The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

September 12, 2013

Conneaut eighth grader conquers childhood cancer

CONNEAUT — Caleb Coltman, now a healthy eighth grader at Conneaut Middle School, was diagnosed with Leukemia at age eight.  

Caleb said that before his cancer, he was the last person in his family of seven to get sick.

He was staying at his aunt’s home when the illness hit critical mass, causing constant stomach distress. Caleb wanted to stay to play with his cousins. Finally, after two days of not being able to keep anything down, he agreed to come home. Soon he was at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

“Once we arrived at Rainbow, it was only an hour before we were informed that our son likely had leukemia. The mass they were feeling in his abdomen was his spleen, distended and swollen by trying to filter out all of the blast cells that were turning his blood into sludge," said Caleb’s mother.

The next five days were a blur of tests and procedures to save the young boy’s life.

The oncologist at the time told his family that she fully expected to cure Caleb and stressed a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence. The belief that he would be fine kept them upbeat through the ensuing days.

Caleb had a rare form of cancer, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), for a child.  Gleevec, a medicine developed to treat CML, brought him into remission. However, it did not cure him and the cost was more than $3,000 a month. Adults with CML often used Gleevec for the rest of their lives. For Caleb, this was not an option. There was no guarantee that the medicine would remain effective and the long term side effects were unknown. The doctors convinced Caleb’s parents that he had to undergo a bone marrow transplant (BMT).

Caleb’s 15 year-old sister, Zana, was a match and more than willing to donate. Nevertheless, doctors preferred using marrow from his seven-year-old brother, Ethan, who was not all enamored of the idea. The parents sought counseling for all their children as they began to plan for the BMT, particularly for Ethan and Caleb, who would be most impacted.

Caleb’s mother said, “The BMT itself was a huge undertaking, but we were extremely fortunate. Caleb weathered the intensive chemo, which was designed to destroy his existing immune system, amazingly well.

 It wasn’t easy.

“The nausea, puking, sleeplessness — it was horrible,” she said. “But I witnessed so much worse on the immunodeficiency ward to know that Caleb weathered it well. Ethan made it through the bone marrow extraction like a real trouper, and enjoyed the hero-status he attained as a result. He was sore for a while. The doctors said it was like getting kicked in the kidneys by a horse – but you never would have known it because he didn’t complain.”

“I was very confident that I would make it out of the hospital, just not sure when,” said Caleb. “I felt lucky that I had a sibling that had the same blood type as me, unlike my friends in the hospital. My friends and family always visited. The hospital helped me to resist cabin fever like giving me a volcano, that I still have, and playing on the Wii they had.”

Zana Coltman said, “He seems to be a normal teenage boy with normal teenage problems, growing up all too fast. It was a different chapter in our life, the hardest yet, but we came out of that ordeal stronger and closer than ever.

“He hates it when I coddle him and complains that he’s not some little kid anymore. I think that proves that he’s cured, even though it hasn’t been five years,” she said. (The  five-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who are alive at least five years after their cancer is diagnosed. Many of these people live much longer than five years after diagnosis, according to www.cancer.org).

“It has been nearly three years and Caleb is a thriving, inquisitive 13-year-old boy. He’s proud to be taller than his mother, and enjoying life as a normal kid. He had told me once that it’s nice to no longer be the ‘boy with leukemia’ – to be able to play and laugh with the other kids without feeling different,” his mother said.

Zana said that she has a message for the siblings of those who have cancer.

“It’s important to remain focused and remember the most important things in life. Sometimes all I wanted to do was lash out. But I was just scared. Stay strong and, even in the worst of storms, your family will always be there for you.  Don’t bottle up emotions and don’t take out your fear and pain as anger. Find an outlet, mine was art and writing. Be there for your family and do everything in your power to remember that you are never alone.”

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