Oncology nurse helps young son survive cancer

February 25, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau

Tyler Stahlecker, 4, is the picture of health after more than two years of cancer treatments. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Tyler Stahlecker, 4, is the picture of health after more than two years of cancer treatments. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Since emerging from the fog she and her family were trapped in for nine months in 2012 and 2013, Jennifer Stahlecker has asked herself the same question over and over: “Why didn’t I do something sooner?”

After all, Stahlecker was an expert in recognizing the telltale symptoms of childhood cancer, among them, an unhealthy pallor, fever, headache and other physical complaints. For a decade she had worked as an oncology nurse at Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH), helping dozens of little cancer patients through brutal, but medically necessary treatments and offering both her expertise and a shoulder to cry on to their parents and siblings.

But in July 2012, Stahlecker, who had just earned a nurse practitioner degree, was away from PCH and training for her advanced career in a pediatrician’s office, where she focused on runny noses and sore throats instead.

“In oncology, it’s always something horrible, but I was more in the mindset at this time of ‘Oh, it’s always nothing,’” she said.

The Stahlecker family of Gilbert, from left, Zach, Charli, Tyler, baby Luke and Jennifer. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

The Stahlecker family of Gilbert, from left, Zach, Charli, Tyler, baby Luke and Jennifer. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Stahlecker, who was eight months pregnant, had noticed her son, Tyler, acting strangely. Perhaps he had the “terrible twos” or somehow sensed his life was about to change with a new baby in the family, she thought. He was wakeful at night and seemed a little pale, but because of her profession, Stahlecker was wary of overanalyzing the situation. When Tyler’s preschool teacher mentioned his paleness to Stahlecker, she immediately took him to the doctor.

It was leukemia.

“I felt paralyzed,” the 32-year-old Gilbert mom said. “I didn’t know what to do. My husband (Zach) and I just cried and cried.”

But Stahlecker did know what to do, and she knew all the right people at PCH, a co-beneficiary with Children’s Cancer Network of the fifth annual GCU Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, Saturday, March 7, on GCU’s campus. An estimated 4,500 people, including 3,000 participants in 5K and 10K races, are expected to attend. The goal is to raise $150,000 for research on more effective diagnoses and treatment options for children with cancer and for education and resources for patients and their families. (Visit runtofightcancer.com for details and to sign up.)

“In some ways, it was such a blessing to know the tricks (for caring for him) and the people who began treating him,” Stahlecker said. “But at the same time, I knew all the horrible things that can happen and the kind of road that was ahead of us.”

Tyler with his new baby sister, Charli, in 2012 (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Stahlecker)

Tyler with his new baby sister, Charli, in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Stahlecker)

Right away, Tyler started a month of intensive treatment before he and his parents got a weeklong break. Baby Charli, blessedly, chose to arrive during those seven days off. His treatment resumed, and his parents and sister rarely left his hospital bed.

“He was amazing — it’s funny how 2-year-olds don’t know any different. The meds were a struggle at first, but he got used to the port in his chest,” she said. “It was much harder for the rest of us to adjust.”

Today, Tyler is doing well. He is on oral chemotherapy and receives doses at home, but he still has a round of steroids and IV chemotherapy infusions each month and endures spinal taps every quarter. His treatment is expected to end in November. Tyler has returned to preschool, his long-term prognosis is good, and things are mostly back to normal, Stahlecker said.

Well, except that the Stahleckers have a new baby, Luke, now almost two months old. When his mom returns to the hospital after her maternity leave, she will be working as a nurse practitioner in PCH’s bone-marrow transplant department. She wouldn’t trade her nursing experience for anything.

“I’m amazed by all the relationships I’ve had with the families and the kiddos themselves,” Stahlecker said. “It was so inspiring. I’ve seen kids go from the very worst moments, not knowing if they are going to survive, to thriving in school, and I’ve found strength in their families.”

Thinking about the little ones who don’t survive cancer is heartbreaking, Stahlecker said.

“Knowing that this goes on whether I’m part of it or not makes me want to be a part of it,” she said about the fight against childhood cancer. “I’ve had such a unique opportunity, because it’s such a fragile point in people’s lives. You could be there on the very worst day of their life and have the opportunity to help.

Sometimes, Stahlecker shares with other families the details of Tyler’s cancer, if she feels it may help give them hope.

“This experience changed me,” she said. “As a nurse, I have walked the path that this mom is on, and I have some idea of what the family is going through. As a mom, it has helped me appreciate every little moment, even when dealing with the ‘terrible twos.’ I appreciate everything about life because it’s without the complications of cancer.”

Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or janie.magruder@gcu.edu.

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