PORT RICHEY — The little boy's limp was the first clue that something was wrong.
Devin Deschaine's mother and grandmother noticed it a few weeks back, while he played in the living room of his home.
A pediatrician thought the 2-year-old had an inflammation and referred him to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. After much testing, doctors thought it could be leukemia.
Turns out, the diagnosis was even worse. Devin is in the most severe stage of neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer that has caused tumors on his spine and adrenal gland. It has spread to his hip bone and bone marrow.
Unable to work while her son is hospitalized, Melissa Deschaine, a 20-year-old single mother, is behind on the rent at her Port Richey home. Grass roots efforts by friends and co-workers are sprouting to help Devin and his mother afford another place to live.
"You read about this and see movies and you cry," Deschaine said, "but it doesn't happen to you."
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Neuroblastoma develops in nerve cells found in different areas of the body. About 650 people in the United States are diagnosed with it each year.
The disease more commonly affects children 5 and younger like Devin. He is in stage four, the most severe stage of the disease. Patients in his stage have a 30 to 40 percent chance of survival.
Its cause is unknown, and doctors have yet to find a cure.
The most common treatment is chemotherapy, which Devin is undergoing to shrink his tumors. Then doctors plan to remove them.
After losing her son to neuroblastoma nine years ago, Patricia Tallungan started the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation in Illinois. The nonprofit raises money for research and helps families of patients cope.
Like Devin, Nicholas Tallungan started showing symptoms with a limp. Doctors discovered a tumor on his adrenal gland. Chemotherapy removed it, but it reappeared. Nicholas died when he was 10.
"You have to hope with this disease," his mother said, "and keep looking forward."
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Devin was admitted to All Children's Hospital on April 28, after a doctor there spotted dark patches on his hip and upper thigh in an X-ray.
An MRI and blood work led doctors to suspect Devin had leukemia. To be sure, doctors removed some bone marrow with a needle for a lab test.
The results of the test, combined with the tumors that showed up on Devin's MRI, meant one thing: neuroblastoma.
Deschaine wasn't sure how to handle the news.
"I had a nervous breakdown," she said. "I left the room and came back. I was thinking, 'This is my 2-year-old son.' I said, 'No, this isn't true. He does not have cancer.' "
Since the ordeal began, Deschaine's mother, Suzanne Belhumeur, has been by her side at the hospital.
"It's turned our whole world upside down," Belhumeur said. "It's all out of my control."
Devin has been undergoing hourlong stints of chemotherapy since Friday. His first round of chemotherapy will end today.
His mother made sure he has a few creature comforts: his baby blue blanket with the baseballs on it and his Curious George doll. His grandfather brings him dill pickles, his favorite food.
"He's been such a little trooper," Deschaine said of her son during treatment. "He's been handling it so well."
He could go home in a few days, but must return to the hospital every other week until he has had eight rounds of chemotherapy. By then, doctors hope his tumors shrink and can be removed. Deschaine's health insurance is paying for her son's treatment.
While at the hospital, Deschaine, a nurse in Clearwater, has used up the six days of vacation she gets from her job. This week marks her third week of unpaid leave. She doesn't have the money for this month's rent and expects to be
When Devin leaves the hospital, he and his mother will need a place to live. Their friends are organizing fundraisers.
Devin's babysitter, Heather Mendaros, said her sons are approaching local business owners about placing spare change jars at their establishments to raise money for the Deschaines. Her co-workers also want to help and are brainstorming ideas for fundraisers.
Deschaine is resting on the hope that her son defies the odds and beats his disease.
"I have all faith that he will be okay," she said. "Since day one, he has been a fighter … he's going to make it. It'll just be a rough time getting there."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.