PRINCETON — Getting a diagnosis that one son has cancer is difficult enough. But imagine finding out nearly two years later that a second son has cancer, too. It seems inconceivable, but for the Gerber family, it’s reality.
In October 2017, their youngest son, Age, who was 3 at the time, was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor. He underwent eight months of chemotherapy and eventually lost both of his kidneys to Denys Drash Syndrome. Up until recently, he was receiving dialysis.
While on the road to recovery with Age, the Gerber family’s older son, 12-year-old Wyatt, fell ill and was soon after diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on Sept. 4. He is currently under-going vigorous chemotherapy.
Zepha Gerber, the boys’ mother, compares her situation to being struck by lightning twice.
“It’s very rare to have this happen to a family within a couple years,” she said. “Cancer is one of those things that blindsides you. It’s not something parents like hearing about when it comes to their kids.”
The past couple of months have held some of the darkest and most strenuous days for the family, but one thing that’s keeping them strong is their faith.
“We serve a really good God, despite the bad things that are happening to us,” Zepha said. “Our family is really grounded in faith. As hard as this is for us, I know there is a God that walks before me.”
The community of Princeton has wrapped its arms around the family over the past several months — from fundraisers to meal chains to sporting their son’s football jersey number at games. A Gerber Brothers Unite Benefit is also is the works for Nov. 9 at the Princeton Wesleyan Church.
“The blessings are overflowing. The community has just been awesome to us,” Zepha said. “They’ve just showered us with love that we didn’t feel we deserved. We’re truly humbled by it.”
When Age was diagnosed
Age was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor just before his fourth birthday in October 2017. He underwent eight months of chemotherapy.
“There were times I thought I’d never see depression in a 3-year-old, and I did when he was going through chemotherapy. He just couldn’t vocalize what was going on with him, and when doctors and nurses would check on him, he would just look past them,” Zepha recounted. “It’s was an up-and-down roller-coaster ride.”
Age eventually lost his kidneys to Denys Drash Syndrome and had been living on dialysis since January 2018. On Oct. 17, his fifth birthday, he underwent a kidney transplant surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital where his father, Shawn, was his donor. All are doing well as they recover from the surgeries.
While professionals tell the family they don’t think Age will remember much of what has happened to him, Zepha said she believes he will. He has spent most of his life around hospitals, doctors and treatments.
“It’s a big part of his life,” she said. “He finds it odd or interesting that doctors and nurses that worked with him are now working with his brother.”
When Wyatt was diagnosed
This past summer during football practices, Wyatt’s coaches noticed his difficultly breathing and trouble keeping up. It was out of character for Wyatt who, Zepha said, is athletic and one of the bigger guys on the team.
While they thought it might be asthma, his symptoms quickly turned flu-like. Zepha took him to the St. Margaret’s Walk-in Clinic, where the doctor there quickly picked up on abnormalities and sent them to the emergency room. After undergoing tests, the doctor pulled Zepha and Shawn into his office.
“It felt like the principal’s office,” Zepha said. “Something was wrong.”
While Zepha thought the doctor might tell them Wyatt had appendicitis or something that would require him to stay at the hospital, the last thing they expected to hear was he had cancer.
“My husband and I could not believe what was spilling out of this doctor’s mouth,” Zepha said.
Wyatt was Life-Flighted to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Peoria where it became clear that he had T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He will continue vigorous chemotherapy for eight to 10 months and then undergo two years of maintenance chemo.
While Zepha said he’s staying strong and taking it well, he is bummed about missing out on sports.
Wyatt was able to be transferred to Boston before Age and Shawn’s kidney surgeries. He will continue his chemotherapy there for the next several months while the family stays with Age. In December, they plan to return to Princeton.
Zepha said the family is homesick. Wyatt especially misses his friends, school and eating at his favorite restaurant, Los Ranchitos. They are forever grateful for the support system back home that is keeping an eye on their three daughters (ages 20, 16 and 5). Zepha said they are hanging in there through this new journey, too, but she worries about their well-being, as any mother would.
Want to donate to the family?
Monetary donations for the family can be deposited at Heartland Bank & Trust in Princeton under Gerber Brothers.
Nov. 9 benefit
What: Gerber Brothers Unite Benefit.
When: Saturday, Nov. 9.
Time: 2 p.m.
Where: Princeton Wesleyan Church, located at 421 E. Dover Road, Princeton.
What: Fun fair, silent auction, food, bake sale and 50/50 drawing.