaker, pastor of Orchard Ridge First Church of God in Hancock, was visiting his doctor, Caleb's mother took the boy to his pediatrician for a quick check.

She never expected to find herself in the doctor's office, hearing the news that Caleb had cancer. The nurse practitioner who first examined Caleb felt a mass in his abdomen and summoned the doctor.

An ultrasound and CT scan showed one healthy kidney, and one kidney looked like a "big alien spaceship," Julie Hawbaker said.

The tumor-ridden kidney had shut down and was not working. They learned this was a fast-growing cancer, but one that responded well to treatment.

With Jeff Hawbaker's broken ankle propped up in the back seat for the ride home, they tried to digest the information that the youngest of their four children had cancer.

The next day, they headed to Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Several days later, Caleb had surgery to remove the cancerous kidney.

They learned Caleb's cancer was stage 3, which meant it had spread from the kidney to the blood vessels and surrounding tissue. His treatment plan of radiation and 28 weeks of chemotherapy was determined by the stage of his cancer.

Treatments were finished in January and, with Caleb in remission, the family prays he gets good reports every time he has a checkup or scan. A relapse means starting treatment again, Julie Hawbaker said.

"It was the journey of a lifetime ... When I look back on it, it was one big storm, with everyone going in different directions. We've come through the storm. God is good," Julie Hawbaker said.

Each year, 500 cases of Wilms' Tumor are diagnosed, usually in otherwise healthy children 3 to 4 years of age, according to

The five-year survival rate is more than 90 percent. After five years, the incidence of recurrence is small, said Aaron Hopkins, Asher's father.

Asher was one of the rare cases in which both kidneys were affected. He was diagnosed in 2005, at age 2, after several bouts with recurring ear infections.

He was rushed to University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore for emergency surgery after an MRI detected the tumors. The football-size tumor on one kidney had ruptured and the other kidney had a baseball-size tumor.

Two surgeries were required for the stage 5 cancer -- one to remove the largest tumor, then a second one to remove the smaller tumor after radiation and chemotherapy, Aaron Hopkins said.

Asher is the second oldest of five children ranging in age from 4 months to 8 years.

"I describe it like a tornado that comes and hits your family without warning. Cancer doesn't just affect the child, but the whole family," Maria Hopkins said.

Caleb was asked to be the honorary chair for the Morgan County, W.Va., Relay for Life the first weekend in June. It was at that event that he was asked to participate in this weekend's Washington County Relay for Life.

Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society's annual fundraising effort. It takes place overnight as a reminder that cancer does not sleep. The Washington County walk will be at Fairgrounds Park in Hagerstown. Opening ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. Friday.

"Asher is excited to meet Caleb. He wants to race him around the track," Maria Hopkins said.

If you go

What: Washington County Relay for Life

When: Friday night into Saturday. Opening ceremony, 7 p.m.; survivor lap, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Fairgrounds Park, Hagerstown

Information: Call 301-733-8272.

Web site:

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