9-year-old inspires city to raise child cancer awareness

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ST. GEORGE – An estimated 15,700 children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year.

That was one of the facts concerning childhood cancer recited by St. George City Councilman Ed Baca last week while reading a city proclamation signed by the mayor recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness month.

(L-R) George Stafford, his mother Jen Stafford, his older sister, and father Travis Stafford sit on the front row in the council chambers during a meeting of the St. George City Council in which a proclamation of recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is read, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
Front row L-R: George Stafford, his mother Jen Stafford, his older sister, and father Travis Stafford sit in the front row of council chambers during a meeting of the St. George City Council in which a proclamation is made recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Sitting with his family in the front row before the City Council was 9-year-old George, the inspiration behind the proclamation. The boy was all smiles and full of energy, like any typical 9-year-old. There was no indication the boy had been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer in 2014.

“He’s touched our lives, so it’s a pleasure to put this matter forth,” Baca, a family friend of the Staffords, said prior to reading the proclamation.

George and his parents and older sister were all wearing T-shirts with large bold letters on the front that read, “GEORGE SAYS CANCER SUCKS.”

“One of the reasons we do these (proclamations) is to try to raise awareness so people will know and find a way to help out somehow,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said as he handed the proclamation to George.

George Stafford, of St. George, was diagnosed with Wilms' Tumor in 2014 just after his 7th birthday. The tumor is a kidney-based cancer that typically manifests in children much younger. He underwent treatment for nine months and was eventually able to have the tumor removed. George's treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children's Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News
George Stafford, of St. George, was diagnosed with Wilms’ Tumor in 2014 just after his 7th birthday. The tumor is a kidney-based cancer that typically manifests in children much younger. He underwent treatment for nine months and was eventually able to have the tumor removed. George’s treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children’s Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News

George was diagnosed with Stage 3 anaplastic Wilms’ tumor just after this 7th birthday, his father, Travis Stafford said. For the next nine months George underwent treatment between Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.

“We walked into DRMC on July 28, 2014, and George rang the bell signaling end of treatment on April 24, 2015,” Travis Stafford said, adding that due to the treatments, his son missed the bulk of the second grade, with the exception of the last three weeks.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a Wilms’ tumor is:

“… a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. Also known as nephroblastoma, Wilms’ tumor is the most common cancer of the kidneys in children. Wilms’ tumor most often affects children ages 3 to 4 and becomes much less common after age 5.”

“It took his kidney,” Stafford said, “It ate his kidney. That’s basically what it did.”

The Wilms' tumor that was taken out of George Stafford, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, Circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News
The Wilms’ tumor that was taken out of George Stafford, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News

The situation didn’t seem real at first, Stafford said. The cancer seemingly came out of nowhere during a visit to the hospital.

Stafford related later in an email to St. George News:

… It’s never a good sign when your doctor comes in the room crying and telling you he (your son) won’t be going to school this year. We were told run home, pack a bag and go straight to Primary Children’s Hospital. Really the first week we were in a fog. There were so many doctors and pages and pages of info and test after test.

The kids took it hard, they had no idea what was happening while George was in DRMC, they just knew he was in the hospital. When they told us to go to SLC we had enough to time to get the family together and basically say we don’t know what’s wrong and we don’t know when we are coming home. We sent them to friends homes and out the door we went. Now it’s a badge we all wear, if George can kick cancer’s ass we can do anything. They do seem to pick on him more now that treatment is over.

Despite the craziness of it all, George was a champ through the whole ordeal, his father said.

George Stafford not in the brightest of moods. He's not a fan off the tube going into his nose, his parents said, but it was necessary in order to give his body the nutrients it needed due to the tumor otherwise taking them. George's treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children's Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News
George Stafford not in the brightest of moods. He’s not a fan off the tube going into his nose, his parents said, but it was necessary in order to give his body the nutrients it needed due to the tumor otherwise taking them. George’s treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children’s Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News

“Don’t get me wrong, there were pretty bad days but he always muscled through,” Stafford said.

Doctors were eventually able to remove the large tumor from George’s abdomen and he was able to return home and recover.

Since then, his family has turned spreading awareness of childhood cancer into a personal crusade.

“(Childhood cancer research) only gets 4 percent of the funding and kids get cancer,” Stafford said, referring to how the National Cancer Institute spends 96 percent of its annual budget on adult cancers with the remainder going to children’s cancers.

“These kids deserve better,” he said.

George Stafford posing for a photo with St. George Mayor Jon Pike as he holds up the proclamation from the city recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
George Stafford posing for a photo with St. George Mayor Jon Pike as he holds up the proclamation from the city recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Awareness in Southern Utah proper is also lacking, Stafford said. He attributed this to parents with children who have cancer and who need to travel out of town for treatment. A trip to Primary Children’s Hospital could last a week, or even a month.

In addition to that, Stafford said, is keeping the child locked away in a sense as parents do their best to keep them away from germs and other kids and the outside world in general so they don’t get sick.

In other words: The kids are out of sight and out of mind to the world at large.

“Because you disappear,” Stafford said.

George Stafford after a St. George City Council meeting recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
George Stafford after a St. George City Council meeting recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“We need awareness out there so people know,” he said, adding, “There’s a good chance someone in your community has a kid with cancer. And if you don’t know someone with a kid with cancer today, you probably will in the not too distant future.”

Around 43 kids a day in the United States are diagnosed with cancer, and yet they seem to be under society’s collective radar.

“If a gunman walked into a school and shot 43 kids, seven of which died, it would be all over the news,” Stafford said. “Because it’s cancer instead of a shooter you don’t hear much about it. Now what if that happened every day?

“Welcome to childhood cancer. These kids are tough and they deserve more then they are getting.”

Dixie Regional Medical Center does offer treatment services for children with cancer, such as chemotherapy, but the scope is limited, said Amy Christensen, director of Women’s and Children’s/Behavioral Health Services at Dixie Regional.

George Stafford hangs out piggyback on a hospital staff member, grinning away. George's treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children's Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News
George Stafford hangs out piggyback on a hospital staff member, grinning away. George’s treatments were given variously between Dixie Regional Medical Center and Primary Children’s Hospital, St. George/Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 2014-15 | Photo courtesy of Travis and Jen Stafford, St. George News

The services offered by the hospital are provided following the child-patient’s induction at Primary Children’s Hospital.

“Our local physicians collaborate with Primary Children’s oncologists for safe and effective treatment close to home,” said Jason MacPherson, nurse manager over pediatrics as Dixie Regional. “The patients are required to visit Primary Children’s Hospital for intrathecal chemotherapy, inpatient chemotherapy, bone marrow aspirations and other treatments we do not provide.”

One way to help

From Sept. 19 to Oct. 3 Hurst Ace Hardware, 160 N. Bluff St. in St. George, will provide customers the option to donate $1, $5 or $10 to Primary Children’s Hospital.

Additional resources can be found on these following websites

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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