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Joshua's Journey: Nursery family celebrates new meaning of Christmas

By JRORTEGA@VICAD.COM
Dec. 24, 2010 at 6:24 a.m.

Joshua Hughston, a 23-month-old leukemia patient, tangles his feet with Christmas ribbon while his mother finishes preparing the presents at their home in Victoria.

ABOUT CHILDHOOD CANCERLeukemia accounts for about 35 percent of all childhood cancers.

About 1 in 1,000 children will be diagnosed with leukemia by the age of 19.

It is more common in children under age 10.

The five year survival rate for children diagnosed with leukemia and subsequently treated is approximately 70 percent.

2,500cases of leukemia are diagnosed per year in the United States

Source: Pediatric Oncology Resource Center

JOSHUA'S STORY SO FARJoshua was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on July 17. The family had noticed bruising on his legs when changing his diapers and little red bumps on his skin. They also noticed a change in his mood. The family spent the first month in Corpus Christi as Joshua received high doses of chemotherapy to bring him to a safe level.

BY J.R. ORTEGA

An ornament reading "hope" dangles on the Hughston family Christmas tree.

The four-letter word of optimism also is what the family hangs onto as the youngest member of the family, Joshua, continues his journey through childhood cancer.

For the Hughstons, their son's acute lymphoblastic leukemia is no longer a death sentence or frightening prospect, but instead a chance to embrace the disease and fight the good fight.

"It puts everything into perspective," said Joshua's father, Cory. "It's a monster of a disease."

July marked the beginning of the 23-month-old's treatment for leukemia, one of the most common childhood cancers.

In his sixth month of treatment, Joshua is at the end of his intense chemotherapy phases, but still has three years of treatment to go.

Christmas won't be at all sad this year, but it has taken on a deeper meaning.

THE WAITING ROOM

Cory and Colleen Hughston drive toward Corpus Christi for Joshua's chemotherapy - one more session after this one until they are off for the week of Christmas.

The December morning is a cold one, as the family makes the weekly drive to Driscoll Children's Hospital for the 9 a.m. appointment.

Joshua's vitals are checked, and his parents walk him into the waiting room.

Other kids deck the halls of the waiting room, some playing, others crying.

"It's times like this that the cancer becomes a reality," his father said.

The newly-opened facility has no real Christmas decor just yet, but back home, Joshua and his family are ready to have a merry holiday season.

Six months ago, the reason for the season wouldn't have been anywhere close to merry.

The news of Joshua's leukemia sent them into shock.

Now, the Hughstons catch up with other parents in the waiting room as if they had been invited over to a friend's living room for a nice chat.

The parents not only talk about the progress or hurdles their child faces, but about life outside of cancer.

For the "newbies," in the room, the waiting room is a far cry from a friendly get-together, his mother said.

"You come in, and they kind of have that look," she said as she sits in a rocking chair and watches Joshua receive his chemotherapy intravenously.

Seeing that look takes Colleen to the first time she learned of Joshua's leukemia and the first chemotherapy session.

The entire process was an emotional roller coaster with hills of hope and drops of depression.

Now, they have gotten off the roller coaster and the sessions have become routine, three-to-five hour weekly trips to the hospital.

Colleen watches as the red, gelatinous chemotherapy drug, Doxorubicin, moves its way up the pipe and into the boy's mediport.

One little girl, just a bit older than Joshua, has a feeding tube as she parades around playing with different toys. Another, just several months old, has never seen outside the hospital's walls.

Those children, who are high-risk, are who the Hughstons really feel for, especially during the holidays.

Joshua is low-risk and has a 95 percent or higher cure rate, said Dr. Cris Johnson, the director of the cancer and blood center.

Johnson has unfortunately seen a lot of newly-diagnosed patients during the holidays, she said.

Seeing other families celebrate and be jovial is tough on kids and the parents.

However, the diagnosis could be a blessing in disguise.

"At least I can walk in and say, 'I know what's wrong with your child,'" Johnson said. "At least there is an answer to the questions they've been having."

Still, the world of leukemia becomes a reality once more when they realize they can go home with their son and spend time with their other three kids during the holidays - some of the people sharing that family living area with them won't get to, though.

Driscoll puts on a Christmas party so families won't go without.

"Not everyone survives," Colleen said as she continues to rock in her chair. "It's not fair."

ALL IS CALM, ALL IS BRIGHT

Cory and Colleen have a newfound appreciation for the holidays.

The disease has shown them that each of their four children is a gift and they shouldn't be taken for granted.

"A new light has been shed on Christmas," Colleen said.

Colleen sits in her only daughter's room with a friend, cutting and wrapping a variety of presents.

Joshua runs down the hallway, his foot dragging gift wrapping ribbon.

"We want him to enjoy it and have a great time," his father said.

The family had planned on a traditional Christmas, but Joshua developed a fever Thursday and was admitted into Driscoll Children's Hospital.

Doctors are suspecting an infection because of his weakened immune system. The last-minute hospitalization is all part of that three-year process, Cory said.

"We've got to make arrangements," his father said. "We'll bring the presents here and celebrate."

The traditions, like opening one present on Christmas Eve and then the rest on Christmas Day, will be slightly tweaked this year.

Joshua's screams of frustration and pain could be heard as Cory talked.

Those tantrums and severe mood swings, caused by the drugs used to help their son conquer the monster, are what's hard to deal with, his father said.

"It's hard to see him like that because that's not him," he said.

Although Joshua's chances of beating cancer are high, the family wants to live every minute like it's the last, while still remaining optimistic.

The truth about Joshua's journey is that the family doesn't know what the next three years of treatment will bring, but they're ready to face it head on.

"I don't want to lose a minute," his father said.

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