Typical 4-year-old dealing with rare cancer

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 17, 2005

For the Tribune

Ethan Strenge was living the life of a normal almost 4-year-old. He was thrilled to ride his battery-operated John Deere tractor in the back yard. He enjoyed going to his sisters’ activities at school. He loved going to visit his Grandma and Grandpa Strenges to play with the tractors at their house. He loved going to visit &8220;Cowpappa&8221; and Grandma and being able to see the farm animals, especially Myrtle the Shorthorn, and being outside.

He was diagnosed over the summer with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive childhood cancer, slightly more common in males than females. It accounts for 4 percent of childhood cancers. Approximately 250 cases are diagnosed each year across the United States.

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A benefit is planned for Ethan from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday at the New Richland Public School. Included are a silent auction, carnival and dinner.

Ethan is the son of Eric and Brenda Strenge of New Richland, and the grandson of Laurell and Clarice Davis of Glenville, and Gary and Pam Strenge of New Richland. He has three half-sisters, Laura, 17, Megan, 15, and Katie, 12.

Ethan’s life, as well as his family’s, took a major change this past summer.

In mid-June, Ethan’s personality changed. He was no longer the easy-going toddler. He had trouble sleeping through the night, lost appetite and urinated frequently. His family noticed the change as did his daycare provider, Kathy Berg.

Over the course of the next couple weeks, unable to find anything wrong, doctors sent him home.

When Ethan’s cheek looked a little swollen, his mother took him back to the doctor but he was sent home.

Knowing there was something very wrong, Ethan’s parents were persistent in seeking the cause of his mental and physical changes.

In late June, after a second visit to the New Richland Clinic, Ethan was put on amoxicillin. Despite the medication, the swelling appeared to increase.

An appointment was made for July 25, with an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist. As time passed, Ethan’s cheek continued to swell and his appetite continued to decrease. A stronger antibiotic was prescribed and he was seen by a dentist to rule out dental problems, but Ethan was given a clean dental bill of health.

&8220;As parents, you know your child and you know when there is something wrong with them &8220; said Brenda.

On July 25, Ethan’s ENT, Dr. Maschka, arranged for a CT scan in Mason City.

The Strenge’s were told Ethan had a tumor about the size of an egg and it was pressing on his sinuses, into his jaw joint and up behind his eye. Appointments were made for the following Thursday and Friday in Rochester at Mayo Clinic.

After several tests, including an MRI, bone scan, CT scan and examinations by the ENT specialists and oncologists, it was confirmed Ethan had cancer, but it was not known exactly what type. He was diagnosed the day before his fourth birthday.

On Aug. 1, Ethan underwent surgery from 10:20 a.m. until 4:15 p.m. when doctors did a thorcotomy to remove a spot found on his lung; inserted a port-a-cath which is being used for chemo treatments, blood draws and medications; a biopsy on his left lymph node as it was swollen; a spinal fluid tap; a bone marrow biopsy; and inserted a feeding tube into his stomach.

Ethan’s mom received the best birthday present ever on Aug. 3, when the biopsies from all other areas came back negative.

On Aug. 5, he was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma.

&8220;What we went through is typical in getting a diagnosis for rhabdomyosarcoma,&8221; said Brenda. &8220;We have been on several Web sites and have read other patient’s stories. They all have the same thread. Initially, it is treated as an infection. With persistence, the real diagnosis is finally found.&8221;

Ethan’s course for getting well included 28 treatments of radiation and 42 weeks of chemotherapy. Ethan’s first chemo treatment started on Saturday, Aug. 6

The next day was a little hairy as Ethan acted like a caged animal. He was very uptight and couldn’t get situated anyway he tried. It was decided that the tumor was breaking down from the chemo treatment. Another surgery was scheduled for Monday evening to &8220;debulk&8221; the tumor.

The doctors were concerned that Ethan’s airway may become blocked as the tumor fell apart.

Ethan’s second surgery went very well and did not take as long as anticipated. They were able to remove a large part of the tumor.

The core of the tumor was about the size of a quarter and surgeons found it was not intertwined with any muscles or veins.

Ethan started radiation on Tuesday, Aug. 23. The doctors decided to do radiation sooner because the tumor was not responding to the chemo. Dr. Arndt, one of Ethan’s main oncology doctors,

and who has written the protocol for the treatment of rhabdomyosarcona, advised starting radiation sooner than expected to more aggressively fight his cancer.

Ethan went home Oct. 3 where he was fed intervenously in the form of TPN/Lipids. Each morning and evening, Home Health Care Provider, Liz Kormann, visited Ethan to hook him up.

&8220;It was nice to be able to have someone you know come in and take care of us,&8221; said Brenda.

&8220;Liz was an angel sent from above.&8221;

Chemo treatment for Ethan has been a one-day treatment for each of two weeks followed with a five-day treatment the third week. This has been the course for the first 12 weeks of treatment.

The exact regime for Ethan’s following treatment is unknown at this time. Chemo will continue for at least another 30 weeks, but the medications may change. An MRI on Oct. 13 showed the tumor had shrunk. A CAT scan on Oct. 17 showed the tumor is not attached to the bone. There is a possibility that Ethan may have surgery to remove the tumor.

The outpouring of love, care and concern from the community has been very overwhelming to the Strenge family.

&8220;You can’t imagine how good it feels to know that there are all these people out there caring about us,&8221; said Brenda. &8220;We feel very blessed to be living in the community we do.&8221;

Anyone caring to follow Ethan’s story can find it at his Web site: www.weloveethan.com or visit www.caringbridge.org.