Michelle Wolverton says she’s just like any other mother. At 36, Wolverton, a lifelong resident of Huntsville, watches summer ball games after work and volunteers for Huntsville Christian Church. When she finds the time, she might even try her hand at scrapbooking.
But life wasn’t always so easy for Wolverton. In July 1994, her 18-month-old daughter, Becky, was diagnosed with cancer and headed into a whirlwind treatment period to save her life.
“Her aunt was rubbing her back one day, and she noticed a lump about the size of a nickel,” Wolverton remembered. She called her family doctor in Moberly, who immediately referred Becky to University Hospital for further examination. By the time Becky could see a doctor in Columbia, the lump had grown to the size of a quarter, Wolverton said.
Becky took her first round of chemotherapy at University Hospital in August 1994. Beginning in November, she had twice-daily radiation treatments in St. Louis for 5½ weeks.
Becky wasn’t the first person Wolverton saw battle cancer. She lost her mother to a brain tumor when she was only 7 years old.
“I immediately thought positive thoughts,” Wolverton said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to lose another person to it.’”
But all the mental preparation in the world couldn’t make the next year of Wolverton’s life easier.
“I often asked the question why someone so young and innocent had to go through something like this,” Wolverton said. “You don’t think about kids having cancer.”
“There’s some nights I sat up just watching her sleep,” she said. “One minute she’d be sleeping, and the next minute she’d wake up sick from the medicine. It’s kind of hard to explain to a 2-year-old that it’ll pass.”
For Wolverton, work offered a break from stress. During Becky’s treatment period, she was employed as an account clerk at Brownfield Oil Co. in Moberly.
“I went to work to try to take my mind off things,” she said. “There were some times I had to walk away and just try to regroup.”
Wendy Davis of Middle Grove also said work proved therapeutic when her son, Tyler, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1999. As a
secretary at Truesdell Bros. Grain Inc. in Clark, she was allowed to take off work as many hours as needed to help Tyler, who was 6 years old.
“Work was a good outlet, because you had to concentrate on what you were doing,” she said.
But David Davis, Wendy’s husband, was less fortunate. After repeatedly taking time off for Tyler’s doctor visits and chemotherapy and radiation sessions, David Davis lost his job at a machine shop in Moberly.
Wayne Richards, a pediatric oncology social worker at University Hospital, said balancing work and doctor visits can be a delicate seesaw routine for working parents. “In some cases, if both parents are working, one has to take a leave of absence,” he said. “It’s hard to estimate, but I’d say that happens in about 75 to 80 percent of cases.”
When they needed extra reassurance, both Wolverton and Wendy Davis said their families relied on Candlelighters of the University of Missouri-Columbia Hospitals and Clinics, a regional support network for families of child cancer patients.
Fewer working hours means less income, which can strain family budgets already stretched to the brink by medical expenses. Wolverton and Davis said their families relied on Candlelighters to help cover meals and gas expenses.
“We provide 10 cents a mile to go back and forth to the hospital, and we have a room at the Ronald McDonald House where families can stay,” said Dorinda Dameron, an Armstrong resident who leads the Candlelighters group. Dameron’s daughter, Laversa, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 but is now healthy and is expecting her first child.
Dameron said the group also uses phone chains to boost the spirits of parents of cancer patients. She receives parents’ contact information from University Hospital, then links them with other parents whose children have been in similar situations.
The group has no formal meetings, Dameron said, because its members are spread throughout the Columbia region. She said some parents drive up to 250 miles round-trip everyday for treatment. Higher gas prices, coupled with aggressive treatment schedules, according to Dameron, have made phone correspondence the most practical means of support.
Wolverton said she relied on her grandmother, stepmother and an interim pastor at her church for support during Becky’s treatment. A particularly rough day, she said, was when she attended the funeral of another child who died from cancer.
No matter how she felt, though, Wolverton said she put up a brave front for her daughter. “I never wanted her to see me cry. Then she’d know something was wrong,” she said.
“You don’t really have time to think,” Wendy Davis said. “You just try to keep rolling. The doctors keep you going with just enough information that it keeps you hanging on.”
Because Tyler was diagnosed with diabetes at age 3, he had serious complications after having surgery to remove his tumor. He lost his ability to walk, and he didn’t speak for three weeks during his treatment.
Finally, Tyler talked. “You just sit there and cry,” Wendy Davis said. “His first words were, ‘I love you, Mom.’ It just gave you goose bumps. To hear him speak again, it’s just like, ‘Thank God.’”
Tyler eventually relearned to walk, and after about a year, his doctors judged him healthy enough to stop treatment. He is now a cancer-free seventh-grader at Middle Grove Elementary. He likes playing basketball and taking four-wheeler rides. Cancer is far from his mind.
Davis said Tyler’s illness made the members of her family closer, since they were forced to rely on one another daily. She said her 17-year-old son, Trevor, was often scared and confused during the process. She and David made special efforts to give Trevor attention.
“We’d have supper or go to the movies,” she said. “You just try to make some special times — ‘Today is about you. We’re going to do what you want.’”
Ultimately, Davis said she’s just glad Tyler is back to normal. He has yearly checkups at University Hospital, but she said doctors have given him no cause for concern.
Becky, too, is now healthy. Her cancer has been in remission for 11 years, Wolverton said, and she visits University Hospital only once annually. Becky is an eighth-grader at Westran Middle School in Clifton Hill, and these days, she spends more time playing outfield on the school’s softball team than receiving treatment in a hospital.
Wolverton has turned her experience into a platform of hope for other parents whose children have cancer. She volunteers for the American Cancer Society and she serves on the Randolph County Relay for Life Steering Committee, for which she has organized the luminary service for several years. She also has participated in a KPLA radio cancer event and MU’s Dance Marathon.
Wolverton serves as secretary of Candlelighters, and Davis handles the group’s mail correspondence with new families and donors.
Dameron, also a member of the Relay for Life committee, said a support network such as Candlelighters can offer a sense of perspective for parents in the same situation as Wolverton and Davis. “There’s so much hope out there. Don’t worry and stress about the other,” she said.
“Keep a good outlook. Our lives are all so busy, and we think the little things are big things. After you make it through treatment, you realize none of those things matter.”
Wolverton said she always kept a positive attitude about Becky’s condition, but she worries. “I still think sometimes that the cancer could relapse. I find myself from time to time looking on the Internet to find information,” she said.
“No one’s invincible. Something can happen to someone at any given time. Sometimes I still think back asking why.”