ELKHART — For a family rooted in their Catholic faith, the recent health scare the Gropp family went through elevated their ability to trust in the Lord and how powerful prayer can be.

Tom and Barb Gropp of Elkhart’s 13-year-old son, Chris, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer this summer but now thankfully and in their words, miraculously, he is cancer free.

In June, Chris told his parents he had swelling under his jaw so they took him to their family doctor who put him on antibiotics. When he broke out in a rash the doctor put him on steroids.

The day after the family returned from a two week Florida vacation, Tom and Chris were at the All Stars game and Tom, who coaches Chris’ team, said during warm-ups Chris was in tears and said “he couldn’t breathe; it felt like he was breathing through a straw.”

As soon as the game was over he took him straight to the urgent care center. An X-ray showed fluid on his lungs. The doctor said they could give him antibiotics or it “could be something else so we could send him to the ER for more thorough testing. I’m so glad I decided to get more testing,” Tom said.

Barb met them at the hospital. After Chris’ CAT scan a nurse came in and told Chris she needed to talk to his mom and dad about insurance.

Tom said, “Right away I knew something was wrong. They don’t call both parents out for insurance.”

The doctor confirmed Tom’s fears, telling them they found a mass in the chest area and at this point they didn’t know anything other than it was “something out of the ordinary.” But Tom said he could see in the doctor’s eyes and in his voice that he suspected it was serious and meant to be dealt with right away. The doctor made arrangements to send Chris to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis that night.

PRAYERS & SUPPORT

In the meantime, the couple’s other children were home alone — Chris is number six of nine children.

Josie, the oldest, was 24 and was taking care of her siblings. Barb called a group of good friends and asked them to bring dinners to the kids and said, “In a matter of 24 hours the kids had dinners for two weeks.”

She also asked friends to put Chris on their prayer lists.

“The outpouring of love and support we received from the whole community — St. Thomas, Marian High School and the Facebook community was amazing,” she said. “We were receiving prayers from all over the world. I had people telling me they were growing in their faith because of reading his story and that they had a new outlook on prayer, faith and trust by hearing his story.”

DIAGNOSIS & TREATMENT

The Gropps didn’t get a diagnosis until the second week because they discovered the steroids he’d taken were already fighting the cancer, so they weren’t getting biopsy results.

Barb shared once they determined it was lymphoma, they were told there were two kinds — both were rare but the “Peripheral T Cell” was more aggressive and they knew less about it. It turned out he had the PTCL.

According to the Lymphoma Research Foundation, Peripheral T Cell lymphoma or PTCL is a subtype of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer arises in lymphoid tissues outside of the bone marrow, such as lymph nodes, spleen, gastrointestinal tract or skin.

Barb said when they put together a treatment plan, the doctor went hard on the chemotherapy treatments. He had three rounds by October. Chris said the first and third rounds made him nauseated but otherwise he did OK.

Tom said they determined the reason Chris felt like he was breathing through a straw was because there was a 10-by-4-by-4 centimeter mass laying on his left lung and it was 50% collapsed, so he had to have a chest tube inserted for 2 ½ weeks.

Barb shared that the first hour the tube was inserted he released two liters of fluid.

DIFFICULT ROAD

Barb said some of the darkest times were when the word cancer was used for the first time with Chris. She said people were saying “mass” and “tumor,” but not “cancer.” When the oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Belsky, came in and was explaining the process, “She was the first to use the word cancer to him but she was very optimistic,” Barb said.

She was explaining the timeline could be two to three treatments, or five to six, or it could go into next year.

Barb said Chris was doing so well, as far as his spirits were concerned. He was responding to treatment but was getting discouraged about his release from the hospital continually getting pushed back.

“They kept setting a bar and he’d reach it and they’d set another,” Barb said. “It was taking a toll on him.”

She said when she and Tom went to Mass at St. John’s in downtown Indianapolis she talked to the priest about someone coming to bring the Eucharist to Chris.

The next day a deacon came and also counseled Chris.

The deacon told Barb, “He’s just scared, but he realizes the Lord’s work in this and that he’s not doing this alone.”

The delayed release was wearing on Chris, so Barb got on the prayer chains and shared a site for e-cards and said Chris could use some encouragement.

“The next day he had 55 e-cards and 90-95% of them were from people we didn’t know. Chris read every one and that was pretty emotional as well,” she said. “For him realizing how many people were praying for him, and for me seeing him get emotional.”

