by Collin Burwinkel
Eagle Editorial Board
Freshman John Paul Falcon was born into this world like any other human being: a beautiful, shining little boy full of energy and grace.
Born as the youngest of four brothers, Falcon lived a fairly normal life as a toddler with normal cognitive, emotional and physical development.
That would all change Oct. 14, 2002 when he went in to see his doctor.
When Falcon was three years old, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Because of this, his life would never be the same; as he would struggle with cancer and other complications throughout his early childhood.
“I don’t know how I remember the day I went in and the doctors told me I had leukemia, but for some reason I do,” Falcon said.
As a 3-year-old boy, it can be difficult to understand or even comprehend what is happening with such a horrible illness.
“I didn’t really know what was happening,” Falcon said. “All I know is that I was in a lot of pain and very weak.”
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is one of the most common forms of childhood Leukemias.
According to WebMD, “ALL is a type of leukemia that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of bones. It develops from cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell central to the immune system, or from lymphoblasts, an immature type of lymphocyte.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia invades the blood and can spread throughout the body to other organs such as the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes.”
Scared and confused, Falcon and his family had to cope with cancer at a very early age.
“As a 3-year-old, I didn’t know what cancer was , I didn’t know what it could do to your body, but I saw my parents crying and that made me sad,” Falcon said.
“I was upset not because of what was happening to me, but because I saw how upset my parents were.”
The earlier leukemia is caught, the more effective treatment can be.
“Right away I was admitted to the hospital and all kinds of tests were started,” Falcon said. “X-rays on everything, MRIs almost everyday, CAT scans and so on.”
John Paul would have to undergo treatments that were extremely hard to bear, especially at such an early age.
“I don’t remember much from the chemotherapy, but I do know I stopped eating,” Falcon said. “I had to be fed through an IV because I couldn’t handle the food. That whole first period I was in the hospital I had to learn how to walk again because the muscles in my legs were just gone as well.”
While he does not remember much, he still has things that serve as constant reminders of what he went through.
“I had to get this mask made for my therapy and they would lay me on this big metal table and screw it on,” Falcon said. “I actually still have it at my house.”
After eight treatments of chemotherapy and a constant day to day struggle with its effects, Falcon would eventually go into remission within the first six months. His family thought that the worst was over.
“The day I finished my last treatment, I got to go outside, ring a bell and receive a certificate,” Falcon said. “One of the radiation doctors with whom I became really close with was there, so it meant a lot.”
Unfortunately, only a few months later in September of 2003, his cancer relapsed. Due to the previous treatment of chemotherapy, John Paul would need a bone marrow transplant to save his life.
A bone marrow transplant is a procedure that restores stem cells that have been destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It literally wipes your immune system out, requiring a new one to be formed.
“It’s a very difficult treatment,” John Paul’s Pediatric Oncologist Dr. Robert Krance, MD said. “It’s definitely not an easy thing to go through, but there are not a lot of other options a patient has at this point.”
Because a majority of cells are wiped out during treatment, patients have to get cells from a donor. This donor might be a family member or unrelated person that is willing to donate.
John Paul’s entire immediate family was tested, with no positive matches showing up. Not taking no for an answer, the doctors tested his family again with success. Miraculously, his older brother Andrew proved to be an almost perfect match the second time around.
“It takes a very noble person to donate their bone marrow,” Krance said. “The patient now has a new immune system thanks to the donor cells.”
Andrew, who was 13 at the time, donated his bone marrow on November 21, 2003. The operation proved to be a successful one, but the fight was not over just yet.
Due to a very new, weak immune system, a bone marrow recipient has to be confined to isolation for a lengthy amount of time. John Paul was in a negative pressure room for two and a half months with only his mother and father in the room with him.
Once his immune system was back to an acceptable level, John Paul could finally leave the hospital.
John Paul and his family would learn about an organization called “Sunshine Kids” during his fight with Cancer.
Sunshine Kids is a non-profit organization dedicated to children with cancer. Sunshine Kids helped John Paul get his mind off the treatments with activities he could participate in.
Former MLB player Craig Biggio has been a supporter and spokesperson for the Sunshine Kids Foundation for over 10 years.
Biggio participated in many events with John Paul and other kids during his time in the hospital and with cancer.
Ironically, John Paul would later go to school where Biggio coached baseball.
“Organizations like that make a big impact,” Falcon said. “They take the worst situation a child can have and make it incredible.”
The impact after all the treatment was over was emotional as well.
“It could have been my oldest son and I would’ve felt the same way,” John Paul’s mother, Alma Falcon, said. “It’s a horrible, horrible feeling seeing your 35 pound child laying there in a hospital bed.”
Earlier this year in November, John Paul celebrated being 10 years cancer free, a feat not everyone gets to achieve.
However, flirting with death can bring its complications.
John Paul’s bones have abnormalities. In addition this, he suffers from a defunct pituitary gland. Not only that, but due to the radiation, John Paul contracted graft-versus-host-disease, which is a disease characterized by selective damage to the skin.
The seriousness of his illness has affected John Paul 10 years later.
“It was just recently that I realized if it weren’t for my brother Andrew, I wouldn’t be here,” Falcon said. “He’s really the only brother that I’ve sat down and had a deep conversation with. This experience kept my family together.”
Due to the adversity in his life, John Paul uses it as motivation instead.
Just as those doctors helped him in the past, John Paul wants to help other kids in the future.
“I think for this to happen there is definitely a reason,” Falcon said. “It has helped me understand what I want to do with my life – that is to become a pediatric oncologist.”
Being humble and in perspective is something John Paul knows much about. He is characterized by others as someone who has displayed the tenacity to stare adversity in the face.
His courage when battling this disease helps John Paul Falcon not only as a student at school, but throughout his life.
“It’s never been about him, it’s always been about him making others feel special,” Alma Falcon said.
Even with all the adversity he had faced in his life, John Paul Falcon is always seen with a smile on his face.
“There are so many things I’ve learned from my experiences,” Falcon said. “Just because something is bad doesn’t mean amazing things cannot come out of it.”