June 20, 2019

Relay for Life honors four-year-old survivor - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Relay for Life honors four-year-old survivor

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Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2019 1:25 pm

Scary comes in many guises. Sarah and Joe Gitzen have seen this firsthand over the past year.

There's the scary of a personal growth experience. Earlier this year, Sarah stepped out of her comfort zone to participate in the L Couture Fashion Show, a fund-raiser for the Sanford Health Foundation's Cure Kids Cancer initiative. She modeled an outfit from TH Grey, a Sioux Falls Boutique.

"They did our hair and makeup," Sarah related. "It was quite an experience."

And, there's the scary of fake insects encountered in the dark. Their mischievous, then-3-year-old son Gabe delighted in startling nurses who checked on him with those while hospitalized after Halloween.

But the most terrifying scary is learning your preschooler has cancer. That's a scary that takes up residence in your heart and mind, lives in your house, keeps you awake at night -- even after you are told he is cancer-free.

"With every bump or fever or headache, your mind instantly goes to: `Is it back?' I don't think that will ever go away," Sarah said.

This year, just 10 months after being diagnosed with cancer, Gabe Gitzen will be one of two cancer survivors honored at the Lake County Relay for Life on June 14. Local veterinarian Tom Heirigs will also be honored.

The Gitzens learned in August 2018 that Gabe had Burkitt's lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The first two rounds of chemotherapy weakened his body so much that he ended up in the hospital within days of completing a cycle.

He also lost his hair, which had been thick from birth. However, his spirits remained high, even when he was nauseous from chemo.

"He'd throw up, look up at us and say, `much better,' and go back to playing," Sarah recalled.

With later rounds of chemo, Gabe didn't have the fevers that required hospitalization. Four months after the diagnosis and two weeks before Christmas, the Gitzens received the best Christmas present ever.

"He had a PET scan and a CAT scan on Dec. 12, and they came back clear," Sarah said.

But the story isn't over for this young cancer survivor. A recurrence is possible. At present, with approval from the insurance company, Gabe is checked every three months. In March, the tests were clear.

"Then you can breathe for two months," Joe said.

However, when the time comes to schedule another checkup and to seek approval from their insurance provider, their anxiety level begins to increase again. What if approval is denied? What if the cancer has returned?

"When I see the hospital number come up on my phone, I don't want to answer it," Sarah admitted.

At present, five years is considered the magic number. If Gabe remains cancer-free for five years, the likelihood of a recurrence is so slim, he will be considered cured.

So, the journey continues for the Gitzens.

On that journey, they've learned to appreciate little blessings -- like taking Gabe for a haircut. His hair has come in as thick as ever, but curly, and has been cut twice since chemo ended.

"There was one day when he was in the bathroom all day combing his hair, wetting it down and styling it," Sarah said, smiling at the memory.

On that journey, their family dynamics have changed.

"I think we're tighter for sure," Joe said. "You don't fight over stupid stuff."

"You don't sweat the small stuff," Sarah continued.

"You don't sweat the small stuff," Joe echoed, "and you enjoy the moment."

Not only do they enjoy every moment, but they are also grateful for every moment, because they are acutely aware of what they have lost as a result of Gabe's illness. Each time he was hospitalized, 2-year-old Genesis stayed with her grandmother, Carol Amick, in Letcher.

"It's not how it was supposed to be," Sarah said, her eyes filling with tears. "We were supposed to be together. I feel like I missed out on a huge number of things."

Their awareness of this loss affects the choices they make.

"We take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy stuff together," Sarah shared. "We appreciate every moment."

For other parents who may find themselves in a similar situation, the Gitzens recommend building a strong network of support.

"Lean into church. Lean into community," Joe said.

He explained that often those dealing with a crisis, such as a child's illness, don't even know what they need. If others see the lawn needs mowing and take care of that, or drop by with meals, it eases the burden. He added that both their church, Living Hope, and the community were "awesome" during Gabe's illness.

The Gitzens also recommend parents trust their instincts.

While the care Gabe received was topnotch once the cancer was diagnosed, initially his symptoms were treated as an infection with antibiotics. Sarah pushed to see a specialist as soon as possible once it was apparent the antibiotics weren't working.

They also suggest engaging in activities that occupy and distract the mind. Joe said he watched a lot of Netflix, but he doesn't even remember what he watched.

While his parents continue to live with the ebb and flow of fear, Gabe is as rambunctious and energetic as ever. Because the care he received was provided in a way that allayed his fears, he even misses his hospital stays.

"He asks to go back to the Castle [of Care at the Sanford Children's Hospital]," Joe said with a laugh.

"Everything was hard and scary, but they found a way to make it fun," Sarah explained.

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