Seated leisurely in front of the wide window of his sixth-floor room at Boston Children’s Hospital, 12-year-old Owen Perry enthusiastically fiddled with his LEGO action figures as his mother spent part of Christmas Eve recalling her fight with cancer.
It was July when 48-year-old Karen Perry was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, news that initially crippled her family of four.
But Karen pushed through, traveling from her home in Nashua, N.H., for surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and then undergoing 18 weeks of physically and emotionally exhausting chemotherapy treatment.
“It was surreal . . . it’s like getting hit by a train,” said Karen, who completed a final treatment last week. “I was like, ‘why me?’ ”
But as she recounted her thoughts, the bright voice of her young son cut her off.
“I know why,” Owen interjected innocently. “Because God wanted you to have cancer so you could show me how to be strong.”
In early September, the Perry family got word that Owen has acute myeloid leukemia, a common form of blood cancer.
It was just two weeks before his 12th birthday when Owen was first admitted to the Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorder’s Center. His intense — and thus-far successful — treatment has required him to remain at the hospital, with just a handful of returns home since September.
But the treatment hasn’t affected his demeanor. He playfully bickers with his year-older sister Julia — who lovingly relays messages to her brother from his friends at school — and rattles off the details of his treatments, easily pronouncing the complicated names of his medications.
He’s also a practical joker. On Halloween, he placed a rubber tarantula on the container of hand sanitizer that hangs in the corner of his hospital room, terrorizing the nurses who check on him each hour. When meeting with the president of Boston Children’s Hospital for the annual tree lighting, he posed for a picture in a blue T-shirt declaring “I pooped today.”
“You can tell I wasn’t around while he was getting dressed that day,” his mother said.
For Thanksgiving, the family gathered in the center’s dining room to eat a hospital-hosted buffet. Owen, who is no fan of turkey, stayed in his room, feasting on chicken wings and playing computer games.
With half the family battling cancer, the Perrys have spent every holiday this fall and winter in a hospital room.
The Perrys say they’ve been overwhelmed by the support of family and friends. Neighbors surprised them by decorating the outside of their home with Christmas lights. Friends and co-workers started a meal chain, cooking dinners so that the family would not have to while traveling back and forth between the hospital and home.
As Owen’s father and sister headed to the hospital on Christmas Eve, a family friend stopped by with a bag full of presents.
“When Owen and Karen both finally get the clean bill of health, we’re really looking forward to giving back,” said Brian Perry, Owen’s father.
Fortunately, Owen’s leukemia was discovered before it reached his bone marrow, meaning he should not need a marrow transplant.
Acute myeloid leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. It is often successfully treated through intense inpatient treatment, according to Dr. Amy Billett, a pediatric oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.
“Approximately 90 percent of patients are in remission after these” inpatient treatments, she said.
The treatment does not pause for Christmas.
As Owen confidently explained, Wednesday began the last of his four chemotherapy treatments. If all goes well, he declared, he’ll be leaving this hospital room in January. The last treatment won’t hurt that badly, Owen said, adding that he’s ready for it.
The Perrys said they would spend Christmas Day opening presents from Santa and eating a meal in the small hospital room that for months has been their second home.
“We’re planning on having another, second Christmas when he gets home,” Brian Perry said. “We’ll leave most of the gifts under the tree until he’s done.”
Next month, the family hopes, they’ll be celebrating the two full recoveries as they again — but more joyously — tear into wrapping paper and snack on Christmas cookies.