More than a decade after diagnosis, a family counts its blessings
Stephanie Hodder (left), 12, and Damian Hirschkorn, 13, remain close years after sharing time at the Janeway Hospital. Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram
First cousins Stephanie Hodder, 12, and Damian Hirschkorn, 13, have plenty in common. Just nine months apart in age, they're both avid campers, archery practisers and outdoor sports enthusiasts.
They're also both cancer survivors.
Stephanie is the youngest of five children. Her mother, Almyra (Murley) Hodder, says Stephanie was healthy at birth but stopped gaining weight when she was six months old.
Almyra initially chalked it up to the fact that Stephanie had a lingering cold.
At eight months, Stephanie got chicken pox.
Her mother worried about the fact that Stephanie's belly was becoming distended.
"She looked like a little pregnant baby," Almyra recalled.
She took Stephanie to see a couple of doctors and was told her child wasn't sick.
Then she made an appointment with their family physician, Dr. Patrick O'Shea, fearing Stephanie had a hernia. "I never, ever suspected cancer," Almyra says.
O'Shea told Almyra to take Stephanie to the Janeway for an immediate ultrasound.
"That doesn't happen on the spur of the moment, so I kind of felt something was up," Almyra says.
The ultrasound technologist told Almyra her baby had a massive tumour.
"She said the liver was involved but she didn't know how many other organs."
Stephanie immediately began chemotherapy and spent more than three months in the Janeway.
"I was breastfeeding her and we never left the hospital," her mother said. "The nurses were fabulous. We had four other kids at home - a two-year-old, a four-year-old, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. They would all sleep over at the hospital."
Stephanie was eventually flown to Halifax for surgery to remove the right lobe of her liver. Her mother says although the tumour was the size of a cantaloupe, it was confined to that organ.
Back in Newfoundland, Stephanie had to undergo four more months of chemotherapy.
When her treatment ended, she was 16 months old and weighed only 12 pounds. But once the chemo was out of her system, she ate like a horse and gained 10 pounds in just over a month.
Today, she's a healthy Grade 6 student at Beachy Cove Elementary in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.
Stephanie's father, Gary Hodder, is a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The family credits prayer for helping them through the ordeal.
"We had many people of all denominations praying for her," Almyra says. "I think trust in God is the biggest thing when you're going through something like this."
More bad news
Stephanie had been in the hospital only days when the family learned that Almyra's sister's baby had become ill.
Damian was not quite 18 months old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"One doctor even told me it was all in my head, and he gave me nerve pills," said his mother, Audrey (Murley) Hirschkorn.
"But I knew there was something wrong with my child."
Both babies ended up going through chemotherapy in the Janeway at the same time.
"Almyra was in one room and I was in another," Audrey recalls.
Damian's treatments lasted more than three years.
"He'd stopped walking and crawling. We almost lost him twice," his mom said.
Today, Damian is doing fine. He's an active teenager in Grade 7 at Sacred Heart Academy in Marystown, where he lives with his parents and three brothers. He's small for his age, but doctors are pleased with his progress, Audrey said.
Neither distance nor time has severed the bond between the first cousins.
"You'd swear Stephanie and Damian were twins, they are that close," Audrey says.
"They always want to play together, and spend time together. They're like two peas in a pod."
Audrey says she and her sister, who grew up in Marystown, have always been close.
"There were six of us. I was one of the youngest and Almyra was one of the oldest, so Mom used to have her in charge of us," said Audrey.
"She was always taking care of us when Mom was busy. I always looked up to her and we did a lot of things together. It seems we're always going through the same things together, including our babies' cancer."
Both Stephanie and Damian seemed pleased with the idea of being the focus of a Telegram story about cancer survivors when they recently got together to have their photo taken.
"Someone like me can be a good role model for somebody who has cancer," Stephanie said.
"Having cancer and being a survivor makes you kind of like Terry Fox," Damian added. "You're kind of a hero to others."