When what looked like an odd birthmark turned out to be a sign of cancer, Sheryl and Jon Blanksby could not be prepared for what was to come.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
Thomas Blanksby, son to Sheryl and Jon Blanksby, was born in November 2016 with a skin lesion that looked like a birthmark on his arm. “We thought it was an odd birthmark. But we were not worried about it at first,” says mummy, Sheryl.
Just in case, the family saw a skin specialist and tissue was removed from the lesion to be biopsied. Sheryl also noticed that Thomas’s belly was rather big and he was always hungry. At first, Sheryl thought he was just a good feeder. But at six weeks old, Thomas’s GP recommended an ultrasound after “feeling something” in his abdomen.
When a Baby has Cancer
It turned out to be a large tumour in his kidneys. “It was a Malignant Rhabdoid Tumour. It's an aggressive and very rare kind of cancer most common in babies and toddlers. It has a 30 percent chance of survival and there are only 20 to 25 cases each year in the US,” says Sheryl. In Thomas’s case, due to his age and the areas of the body in which the cancer has spread, there is nothing doctors can do to successfully treat him.
In other words, Thomas doesn't have much time.
When the news first broke, Sheryl says, “I felt numb and my mind was blank. I remember just hearing noises as the doctors were explaining the diagnosis, options, treatments, etc. I asked the main oncologist if he was in pain and they said yes. That's when I broke down.”
Jon, on the other hand, cried immediately upon hearing the news. His first thoughts were of William, their older boy. He says, “I felt sad and confused but mostly worried about our older son William. I worried if he has the same tumours or if he's going to be okay in the future.”
So, what do you do when you find out your precious little one, the light in your eyes, has months, or even just weeks left to live?
Sheryl and Jon say that there is no real way to “accept” a thing like that about one’s child. “We are still in the process of coming to terms with it. Right now, we live in the moment. We try to go on trips locally and within Australia when Thomas allows us to. I mean, we gauge everything by his current symptoms and pain. We were not given a time frame so we take each day as it comes. We try to live it as normally as possible for our older son William, but we try to make as many memories as we can as a family,” says Sheryl.
Thomas isn’t the only one Sheryl and Jon worry about. Their older son, William, doesn’t fully comprehend his brother’s disease. “We read him children books about life, sickness and death. We are also honest with him when he asks us questions about Thomas,” says Sheryl.
Sheryl recently posted a picture on Instagram that went viral.
The picture was of William lying next to Thomas on the couch,
one hand tenderly placed on his baby brother’s cheek, saying softly,
"Kuya (big brother) is here. Everything is okay".
While William understands that his baby brother is in a very special situation, he only understands it innocently, not really having a concept of death. “William still plays roughly with him but he knows which of Thomas' legs are painful. But William never fails to kiss his brother first thing in the morning as soon as he wakes up, usually waking Thomas up too. He tells his friends who are visiting to be quiet when Thomas is asleep and you would hear him say ‘Please be quiet, my baby is asleep’. William wants to be a part of everything, be it changing nappies or giving medicine. He sings to Thomas, teaches him how to count and the ABCs. He constantly reminds Thomas that everything is okay because he's there,” explains Sheryl.
When asked how she thinks William will react when Thomas is no more, Sheryl says that she knows he will be upset and confused. “He will be upset to see me upset and I know he will miss Thomas so much.”
Making Memories While They Can
Sheryl and Jon have no real options except to treasure the days they have together as a family. “I always tell myself, instead of thinking about the things that my son is going to miss out on, I think of the things that we can do together now. Make as many memories as you can. Take photos and videos. You will want to remember how they sound like and record the good, the bad and the ugly moments.”
Family friends of the Blanksbys very quickly started a gofundme campaign
that has been quite successful.
The campaign asks for contributions so that the family can make the most of their time together,
and travel without the added stress of worrying about finances.
“[Our friends] hid it from us until after the birthday bash we threw for Thomas, which already had donations in it from people at work as well as from friends and family. It still blows our mind how complete strangers can be so generous,” says Sheryl.
So far, the family has been to Queensland and says they are planning on flying to Broome (Western Australia) depending on how Thomas feels. “We haven't been able to cuddle him or hold him upright so handling him in a flight is going to be tricky. We've just been going for drives locally, to parks, beaches and other towns within Perth. We go for picnics and walks as well,” says Sheryl.
Reflecting on the time they’ve spent travelling together so far, Sheryl says, “It's definitely bitter-sweet. It was hard to compartmentalise my thoughts and feelings, but when we were in Queensland, I just kept on reminding myself to live in the moment and take one day at a time. I even told myself to not think of the cancer. I couldn't, but William helps me to just be. If it wasn't for William, I think both Jon and I would be a complete mess.”
Love All Round
While the pain of knowing you will lose your child is unimaginable, Sheryl and Jon are taking it as positively as they can. Armed with a strong support network and love pouring in from strangers, the couple has chosen to focus on gratitude.
Sheryl says, “I tell people to always find something to be grateful about in their life despite the challenges and problems because there is a lot to be thankful for. I tell them to live in the moment as well, and only worry about things that actually matter, especially when it comes to family and kids.”
She adds that if there was one significant lesson she’s learnt from the whole situation, it’s that no matter what happens, there’s always a village of people out there willing to help you through it. She says, “We've received and are still receiving countless messages of love and prayers from all over the world through social media. These messages remind us that we are not alone in this, and there is a lot of love going out to our boys.”
Since sharing their story with us, Thomas Blanksby sadly passed away at just five months old. Our thoughts and love are with his family.