Tom said especially that first week there were dark times. He shared an experience that stood out that week saying he was in a dark pit wondering what was going on. He was in the elevator at the hospital and one other man was in there, too. They didn’t speak a word and the elevator stopped and the door opened.

“He looked at me and said, ‘God’s in control’ and walked out,” Tom said. “It was what I needed to hear at that point. It’s those things you draw on.”

Tom said he drew from previous experiences that he’d been through “where God worked in my life in very obvious and direct ways. When you already have that faith-point to draw from you know it’s there and it’s real.”

IN REMISSION

The couple said they were not shown the first PET scan but were told, “With all the cancer in his body he should have been in agony and they couldn’t explain why he wasn’t in pain.”

Tom said he and Chris went down to Indianapolis for his second round of chemotherapy. They were in the hotel when the doctor called. She told him she was going to take a picture of Chris’s second PET scan and give a copy to her team of doctors to put on their refrigerators.

“The doctor said the cancer was 98% gone. Her words were ‘miraculous results’ and she said she’d never seen such results, especially after one round,” Tom said.

They continued with the other two rounds and the cancer is completely gone but to make sure it doesn’t return they were going ahead with the bone marrow transplant. He went to Riley on Oct. 12 for six to seven days of intense chemo. Then on Oct. 19, he had the bone marrow transplant. Barb said the transplant only took about five minutes.

Tom said, “If they give it too much time in between it could come back with a vengeance, and they wanted to make sure they have clean blood to do it.”

Barb said the stem cell doctor said Chris exceeded the amount of stem cells needed after one week.

“Since this began he’s amazed them by how his body has responded quicker,” Tom said. “It’s been miraculous at every turn as far as I’m concerned. They were saying ‘wow’ at every turn.”

Chris had to remain at Riley two to three weeks to allow his immune system to recover from the intense chemotherapy treatments.

GROWTH & SUPPORT

Barb said the ordeal gave her a whole new outlook on suffering and for Barb the message “surrender yourself” kept coming up — from others and in homilies and in readings and through prayer chains.

“I’ve watched my son suffer not knowing the outcome, but I knew it wasn’t in vain because others were gaining from it.”

She said she was receiving messages from people sharing their experiences with different devotionals and she was incorporating all of it.

Chris said the faith foundation he was raised with helped him.

“From what I know, as long as I was faithful and prayed then God would help me get through it. Whether it took a while or not — whether it was a few years or a few months, he’d still get me through it. That really gave me hope knowing that.”

Chris’ classmates at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Elkhart, under the direction of Beth Camp, eighth-grade homeroom and religion teacher, have been very supportive and surprised Chris a number of ways.

The whole class allowed Chris to give them buzz haircuts, and even the girls got some hair buzzed underneath. The school sent cards, classmates played video games with him online, all the eighth-graders decorated posters and stuck them in his yard and before he left to go for the transplant they called him to the school where they prayed a healing rosary for him and released a helium balloon shaped like rosary beads.

Camp said she had the older children in school and has known Chris since he was “a little bitty boy. He’s quite a young man, a beautiful soul. He always has a sweet, shy smile on his face and he’s always ready to help. He has a positive attitude no matter what comes his way. What an incredible young man — sweet, honest and generous,” she said.

She sent him an e-card everyday “just to let him know he was in my thoughts and prayers.”

When asked how she felt when she heard the news the cancer was gone, she said, “It’s an example of how amazing God is. He is at work every minute of every day. Beautiful things can happen when we let go and let him take care of you. This is a perfect example of His work in our lives.”

She said it was “beautiful the way it happened. You never want your students to go through tragedy, but I think all the kids will come away with the perspective of how fragile life is and we should make every moment count.”

RECOVERY

Chris’ recovery is going well. Barb reported that Chris was getting the port removed several weeks early because the recent laboratory results were good.

Chris’ parents summed up their journey thus far.

“I feel like I went through so much transition spiritually,” Barb said. “I learned about suffering, surrender, trust. I feel like I had faith, but maybe I’d grown complacent. It’s still a journey.”

Tom said Chris’ resilience and outlook helped his parents.

“His outlook was nothing short of amazing,” tom said. “His strength gave us strength. God was working through him to help us.”

Tom said the experience rejuvenated and refocused them on “what’s truly important. Believe in the power of prayer and trust. As hard as it may be sometimes, trust and let go. Looking at how amazed the doctors were and they were saying ‘We can’t explain it’. Well, I can.”

Denise Fedorow is a columnist and correspondent for the Goshen News. Readers may contact her at fed1@bnin.net. Follow Denise on Twitter @DeniseFedorow

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