Gitzen family celebrates one-year anniversary

FOUR-YEAR-OLD Gabe Gitzen enjoys running outside and playing in the snow like any other preschooler. However, he is already a cancer survivor, which his family celebrates with yard signs.

The signs are starting to fade, but the news never gets old. Gabe Gitzen is one year cancer-free.

"He's a wild animal," his mother, Sarah Gitzen, said as the four-year-old roughhoused with his two-year-old sister, Genesis.

A year ago the family was taking a deep, hope-filled breath after riding the roller-coaster of a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy. Gabe was just three when he was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Following surgery for what was believed to be an abscessed tonsil, he received four cycles of chemotherapy. Administered at three-week intervals, each lasted five or six days. Due to a compromised immune system, both from the chemo and the lymphoma, he ended up back in the hospital after some cycles.

However, on Dec. 12, 2018, both the PET scan and the CT scan came back clear. Now, the Gitzens are marking time, waiting for the results of the next scan. Because a recurrence is possible, he will not be considered cured until he remains cancer-free for five years.

Over the past year, Joe and Sarah Gitzen have taken their son for CT scans every three months. It has gotten easier in some ways, but it remains difficult in others.

Gabe has learned not to move during the CT scan. Sarah and Joe sing the "Freeze Dance" song and Gabe "freezes" when they say, "Freeze." Unfortunately, his veins are not easy to access, so starting an IV each time is not easy. On one occasion, it was even necessary to use an ultrasound machine to locate the vein.

On Dec. 9, 2019, the one-year scan came back clear.

"Friends came over. We had hot chocolate and blew off fireworks," Gitzen said.

It was their second one-year celebration. On Nov. 27, they celebrated the one-year anniversary of Gabe's bell ringing, a ritual used to note the completion of prescribed cancer treatment. They made bell-shaped cookies and rang a small bell at home.

Although cured, Gabe still has some side effects from chemo, including neuropathy in his feet. He will sometimes wake at night crying due to the pain, according to his mother. She continues to get nervous about every sniffle and fever.

"That will never go away," she said.

But they don't let that fear dampen the joy they experience in living.

"Every day you have to celebrate," Gitzen said. "It was a hard lesson to learn, but you have to celebrate."

During the coming year, Gabe will have scans every six months.