COLUMBIA — Aiden Taylor is only 8 years old, but he already knows what it's like to fight for his life.
Just last week, doctors discovered tumors in the boy's brain and spine. He was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer that often spreads to the spine. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, it accounts for less than 2 percent of all primary brain tumors.
Doctors have performed two surgeries, the first to remove a tumor from Aiden's brain. The second surgery was intended to remove tumors from his spine, but they were found to be inoperable. Aiden must undergo chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the remaining cancer cells.
Family, friends and neighbors have rallied in the last week to establish a website for donations and provide meals for the Taylors. Aiden's classmates at Shepard Elementary School are showering him with cards and good wishes.
His parents, Josh and Lisa Taylor, said Aiden had been complaining of headaches and back pain for months, but they weren't prepared to receive the devastating news that their tough, lively second-grader needed brain surgery.
"We never thought this could happen," his father said. "He started having headaches just before Thanksgiving. He missed a couple days of school. We thought it was just allergies or something."
While visiting family in Chicago, a dog bit Aiden's face and it required skin grafts. After returning to Columbia, he complained of more headaches, in addition to pain in his back and legs.
"At that point, we thought it was just because of the surgery," Josh Taylor said. "We thought it would go away."
The pain only got worse. According to his mother, Aiden's teachers at Shepard were concerned when he began having trouble reading.
"We thought maybe something was wrong with his vision," Lisa Taylor said.
After visiting an eye doctor in early January, the Taylors discovered that their son's optic nerves were severely swollen. They were referred to a specialist.
Things progressed quickly from there.
A CT-scan was scheduled for Jan. 21. As the family was returning home that evening, they received a phone call from the hospital. Lisa Taylor answered it.
Unable to hold back tears, she handed the phone to her husband.
"They said they were sorry, they didn't have good news for us," Josh Taylor said. "I just tried my best to hold it together."
Aiden was admitted to MU Children's Hospital that night.
"We tried to be really vague with him because we didn't know how he'd react," his mother said.
His parents said he didn't seem scared or worried.
"They sent in a child life specialist to talk to him, and he said, 'Yeah, I know, there's something in my brain that the doctors need to take out so I won't have headaches anymore,'" Lisa Taylor said.
Doctors told his parents they don't know what caused their son's tumors.
According to the National Cancer Institute, brain tumors are the most common solid tumors found in children between the ages of 1 to 14. The institute lists genetic abnormalities and exposure to radiation as potential causes. Because cancer in children is uncommon, it is hard for scientists to pin down specific causes.
Aiden is "very brave," his parents say.
"He loves animals, loves baseball, loves school. He loves life," his mother said.
When he found out about his surgery, he was worried about his pet hamster, Aiden Jr. He asked his mom, "What is Aiden Jr. gonna do without me?"
"He was more worried about the hamster than anything else," Lisa said.
Neighbors Jackie Gatz and Monica Korba have set up fundraising efforts online to cover medical and related expenses. Korba has also organized a website where people can sign up to provide meals for the family.
"We have so much more that we want to do, but nothing is definite. We've talked about T-shirts and wristbands. Anything to show support," Korba said.
Aiden's classmates and teachers have sent cards of support and encouragement. Some have posted videos and pictures on Aiden's Avengers, a Facebook page that was set up for the family to share updates and information.
The Taylors are overwhelmed but thriving. They keep their older son Braxten, 11, busy with friends.
"I think it's hard for him to see him this way," Lisa Taylor said. "He looks at him like he's going to break."
Lisa Taylor has spent every night in the hospital with Aiden. They've turned his hospital room into a makeshift home, their belongings stowed in cabinets and draped over chairs.
More than anything, seeing their son in so much pain has been difficult for the Taylors.
"I laid in bed with him and told him I was sorry he was in pain and that I wished I could feel it for him," Lisa Taylor said.
"He said, 'No mom, you don't deserve that,'" she said.
"He's just so sweet."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.