Ethan Fabac, 10, is recovering after he was diagnosed with Grade II Ependymoma, a tumor growing on his brain stem.
One evening last October, while Ethan Fabac shopped at a local Publix supermarket with his family, all he saw was pink.
Pink balloons. Pink banners. Pink labels on grocery items.
It was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; it’s hard to go anywhere without being overwhelmed by pink in October.
The 10-year-old asked his mother why there was so much visible support for breast cancer but none for childhood cancer awareness. The month prior, doctors had discovered a tumor on his brain stem, and at the time of the shopping trip, Ethan was only a month into 35 rounds of radiation treatment.
His mother, Natalie Fabac, didn’t have an answer for him. But when she went home and did some research, she learned that September had been National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
“And I had no idea,” she said. “And I had a child just diagnosed with cancer. So think of all the people out there who don’t know about it.”
So she decided to do something. This fall, she’s teaming up with Illinois-based AshleyCan Pediatric Cancer Foundation to plan a Sept. 13 walk to raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer, the leading cause of death by disease in children and adolescents in the United States.
“That night made me realize that I had to do something to support my son,” Natalie said. “There’s a lot of children with cancer and you just don’t know it. These kids need to know they have the support.”
Now she’s on the hunt for local businesses to sponsor what she hopes will become an annual event.
A mother knows
It all started with a headache and a trip to the emergency room last August.
Doctors didn’t find anything major wrong with Ethan, though, and sent him home. Weeks later, he had another bad headache, which led to another ER visit.
“Both times he was misdiagnosed and sent home,” Natalie said.
But a mother knows her son best.
During his third emergency room visit, she insisted Ethan have an MRI. She had researched brain tumors and had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right with her son. They discovered a tumor, a Grade II Ependymoma, growing on his brain stem.
He was diagnosed on Sept. 3 and was in surgery at All Children’s Hospital by the next day.
“After I found out I had to have surgery, I was super scared,” Ethan said. “But then they told me I would be asleep for it and I felt better about it.”
“He’s so tough,” Natalie said. “He’s stayed stronger than his Mommy through all of this.”
After surgery, the radiation treatments began. Several times a week, Natalie would take Ethan to Tampa for treatments, worrying the whole time about whether the tumor would grow back.
But what Ethan remembers the most from these trips is the snarling rush hour traffic.
“We had to drive so far for it,” he said. “And the traffic was so bad. It took forever to get there and to get home.”
Natalie considered entering him into clinical trials, but backed out when she learned they weren’t usually effective on Ethan’s type of cancer.
At the time, he was entering fifth grade at Seminole Elementary School. Following surgery, he had to be homeschooled.
“But he made principal’s list,” Natalie said. “And since going back in January, he hasn’t missed a single day of school.”
Friends visited him at home, and they distracted him with the things 10-year-old boys like to do: playing video games, fishing.
In fact, grabbing a rod and reel and heading to local docks with friends and family became his favorite pastime.
“[Fishing] started to click for me,” he said. “I just started catching a lot of things.”
And he likes to show off his “battle wound” – a scar that begins at the nape of his neck and travels upwards several inches.
Physically he’s “doing pretty well” now, Natalie said. But he needs to have his brain scanned every three months.
“We have to live month to month with the scans for the next five years,” she said. “I have to keep an eye on him. I’m always on edge. Every headache becomes something more.”
Throughout Ethan’s illness, social media has been a life support for Natalie. In various online forums and Facebook groups, she’s met other moms with children battling cancer around the country, many with the exact same cancer Ethan had.
One of the women she met was Maureen Montgomery, whose daughter, Ashley Montgomery, also was diagnosed with Ependymoma. The Montgomery family lives in Illinois, about 50 miles south of Chicago.
In 2001, when Ashley was 9, doctors discovered a tumor growing on Ashley’s brain stem. They did everything right: surgery, radiation, brain scans every three months, then every six months, and as Ashley got older, just once a year.
Ashley was cancer-free for nearly seven years, when they discovered the tumor had grown back. She was 16, just months shy of turning 17, and the doctors were surprised it had returned. This time around they treated it even more aggressively, Maureen said, but there was always the chance that the treatment itself could kill her daughter.
And much like Natalie, Maureen didn’t know that September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and that the cause has adopted the color gold, much like breast cancer uses pink, to rally support. When she learned this, she wanted to do more.
In 2009, Maureen formed the AshleyCan Pediatric Cancer Foundation. The organization held its first fundraiser, a 5K race, in 2011. All of the proceeds go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the world leader in children’s cancer research.
Ashley, today 23, is vice president of the foundation, frequently speaks at childhood cancer awareness events and is attending college.
Though Ashley is cancer free now, the family is still determined to help the cause.
“We’re trying to make even a little bit of a difference so no other family has to go through what we went through,” Maureen said.
And now she’s branching out to other states.
“Childhood cancer has no state lines; it has no boundaries,” she said.
Natalie’s Seminole event is the first out-of-state event Maureen is helping to organize. The Sept. 13 walk will coincide with the Illinois event and National Childhood Cancer Awareness Day.
Though she’s overwhelmed by the scope of what she’s trying to accomplish, Natalie is determined.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “But we need something like this in Seminole. We need to raise money for [childhood cancer] research and awareness of the need for funding.”
She added, “I wish we didn’t have to be part of something like this. But we need to raise awareness for our community.”
She’s already booked space at the city’s Holland G. Mangum Recreation Complex for the Sept. 13 walk.
And through social media, she’s found some help locally. Jamie Smitte, whose father succumbed to cancer two years ago and founded Quilts of Hope, which makes quilts for children with cancer, has offered her assistance.
“Both she and Maureen have been amazing,” Natalie said. “They’ve been absolutely wonderful.”
Now she’s seeking local business sponsors to step up and support their cause – she’s been knocking on doors and making cold calls – as well as volunteers for the day of the race.
“We’re hoping it’s a huge event,” she said. “We’re just hoping we can pull it off.”