While waiting for his haircut in late February, 5-year-old Kaiden Crowther started a grown-up conversation about wrestling with another customer sitting beside him at the salon. She happened to be WWE Superstar Natalya.
When he came back for his next visit, he found she'd left him a "Royal Rumble 2011" wrestling video — a video he now watches with his older brother, Ashton. Every now and then while watching it, the two start wrestling on the floor.
That's when their mother, Dominique Crowther, 37, runs in to separate the two boys. She fears someone could get hurt. Her biggest concern is that if Kaiden gets hit on the chest, the double lumen port on the right side of his body will be damaged.
A night in January, while Mrs. Crowther and her husband, John, 37, were getting the boys ready for bed, they noticed a quarter-sized lump on Kaiden's neck, near his collar bone. Immediately they were concerned because leukemia runs in the family, so they hustled to Trinity Urgent Care. They were told it could be an infected lymph node or even a developmental cyst. Kaiden left with antibiotics.
When the lump didn't disappear, they took Kaiden to an ear, nose and throat specialist. By then he could not raise his left arm higher than his shoulder.
The Crowthers took Kaiden to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg for tests. He got an MRI and eventually a biopsy. It came back as cancer.
On Jan. 28, he was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor or AT/RT, a highly malignant and rare cancer.
Kaiden's doctor at All Children's, Stacie Stapleton, said this type of tumor can be found anywhere in the body, typically in the brain, and it is mostly found in children age 5 and under. Kaiden's tumor is in his left chest and neck area and in his upper left arm.
Stapleton said his tumor is not hereditary.
"It is just a random unfortunate event," she said.
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Life quickly changed for the Crowthers. Kaiden, a kindergartner at Trinity Elementary, started visiting the hospital every other week for chemotherapy. He gets his chemo through an IV line that connects to the port on the right side of his chest.
Mrs. Crowther had to quit her job as a dental hygienist. Her husband works six to seven days a week to make ends meet. He is salesperson full time, installs shutters and blinds on the side, and on top of that, coaches baseball.
She said their insurance has been good and most tests and procedures are covered, but because they don't know how long this is going to last, they have to be very careful about their spending.
To keep 7-year-old Ashton's life as close to normal as possible, they decided to keep him in baseball this season. Mrs. Crowther said her neighbors have been "incredibly helpful", especially when it comes to transportation and sometimes watching Ashton.
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After a couple rounds of chemo, the Crowthers got a false sense of hope. Kaiden started raising his left arm again, and they noticed that even after his treatment, he could hang with the kids. The tumor was getting smaller, too.
"He's had minimal side effects, a little bit of nausea and vomiting, but energy is pretty good," his mother said.
"He is still running around, playing with kids in the neighborhood, playing kick ball and doing really good."
But after three rounds of chemotherapy, the All Children's tumor board met to discuss surgical options. The chemo wasn't getting rid of everything.
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Kaiden knows he has cancer, Mrs. Crowther said, but he doesn't understand the stakes.
"He'll say, 'I have a cancer', and if a commercial comes out on the TV or the radio, he'll claim it like it's a new toy that he got," she said.
Kaiden is a bundle of energy. If it weren't for his soft, bald head, no one could tell there was anything wrong. Mrs. Crowther said if she needed to describe her son with one word, she would use:
"His personality is tough and his physical well-being is tough," she said. "When he doesn't cry, he comes home and tells my husband, 'not even a tear,' and so he is proud of himself after a doctor's visit, but he is scared in the process."
His mother asks herself: How do you explain cancer to a 5-year-old?
"I don't want him to give up that fight."
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The Crowthers are not alone in their fight.
They have a community of people from family to neighbors and friends — and some people they don't even know — but they all want to take part in Kaiden's fight for cancer one way or another.
"I would like to help every child, but given that they are in our community, and given that they are a friend of the family, I figured I would help with whatever I could," said Sarah Palmisano, a registered nurse at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
When she first heard the news, she and her colleagues sold candy bars in their emergency room. And now, she has also set up a Cruisin for Kaiden poker run and benefit party for Saturday.
"We are so thankful," Mrs. Crowther said. "People that we don't even know have done so much for us, and it's very nice to have people think of us."
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.