One Angel’s Miracle

Little League Cancer Patient Throws First Ball as Diamondbacks Launch Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

 The soft tufts of hair sprouting on his otherwise smooth head, and a symphony of scars at the base of his neck are the only visible signs of the battle Angel’s fought for more than a year.

Otherwise Ashley and Anthony Carden report their good-natured 9 year old son is still who he always has been – just stronger. Even more resilient. “His doctors and physical therapists have marveled at his recovery. He kept beating the odds and making milestones in record time. He’s our miracle,” shared the couple, always holding hands. Looking at each other with warmth, finishing each other’s sentences in the shorthand of 20 years of marriage.

Anthony is quick to give his wife all the credit for Angel’s progress. After a winning night on the baseball field in the spring of 2018, Angel came home to curl up on the couch with a book. When his mom came to check on him, he could barely move or speak, and she knew something was wrong. He was rushed to the closest emergency room where a CT scan revealed a mass at the base of his neck. Quickly routed to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, doctors revealed news no parent ever anticipates – Angel’s tumor (Medulloblastoma) was the size of a plum, and aggressive. It had likely taken root in less than three months’ time.

“We felt like the world just bottomed out beneath us,” Ashley remembers.

An All-Star Team

Angel endured a 7-hour surgery to remove the tumor, followed by arduous physical therapy. He had to learn to do everything again, even walk and talk. “We were so scared that first month,” Ashley remembers. “We just took one day at a time.” If it takes a village to raise a child, she says it took a whole city or state to help Angel along this journey. She has nicknames for what she calls his all-star team of oncologists, neurosurgeons, physical therapists and nurses: the Avengers, and Men in Black. And together, they pulled together to get Angel back in the game.

After surgery, Angel had to learn to do everything again – talk, walk, eat and move. He had lost his game temporarily, but with a fighting spirit, he slayed the odds. “It was tough and he was depressed at first,” Ashley shares. But every week he’d surpass their expectations, and made record progress. His therapists — the first leg of his trifecta team —couldn’t believe how quickly he healed. Next up: Angel would have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for a year to prevent any cancer it from infiltrating into his spine.

Imagine – undergoing treatment for an entire year. And juggling three other children and the demands of work and family.

Ashley says she and her husband appreciated the physicians that allowed her to challenge them from the beginning. One of her “Avengers” is Cynthia Wetmore, MD, Division Chief at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. “She’s feisty, and she’s passionate. She listened to my concerns and didn’t sugar coat anything, and told me what I needed to hear,” she says. She has high praise for Ruth Bristol, MD and neurosurgeon, as well. “She showed us the scan of the tumor, and took the time to explain everything to us,” Ashley remembers.  Ashley pored over scores of medical journals to ensure Angel got the best treatment possible.

“At first I wanted a second opinion,” she said. “But after talking with Dr. Wetmore, I began to understand the kind of expertise I was dealing with at Phoenix Children’s.”

“We love this Hospital,” says her husband, Anthony, the quieter of the two. “Phoenix Children’s is my son’s savior,” he says. Anthony is a man with a presence, and when his eyes well up, the room gets quiet.

She calls their team at Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale the “Men in Black.” Phoenix Children’s partners with Mayo Clinic Scottsdale when pediatric cancer patients require radiation. The highly specialized proton beam therapy delivers precise doses more suitable for children with fewer side effects. Angel’s treatment required him be very still with a mesh mask strapped over his face. “They set the bar for professionalism and did everything they could to make him comfortable,” she explains. “My son is a huge Marvel fan, so they created an Ironman mask for him, and always played music. And it worked – he felt so much more comfortable. They went above and beyond.”

“I wish every child going through cancer treatment could have that kind of experience,” she said.

It Takes a Family

While the Cardens’ say they’re grateful for the expert care they received, taking care of Angel made a major impact on their already tight-knit family. But it came with sacrifices.

Someone had to be with Angel at all times to navigate his care, so his father (and devoted Little League Coach) left his job at UMOM in August of 2018. Ashley works for Bank of America, and while the company helped with a gift, the family had to make major adjustments to live on one income. She is overcome with emotion when she remembers the kindnesses people have shown, including passes from the Children’s Cancer Network so she could take her kids to the movies.

Their eldest daughter had always had a special bond with Angel, and gave up a full-ride scholarship at NAU to be with her little brother. “She just couldn’t concentrate without him,” she says. As Angel heads back to school this fall, his sister, now a student at Gateway Community College, will accompany Angel as he makes up his 4th grade year.

Ashley says their whole family has learned that life can change instantly, and they live every single day to the fullest. “I know one thing for certain,” she says. “My kids will always, always be in each other’s lives.”

All that sacrifice paid off when Angel rang the bell at the Center of Cancer and Blood Disorders just a few weeks ago, celebrating the end of chemotherapy. It was a moment his mom calls, “inspiring.” Angel will also throw the first ball at the opening game on September 1, when the Diamondbacks kick off Children’s Cancer Awareness Month.

Ashley and her Anthony agree, they’re forever grateful they found the very best care right in their own backyard, without having to travel and leave their other three children. “For us, Phoenix Children’s gave us a gift we can never repay.  They gave us our son back.”

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