Each day at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, life throws its worst at kids with cancer and blood disorders. More times than not, the young patients respond with the best that humanity offers. Courage. Faith. And, in Ian Lance’s case, the peace that comes with watching the river run.
Ian, 18, of Salisbury was born with curvature of the spine, called congenital scoliosis. His spine looked like the letter S. He’s had four surgeries on his back, the first at three months old. He undergoes a monthly spinal tap. The pain at times has left him bedridden. He was also born with one kidney, which functions well.
In March 2021, during the pandemic, he was diagnosed with a form of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. His symptoms included headaches and fatigue. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which begins in the lymph nodes and can spread throughout the body, represents 7% of all childhood cancers. Around the world, approximately 400,000 children and adolescents will get cancer each year.
In 2021, Ian spent about 75 days as a patient at Hemby Children’s Hospital. He’s been receiving chemo for the past 1 1/2 years. He is undergoing 80 weekly chemo treatments at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic across from Presbyterian Medical Center. The hour’s drive to Charlotte begins with a stop at Bojangles for a Cajun filet biscuit. Because Ian is extremely sensitive to the chemo – one treatment resulted in two weeks of delirium – his medical team must monitor and modify his dosage.Dr. Jessica Bell, a pediatric oncologist and lead physician at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic, calls it “a journey of personalized treatment.”
That journey has touched all who have been a part of Ian’s story, who have seen him endure the pain, practice casting flies during chemo and help others. More on fly fishing in a bit.
In an age when 18-year-olds can be cynical beyond their years, Angela Lance describes her son as an old soul. “I know I’m his mom, but you just have to get to know him.”
Bell describes him as a gentle soul. “There’s a purity to him.”
Regular checkups are key to a child's good health.
He looks on the bright side. He explains deliberately, absent any teenage-like “ums,” his voice soft but sure. “Tough things are going to come. It’s better to have a positive outlook than a negative outlook.” On another Monday devoted to chemo, he said, “I feel a whole lot better than I did last year and the year before.”
Facing the challenge
If you focus only on his cancer and other struggles, Ian’s story will break your heart. But as it is with so many children and youth at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic, it you focus on their resilience, the stories will buoy your heart.
Early on, Bell wondered if Ian and his family would crumble under the challenges. First the scoliosis and multiple surgeries. Then, in July 2020, he lost his grandmother, Pam Kluttz, to COVID-19. She was 67. Ian loved spending the night at Nanny’s, then waking up to blueberry pancakes, hash browns and country ham or sausage, his choice.
Eight months after she died, Ian’s cancer was diagnosed. His mom remembers the conversation she and her husband, Daryl, had with Ian. “He asked, ‘Am I going to die?’ I said, ‘No, but it’s going to be a tough road.’ He knew God was going to take care of him and that he was going to be OK.”
Having forged a relationship with Ian and his family, Bell no longer wonders if they will hold up under the weight. “I can tell him ‘the sky is falling’ and he’ll say, ‘Thank you, Dr. Bell.’”
On the river
Ian finds resilience on at least two fronts.
To say he enjoys fly fishing is an understatement. That’s obvious when you walk into the chemo room and he points out his socks. Bell purchased them for him when she was in Wyoming. They feature the colors of rainbow trout. When his strength allows, Ian will make those elaborate artificial lures that fly fishermen use – surely the only pediatric cancer patient doing so during chemo. On the river, he’ll occasionally keep a trout he has caught, cooking and seasoning it with lemon, salt and pepper. His greatest reward, though, comes from casting a line in a mountain river and listening for the quiet, whether it’s at his happy place, Yogi in the Smokies Campground in Cherokee, North Carolina, or in Montana, a trip made possible by Make-A-Wish.
“I love just listening to the river and watching the river flow,” Ian says. “It’s very calming. You kind of leave everything behind. Schoolwork. Homework. This.” By “this,” he means chemo.
Ian also finds strength in helping others, a calling he discovered at age six when he helped organize a walk to benefit his friend, Timmy, and Timmy’s family. When Timmy died of cancer at age 16, he left a handwritten will instructing that his Legos go to Ian. “I still play with them,” Ian says.
That was the start. Ian invited kids in Rowan County to donate $1 to purchase toys for the city’s battered women’s shelter. With support from friends, neighbors, his church and Walmart, Ian collected 700 yo-yo’s to share with kids along with copies of the New Testament. After chemo, Ian likes to cool off with a slushy. A Cheerwine slushy is his favorite, which makes sense. The cherry-flavored soft drink is made in Salisbury.
Figuring everyone loves a slushy, he arranged for the company that makes commercial slushy machines to donate one to the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Caroline’s Corner in Hemby Children’s Hospital. Here is where families can rest, reflect and recharge, and now, get a slushy. Caroline’s Corner honors John and Ginny Comply’s infant daughter, Caroline, who died in 2018.
The slushy machine turned out to be Ian’s Eagle Scout project, the pinnacle of Boy Scouting.
Yo-yo’s. A slushy. For Ian, it’s a form of medicine. “It’s bringing something good out of something bad,” he said.
Ian is giving back in another way. The St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital is one of eight nationwide affiliated with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and the only one in the Carolinas. St. Jude treats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The affiliation allows Charlotte patients to participate in clinical research trials to help physicians learn more about cancer with the goal of identifying better treatments for children. Participating in a St. Jude clinical trial, Ian is helping those on a similar journey.
Life’s comforts and joys
When you are 18 and in the midst of 80 weeks of chemo, you hold tight to life’s comforts and joys.
Ian is close to his mom, dad and brothers, Noah, 22, and Luke, 16. They’d do anything for him. For Luke, that means going fishing even if he isn’t as crazy about it as his big brother. No offense to the humans in the family, but Ella Grace has equal billing (almost). She’s Ian’s Shih Tzu.
The hours where he is strong enough to go to school – he’s a senior at Trinity Baptist Academy in Mocksville – are precious to Ian. The rest of the time he learns virtually from home.
Ian reads his Bible every day, does daily devotions with his mom and attends Calvary Baptist Church in Statesville online. He loves the doctors, nurses and other staff who care for him and believes God works through them. A wristband inviting prayers for Ian includes the words that he lives by, from 1 Peter 5:7. “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.”
Cast all your care on him, for He cares for you.
That’s Ian’s story, in 11 words. He doesn’t face cancer alone. His family and friends, medical team, Ella Grace, the strangers who read his story in his hometown newspaper, The Salisbury Post, or here on Healthy Headlines – they are all with him. Ian believes God is using him to help others find the strength he finds in a mountain stream or charitable cause.
When the next chemo day comes, Ian will wolf down another spicy chicken biscuit on the ride to Charlotte, march into the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic and brace for whatever the doctors and nurses have planned for him.
As Bell treats Ian, she has learned a precious lesson from him. Everyone will go through something in life. It’s all in how you respond.
Bell tells his story in two words: “Ian endures.”
Top photo: Ian Lance fly fishing in Montana. “I love just listening to the river and watching the river flow. It’s very calming. You kind of leave everything behind. Schoolwork. Homework. This.” By “this,” he means chemo.