Siblings from Locust Grove wage fight against blood cancer

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Finding out he had cancer last year wasn’t easy for 12-year-old Travis Turner of Locust Grove. Still, the seventh-grader said it was even harder to find out the disease hit his 14-year-old brother, Matthew.

“It just reminds me that I’m not the only one who’s going through this, that other people have to deal with it, too,” said Travis Turner, who will be 13 on Friday. “I just try to take it one day at a time.”

L. to r.: brothers Travis and Matthew Turner have been under treatment for MDS during the past year at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Special photo

Both boys received bone marrow transplants at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta this past year as part of their treatment for myeloid dysplastic syndrome, also known as MDS. They recently started back to classes at Locust Grove Middle School after nearly a year off for treatment.

The boys’ adoptive mother, Donna Mitcham, said the disease has always been a part of the boys’ lives in some way.

“They’re biologically my nephews,” she said. “Their mother, my sister-in-law, passed away from the same disease that they have. She passed away when the boys were 2 and 3.

It’s a blood cancer, basically,” continued Mitcham. “Their bone marrow doesn’t produce healthy cells. Their mother’s name was Natalie, and her dad also passed away from this disease when she was a teenager.”

Mitcham said the boys’ condition has left her family with “no choice but to be strong.” Until last year, she had no idea that the disease that claimed her sister-in-law’s life would continue to affect her family, when Travis was just 11 years old.

“Travis got a rash back in 2016,” said Mitcham. “I took him to an urgent-care doctor, and some of the blood work looked suspicious, so we were referred to the AFLAC cancer center at CHOA.”

“When Travis was diagnosed, the doctors felt like Matthew would be a good match because they’re siblings. When Matthew was tested, they found out he had the same disease. [The news about] Travis knocked us off our feet, but Matthew pretty much rocked our entire world. We were not expecting either one of those, really.”

Travis underwent a bone marrow transplant in August of 2016, and Matthew had the same procedure in November of the same year. Because of this, doctors at CHOA placed each of them in isolation following their respective procedures while their immune systems were rebuilding, said Mitcham.

“I lived in the hospital at Egleston from August to the end February,” she said. “Travis got home from the Ronald McDonald House, and I had about 10 days at home before the hospital admitted Matthew.”

Mitcham said her sons’ illness goes against the notion that cancers are not hereditary.

“Their mom possessed a gene that was passed down,” she said. “If the boys have children, they would have a 50 percent chance of having MDS.”

Mitcham said that prior to finding out about her sons’ condition, she empathized with others whose kids have cancer. However, she noted that she was nonetheless unprepared for her sons’ diagnoses.

Still, Mitcham said she is proud of her sons for how they have dealt with their cancer.

“They’re great kids to have endured what they have over the years,” she said. “They are amazing. They’ve handled it so much better than any adult I know, myself included. I can’t imagine what it’s like being told that you have the same disease that killed your mother at 29 years old. When we first found out, Matthew’s first question was, ‘Will I ever be able to play football again?’”

Stories like those of the Turner brothers are more prevalent than some might ­think, and appear to be on the rise. A recent CHOA report indicates that more than 250,000 new cases of cancer affect children under the age of 20 worldwide each year.

Across the country, cancer among adolescents and young adults is increasing faster than any other age group, excluding those over age 65.

“In 2013, there were nearly 390,000 childhood cancer survivors in the U.S. This number is projected to grow to more than 500,000 by 2020, according to the CHOA report. Cancer reportedly claims more children’s lives each year than than AIDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis and diabetes combined, and is the leading cause of death by disease in children and adolescents.”

Laura Turner, community development officer at CHOA, is among those who have gotten to know Mitcham and her sons during their fight against cancer. She said the family has made a positive impact on others with their courage.

“They have been extremely forthcoming about their family’s journey, and by sharing their story, with all of the good and the bad, they have educated and inspired countless people, including myself,” said Laura Turner. “They have had their down moments like everyone battling this awful disease, but their faith, love for each other and sense of humor is always there.”

Mitcham added that her family’s faith in God has helped them to endure the battle against cancer. She said the staff at CHOA has been an integral part of that process as well, as evidenced by Matthew’s last day at the hospital.

“When it was time for Matthew to go, there were a couple of nurses who just cried and cried,” said Mitcham. “Those people are definitely called to do their jobs.”

Matthew Turner turned 14 on Sept. 13 and recently started his eighth-grade year at LGMS. He said others at his school have been a source of encouragement for him and his brother in their battles with cancer.

“I still have to take medicine, but we’re pretty much back to normal,” said Matthew Turner. “People are surprised and proud of how we did with the whole thing – how we coped with it, I guess.I surprised myself with how well I did, and how well my brother did, too. It was hard, but we try to just stick together and fight through it.”