By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, MN After a two-year battle with brain cancer, 4-year-old Charlee Harris is seeing his wish come true as he and his family experience Disney World on behalf of Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Parents Jenni and Jason Harris of Dassel first started noticing some disturbing signs when Charlee was 15 months old.
“He got really cranky when I laid him down for naps,” Jenni said. “I thought he was just being difficult.”
When Charlee was laid in the family’s jogging stroller upright, he slept fine, she said.
Then, he started getting what Jenni described as a cute, lopsided grin and eventually, Charlee started using his left hand rather than his right.
All-in-all, Charlee was a happy child and he was eating well, she said.
Within a few months, Charlee’s right eye started crossing, he was getting clumsy, and still had a funny grin.
“Nobody thought much of it. We chalked it up to being a kid,” Jenni said.
During a New Year’s Eve party, a friend commented that Charlee was “walking like a drunken sailor.”
Thinking the symptoms were related to an ear infection, Jenni made a chiropractor and doctor appointment the following week.
The chiropractor looked Charlee over and immediately suggested he see a neurologist because there was something causing pressure in the brain.
A CAT scan showed Charlee had a large mass on the left side of his brain, which was affecting the motor skills on his right side.
The doctors spent the next days preparing Charlee for surgery by increasing his sodium intake to thicken his blood, giving him steroids to reduce swelling, and antibiotics to eliminate any infections.
Jan. 13, Charlee’s second birthday, a tumor the size of an orange was successfully removed.
A week later, pathology determined it was a type of cancer known as ependymoma, a malignant cancer that is contained in the spinal fluid.
Since it was the only tumor found, this was thought to be the originating sight, Jenni said. Therefore, proton-beam radiation was recommended. This would destroy the cancerous location without damaging other parts of the brain, she explained.
From February to April 2009, Charlee received proton-beam radiation in Bloomington, IN, which was the closest center performing this type of treatment.
This particular radiation eliminated the cancerous site.
Every three months following treatment, Charlee received an MRI to see if there was any growth.
In March of 2010, the MRI showed a spot on his brain this time, in a different location.
Doctors decided to wait, thinking it may just be scar tissue.
When December came, the mass had grown to about the size of a kidney bean, and last Jan. 19, Charlee had his second craniotomy.
Pathology determined this too, was ependymoma, the same type of cancer as the first tumor. It was also determined that the crown of the head, where the second tumor was removed, happened to be the originating site.
However, since this cancer is in the spinal fluid, “basically, it’s lurking and you don’t know where it is until it starts growing,” Jenni said.
For treatment, Charlee could have full radiation of the brain and spine. However, this type of treatment does not come without warnings and Charlee’s brain development could be stunted.
“Since it’s such a terminal cancer, some [parents] choose to do that,” she said.
The Harris’ decided to go with an alternative.
In the last two years, a lot has been done as far as cancer therapy, Jenni explained.
They felt the best therapy for Charlee would be a chemotherapy regimen along with several other medications that, when taken together, “create a hostile environment for cancer cells.”
Charlee is also on Iscador therapy, which uses a pharmaceutical extraction of mistletoe in an effort to bring his blood levels up and boost his immune system.
Because of the type of cancer Charlee has, he may never be cured and will likely be on the Iscador treatment for the rest of his life.
“This is the situation God has given us, but He’s also given us the intellect and modern medicine to try and beat the odds,” Jenni said.
Living for today
Though Charlee’s battle with cancer has been difficult for the entire Harris family, it’s also given them a different perspective on life.
“You never know what a day is going to bring, whether you have a healthy child or not,” Jenni said.
Instead of looking toward the future, Jenni said that the family tries to enjoy life now.
Charlee’s big brother, Michael, 7, helps keep Charlee active, which doctors have commented has been one of the best things for his treatment and recovery.
Michael is constantly challenging Charlee, both physically and mentally. “So that’s been encouraging for us,” Jenni said.
Both Charlee and Michael also are aware that Charlee has cancer. Together, they watch the movie “Paul and the Dragon,” provided by the American Cancer Society as a way to teach young cancer patients about the disease. It also encourages them to fight the dragon that is cancer.
As a mother, Jenni would like to think in terms of the future and seeing her son graduate and get married. But since life has no guarantees, the family is enjoying the time they have to spend together now.
“That’s why we applied for Make-A-Wish,” Jenni said. “After he was rediagnosed, we thought it would be nice to do something together.”
The family found out in June that they would be going to Disney World for seven days in October.
“We’ve been counting down for 149 days,” Jenni said.
“It sure is wonderful there are organizations out there like (Make-A-Wish),” she said. “It’s a blessing.”
“Cancer isn’t a chooser of persons and anyone, at any point in their life, can be confronted with it,” she added.
The family was given a bon voyage ceremony Oct. 23 by their church, Dassel Evangelical Covenant, which began with a ride in a Dassel fire truck, thanks to their pastor and fire chaplain Keith Carlson, who arranged for the pick-up. Dassel firefighters Chad Ardoff and Jeff Putnam also accompanied the family.
The fire truck drove the Harris family around town before dropping them off at Dassel Evangelical Covenant Church, where they were greeted by parishioners.
It was a lot of fun for Charlee, Carlson said. While riding in the fire truck, Charlee commented that it was the best ride ever, not knowing what he would find when he arrived at Disney World.
A reception followed the church service and the family was escorted in the fire truck back to their home.
The family was then off for a night’s stay at the Water Park of America before their flight to Florida last Monday.