April 19, 2013

Wade Lengeling kneels in the back row with his head askew as a girl with a bow in her hair shows off her glittery backpack.

She clutches a Barbie with a microphone that sings "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

Wade scratches his head and its blond tufts. He was bald from chemotherapy for most of the past year. What has grown back is wispy and darker.

Another girl with thick brown hair and a shy look slinks to the front of the group and holds out her baby doll. She murmurs its name too softly to reach the back row.

Wade struggles to hear some consonants like "F" and "S" - another side-effect of the cancer treatments.

And then it's Wade's turn up front for show-and-tell.

He unzips the checkered top of his backpack and pulls a Lego helicopter with its half-missing propeller and struggles to snap the pieces back together.

Here at Happy Times Preschool on a recent morning in Carroll, the kids stick paper squares on dots of glue and laugh and march with drums and cymbals.

Joyce Steinbach reads books and teaches manners and the alphabet - today's letter was "X."

It's all part of being 4 years old, and Wade has some catching up to do.

He was back-and-forth between hospitals and home for much of last year after doctors found a golf-ball-sized tumor near his kidney. They used chemotherapy drugs to shrink the tumor, and a surgeon cut it out.

Wade wore paper masks in public to keep the germs away as further chemical treatments beat back the cancer in his bone marrow and weakened his immunity.

He grew accustomed to the hospital lunch menus, his mom lying next to him in bed, being away from other kids and not having to brush his own teeth.

But now he goes to preschool three times each week - he agreed to go after his parents threatened to take away his TV time at home.

Now he's getting a white dog like the one in the movie "Bolt" that he plans to name Bolt.

Now he runs as fast as he wants.

"Now he's learning to be a 4-year-old," his mother, Ann Lengeling, said.

A long and painful journey

The Carroll boy's cancer battle began in December 2011, when on Christmas morning Wade had a fever and couldn't bend over to reach his dinosaur present.

Five days and many hospital tests later, a doctor at St. Anthony Regional Hospital felt the lump in Wade's abdomen.

The 3-by-5 centimeter tumor straddled Wade's left kidney and reached for his spine. Specialists in Omaha found that the nerve cancer had spread to his femurs, ribs and neck.

They put two narrow tubes into his body near his ribs through which his seven chemotherapy treatments flowed.

Wade called the tubes his "tails." They stayed under his skin - and ran up his ribs and across his chest - for more than a year.

More than 1,000 people went to a fundraiser for Wade at the Carroll Armory in March 2012. Wade and his dad Nate wore paper masks.

The chemical treatments made the boy lethargic and uncomfortable, and his blond hair fell out. Nate shaved his head to match.

In May, a surgeon cut out the tumor. The "bad guy," as Wade and his parents called it. It was bulbous, about 2 inches long and came to a point on one side.

Wade, who was 3, couldn't grasp the concepts of cancer and death, but he knew the bad guy hurt.

The worst chemotherapy dose came in July. Wade stayed behind a glass door at an Omaha hospital for more than a week as his body lost and regained its ability to fend off the flu and other disease. He had fevers of 105 degrees.

Doctors later used radiation to kill whatever cancer might have remained, and Wade and his family waited.

The final test

Wade drank an apple-flavored sedative two weeks ago and lay in a Nebraska Medical Center bed with his mom Ann.

They watched the movie "Spiderman" for the third time that day as little Wade drifted to sleep.

Ann carried her boy out the door and down a hallway to the big circular machine that would take one last look inside Wade's body. One last test to be sure the cancer was gone.

Wade's eyes fluttered and his lips mumbled.

They took my sock off. Why did they take my sock off?

How many more minutes until we can go home?

Ann lay her boy on his side in the darkened room with the machine and its hum. She sang Wade a song, as she does each night at home before bed.

Evermore I will love you.

Evermore I will stay.

There were moments this past year when Ann couldn't finish that song at night. She sobbed and wondered how she could go on if the bad guy won.

But in that moment at the hospital, the worries were gone. All the other tests showed that Wade's body was N.E.D. - a cancer acronym for "no evidence of disease."

Evermore I will love you.

Ann sang and Wade was asleep and a woman put a wire on Wade's toe with a red light that watched his heartbeat and oxygen.

The machine closed around his body.

Life goes on

Wade wakes at about 7 a.m. each day, eats breakfast, swallows medicine and brushes his own teeth.

He goes to preschool and plays with new friends and learns letters.

He stands on his head at home. A lot.

On Saturday, a doctor left a voicemail on Ann's cellphone:

"This is a good message, not a bad message. I was just calling to let you know that all of the scans look good. There's nothing that looks suspicious at all."

Wade is cancer-free.

His parents worry that the bad guy might return. And they know that battle will be worse.

But for now, "I feel like we've been given an amazing gift," Ann said. "To fight for your child like that - it's changed me."

Wade and his family will go next month to San Diego for a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

They'll return, and Wade will swim at the city pool with his older sister Grace. They'll ride bikes.

Wade is learning to be 4.