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Victoria family opens up about son's leukemia, church plans future benefit events

By JR Ortega
Sept. 22, 2010 at 4:22 a.m.

Twenty-month-old Joshua Hughston gazes at huge bubbles, with his mother close by, as physical therapists at Health Force Pediatric Rehabilitation try to make his therapy as painless as possible. Joshua was diagnosed on July 17 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is receiving chemo and physical therapy.

HOW TO HELP JOSHUA

The Covenant Life Church has already sold out barbecue plates, but those interested in making a donation can stop by the church at 108 Cozzi Circle, Suite H or call Pastor Bobby Rivera at 361-648-4673.

The short, light blue walls trap Colleen Hughston in the DeTar Hospital Navarro emergency room with unsettling medical instruments and an airy chill.

Nerves eat away at Hughston as she contemplates why her son's health has been poor. He was just 18 months old.

A shape at the door needs no introduction; his face and the news he brings draw in the room's suffocating aura.

Hughston's mouth locks.

Trying to exorcise the words "what did you say" from her mouth is unsuccessful.

By his mother's side, her other son is beat down by the announcement and melts into the floor in an out-of-breath sob.

Her child has cancer.

Joshua Hughston's case will resonate with about 5,300 people in the U.S. who are expected to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2010, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Despite the bumpy road ahead, the Hughston family of six look to the outpouring of support from friends and fellow members of Covenant Life Church in Victoria.

The church is hosting a barbecue fundraiser in Joshua's honor on Friday.

"We have the peace that God is in control," Hughston said.

LIVING WITH LEUKEMIA

The family huddles around the kitchen table in their home in Nursery and talks about the moment they learned Joshua had cancer.

"It was surreal," said Hughston, teary-eyed. "It never dawned on me that he'd have cancer."

In Victoria County, there have been 11 reported cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in people from birth to 19 years old between 1998 and 2007, said Chris Van Deusen, Texas Department of State Health Services.

In the same period and age group, Texas has seen 2,418 cases, Van Deusen said.

Joshua, now 20 months old, was diagnosed on July 17 with the cancer.

His is a blood cancer, and begins when blood cells in the bone marrow change and produce rapidly.

Both parents became wary when they noticed that holding Joshua's feet to change his diaper left bruises on his legs and feet.

Petechiae, or red bumps on the skin, fever and fussiness had their son showing uncharacteristic behavior, said his father, Cory Hughston.

"He had been acting a little not normal," he said. "Things weren't adding up."

Doctors at DeTar saw the symptoms, ran blood work and knew what he had.

The family headed to Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi that same summer day.

The family's newest hurdle has not been financial, but emotional.

The oldest son, Sam Hughston, 12, is the most sensitive in the family, his mother said.

Sam was attached to his grandfather, who died from cancer several years ago, she added.

"Hard," Sam said about watching the family's youngest go through so much testing.

The tears stopped once his father's hand touched his shoulder.

From the day of Joshua's diagnosis until mid-August, both parents stayed in Corpus Christi.

The traveling and separation from the other three kids was difficult, both said.

That month, Joshua received IV chemotherapy once a week and was on daily oral steroids.

The pills, chemotherapy and exams made Joshua fussy and unable to walk, said Dr. Cris Johnson, medical director of the Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at Driscoll.

"When you're his age, you don't understand why you feel so miserable," Johnson said.

Joshua's first month was the hardest, she said.

On top of chemotherapy and steroids, Joshua received three spinal taps and three bone marrow exams to see how he responded to treatment.

Joshua's progress has been positively drastic, Johnson said.

"It's night and day," she said.

Still, Joshua will undergo various forms of chemotherapy for the next three years, Johnson said.

Joshua's chance of beating leukemia is high.

He has a 95 percent chance of being leukemia free after the treatments, she said.

"He has a one of the best types of leukemia and he has responded very well to the treatment," she said. "Most kids who have chemotherapy grow up with an average, happy life."

DAY BY DAY

Joshua's sister, Ashlee Hughston, 16, playfully feeds her little brother his favorite snack, Cheetos.

Dark-eyed and lively, Joshua smiles and reaches for the chip - his bald head shining in the light.

His favorite are the crunchy ones.

"It brings a smile to all our faces," Ashlee said about seeing her brother interact with his environment.

Monkeys welcome Joshua to his bedroom.

He's finally home, but will still receive chemotherapy in Corpus Christi once a week.

While he was at Driscoll for the month, the members of the family's church decided to make the home more livable for Joshua.

Carpet was replaced with tile, walls were knocked down and repainted, and a central air conditioning unit with a special filtration for those with poor immune systems was installed, said Pastor Bobby Rivera.

"When it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us," Rivera said. "We've been there spiritually, physically and emotionally."

The support from the church has been endless, Colleen Hughston said.

"The reality is we can have a good week and we can have a bad week," she said.

Aside from the barbecue, the church is planning for events that could financially and emotionally help get the family through Joshua's journey.

"It's just beginning," Rivera said.

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