When 5-year-old Braden showed his parents a lump on his jaw in mid-March 2022, his parents thought he had hurt himself while playing.
“He’s a pretty rough-and-tumble kid, so we thought, ‘Oh, he smacked into something and had swelling,'” says Jamie, Braden’s mom.
However, the lump didn’t go away, so Jamie and her husband, Nick, decided to get it checked. After seeing a few doctors in Prescott, Arizona, where the family resides, Braden ended up in the emergency department of a local hospital as medical staff attempted to make a diagnosis.
“They did a CT (computed tomography) scan and said it was a cyst based on the imaging,” Jamie says.
Because of its location, the doctor referred Braden to Phoenix Children’s to have the “cyst” removed. By that time, it was mid-May, and the family had to travel almost two hours to Phoenix for a meeting with a plastic surgeon at the main campus who could perform the removal. During that visit, the doctor ordered a biopsy to determine the type of cyst he was working with. He found it odd the lump had grown in the two-month period since the family noticed it.
An unexpected diagnosis and grueling trip
Two days after the biopsy, Jamie got a phone call from Braden’s doctor. She thought it was regarding his surgery, which was scheduled for May 25. Instead, she got news no parent ever wants to receive.
“The doctor called and said, “’I don’t think it’s a cyst anymore,’” Jamie says.
The plastic surgeon told Jamie that Braden had myeloid sarcoma, a rare cancerous tumor common in people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)—a form of blood cancer and the most common type of leukemia in children.
Since tumors are rarely malignant in the jaw, cancer had not been a part of the discussion until that point. Jamie says she knew the doctors had worked with the information they had, but “that one-minute phone call totally changed our lives.”
Jamie says she called her mother who lives close by in Prescott to come stay with Braden’s older brother and best friend, Ben, 8. Jamie and Nick quickly packed what they could and made the drive back to Phoenix Children’s main campus, where an oncology team awaited their arrival.
“It was so emotional,” Jamie recollects of the drive. “I can’t even remember that morning. It’s all just a total blur now. It was the longest two hours of our lives.”
Jamie says the family stayed quiet during the drive, but Braden asked a lot of questions about the purpose of their trip. They did their best to remain calm, but Jamie says anxiety overwhelmed her after googling Braden’s diagnosis. She admits doing so wasn’t the best choice at the time—especially while trying to keep Braden calm.
“We had to try to hold it together for his sake,” Jamie says, her voice cracking slightly at the memory.
An aggressive treatment for an aggressive cancer
When the family got to Phoenix Children’s, Braden was admitted through the emergency department. Because AML is a more aggressive cancer, Braden had to immediately start aggressive treatment. His treatment plan includes four rounds of chemotherapy—all inpatient—that last for about 30 to 40 days at a time, over a six-month period.
“They have to use a strong dose of chemo, and it wipes out his immune system completely,” says Jamie. She adds that his immunity goes to zero, so he must stay an additional four weeks to regain his strength.
“He can then leave for 7 to 10 days,” Jamie says. “By that point, his immune system has recovered enough for the next round.”
A time for coping
Everything happened so unexpectedly for Braden and his family in a matter of months, but the entire family has come together to help. Jamie says her mother cares for Ben while she and Nick stay with Braden at Phoenix Children’s. Both parents alternate their time traveling back and forth between Prescott and Phoenix.
Additionally, Braden’s paternal grandparents rented an apartment close to the hospital for the family, especially for Braden’s short breaks from the hospital. He has to stay in the Valley in case he experiences complications.
The entire journey has been tough for Jamie and Nick, but even more so for the boys. While Braden undergoes inpatient treatment, Ben can’t visit his brother because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“That’s been really tough because our boys are best buddies,” explains Jamie.
To stay connected, Braden and Ben each have an Xbox system with headphones so they can talk to each other and play games online.
“They can at least hang out, even though they can’t physically be there together,” Jamie says. “They are both very aware of what’s going on.”
- “I feel like everybody has gone above and beyond. They focus on Braden as a patient and not just a number. Because of that, Braden is coping well.”Jamie
A little compassion goes a long way
To say the past five months have been a whirlwind for Braden’s family is an understatement. He still has two more rounds of chemotherapy that will last until December. However, despite the challenges, Jamie says Braden’s medical team at Phoenix Children’s “are heroes” to her family—and so are the volunteers and staff with Child Life.
“I feel like they have made this the best they could make of a terrible situation, if that makes sense,” says Jamie. “I think Braden is coping really well, and the Child Life specialists have been wonderful.”
Jamie adds that staff explain everything to him about his treatment and diagnosis, including what machines sound like, to help with his anxiety. Additionally, because he is immunocompromised after treatment, Braden must stay secluded in his room, which can be hard for a 5-year-old. But he has found some comfort thanks to Phoenix Children’s donor-funded programs.
Jamie says the highlight of Braden’s week is playing bingo, and “he loves seeing the prizes.” Specialists will also come every day to see if Braden would like toys or games, and they bring those to him directly. In addition to Child Life, Braden enjoys animal-assisted therapy and art therapy. He gets excited thinking about “what dog is coming today,” but his favorite is Ike, a large English Mastiff. Jamie says she too gets excited for animal therapy being a dog lover herself.
“Pet therapy is a big highlight,” says Jamie. “It gives Braden something to look forward to. It’s also super good for me. For the parents, it’s very therapeutic.”
For art therapy, Braden enjoys modeling clay. It helps him pass the time. It can get mentally exhausting being trapped in a room for 30 to 40 days, says Jamie, so these programs definitely help.
“He can escape the medical side of things and just be a kid,” she adds. “I feel like everybody has gone above and beyond. They focus on Braden as a patient and not just a number.”
An anticipated homecoming
Although everything happened in a matter of months, Jamie is optimistic for Braden’s future. She says he is a laid-back kid, and he has a big brother waiting impatiently for his return home.
She looks forward to the day Braden can be a kid again and do the things he loves with Ben, including playing hockey, Pokémon, Minecraft and Hot Wheels.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. All month long, your childhood cancer donation to Phoenix Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders will be matched, up to $125,000, by our generous friends at the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation, Camelback Volkswagen Subaru | Camelback Hyundai Kia and Massage Envy.
That means when you #StepUpWithPCH in September, your gift will go twice as far for children like Braden.