North Bend family fights and survives cancer

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NORTH BEND - There will be a party this Saturday in Snoqualmie that Liz Bauer would not miss for the world.

It will be a simple ice cream party but Bauer's grandson Brandon Billett will be there, a happening that every one around him celebrates after Brandon's two-year battle with cancer. Brandon will attend the party with other survivors as guests of a group of Valley residents putting on the fourth annual Snoqualmie Valley American Cancer Society (ACS) Relay For Life in June. The Snoqualmie Valley Relay, one of thousands held around the world, will raise money for the ACS that goes toward cancer programs and research. Last year the Snoqualmie Valley Relay was one of the highest grossing Relay events in the county.

While the Relay raises money that goes toward national programs and research, Bauer said it should also build local community support that her family needed over the past two years.

"Whenever we see a tragic event like 9/11 or the tsunami, we feel like doing something to help," Bauer said. "This is what I'm doing."

In January of 2003, when Brandon was just short of his fifth birthday, he arrived at Bauer's North Bend day care with swollen eyes. The following day the swelling continued and he went to a doctor who believed it was some kind of allergic reaction. Brandon was given some medication and his mother Reneé was told to bring him back if the swelling didn't go down over the weekend. It didn't. Actually, it got worse with Brandon's veins starting to show around his neck and a lump growing on his chest. The family's doctor referred Brandon to Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle where Brandon was given tests that revealed he had a cancerous tumor in his chest. He was immediately put on an extensive round of chemotherapy to reduce the tumor. In less than a week, Brandon had gone from a healthy boy to being unable to breathe properly when he lie down. The family came to a halt, trying to find out as much as they could about cancer and cancer treatment. Reneé was given a three-ring binder full of information about cancer and a stack of packets to explain all about the shopping bag full of medication that the Billetts brought home.

"It was probably the worst experience of our lives," Reneé said. "We knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what. Cancer was never even a thought."

The first year of cancer treatment was extensive and exhaustive. Brandon would go to Seattle to have several chemicals injected into his system, an occurrence that happened so often he got a portable catheter placed into his neck. While the chemicals attack cancerous cells, they also attack the body's vital organs, leaving it weakened and susceptible to illness. He was often quarantined at the hospital and within six weeks, all of Brandon's hair was gone.

Reneé, her husband Dale, or a grandparent would always spend the night with Brandon at the hospital in Seattle, stays that could last up to a week. Sometimes Brandon, and therefore whomever was staying with him, would have to be isolated from the other children. Pain and boredom could easily get to the family. The Billett's two other children, an infant boy and a teen-age girl, were affected as well, wondering what was going to happen to their brother.

Some of the trips to the hospital made for low points during the past two years. Dale had been taking Brandon to the treatments for so long that it was wearing him down emotionally. Reneé offered to start to take Brandon and during one treatment, he begged her to stop bringing him in. He promised to be a good boy if it would end the trips to the hospital.

Thankfully, Brandon did turn a corner and the cancer went into remission. His hair grew back, he can't sit still and he just celebrated his seventh birthday. Last week, he went in for another round of tests and although there is a possibility of the cancer coming back in the next few years, the Billetts are seasoned cancer fighters.

"We just take it day by day," Reneé said.

Reflecting on the last few years and trying to make sense of what may lie ahead, the Billetts know that physical health is just one part of fighting and surviving cancer. Despite the prevalence of cancer in every community, the Billetts felt as though they were kind of winging it when it came to what to expect. They relied on family, but no family can ever plan for what they went through and a little camaraderie would have gone a long way.

The psychological effect on Brandon was tremendous, as well. During his treatments, Brandon started to walk around talking about his own death. He knows more about cancer and drugs than most adults. Even his decision making has changed. He has trouble making a decision and Reneé believes it is because he has had so few real choices during the past two years. He had to go treatment. There was no choice. Now, he asks his parents what choices he should make. Big problems can be hard to explain to little people.

"How do you explain a catheter to a 4 year old?" Reneé said.

Bauer hopes that is where the ACS and fellow cancer survivors can come in. After being involved in the Relay last year, she realized there are a lot of resources that many families don't know about. The Relay itself, a huge fund-raiser for the ACS, was unknown to the family before last year. Each family that fights cancer finds out a little more since each family deals with the disease in its own way.

Brandon's family has a lot of hope, but they know cancer can come back at any time. One time when she was visiting Brandon at the hospital, Bauer saw a family from Fall City at the hospital who's child's cancer had come back. She immediately felt their pain and knew how much they were going to rely on each other to make it through another round of hard nights and hard questions.

"I want to find out about support groups here [in the Valley]," she said. "And if there are not any, there is going to be."

* The ice cream social for cancer survivors and their care takers will be at 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 19, at The Snoqualmie Inn, 9050 384th Ave. S.E., Snoqualmie. For more information, call Liz Bauer at (425) 442-1981 or Jolene Kelly at (425) 888-4257

There will also be a meeting for team captains for the Relay for Life at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Nintendo distribution center in North Bend.

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