By Kim Walter
Despite what cancer has done to Tracy Ries's family, the mother of seven still stands by the belief that "it isn't the monster everyone thinks it is."
"It can be, but you roll with it and keep a good attitude," she said. "Just because somebody gets a diagnosis, doesn't mean it's over for them."
Ries, who lives with her family in Strasburg, teaches Sunday school with her husband at Dynamic Life Ministries in Front Royal, and also plays bass in the worship band. The church has become a big part of her family's life, and Ries said without it, she would be miserable.
Earlier this year, Ries learned that she had thyroid cancer, just like her mother and some other family members on her mother's side did. She is now healthy, but before starting radiation in May, her son was re-diagnosed with astrocytoma -- a cancer of the brain.
Stephen, 11, had already been through diagnosis, surgery and treatment of the same type of cancer before his third birthday. Ries said he was developing fine, but came down with meningitis, which was followed by upper body tremors, a head tilt and some difficulty walking. Physical therapy didn't help, so Ries took Stephen to a neurologist.
"They did the MRI and found a tumor on his spinal cord," she said. "It went all the way through seven vertebrae."
Doctors wanted to put off radiation because of Stephen's age, so after surgery he was put on a mild type of chemotherapy to slow the growth of the tumor, which Ries said was slow growing already.
"The thing died ... it just went away," she said of the first tumor. Since then, Stephen has had regular checkups with doctors, who kept an eye on one particular spot on his spine. In May, during a yearly scan, another growth was discovered, but it also is spreading slowly.
In only six months, the tumor has grown between 5 and 6 millimeters, Ries said, and is now about 2 centimeters big. At Stephen's last MRI two months ago, the doctors said it hadn't grown at all since the previous check up, to which Stephen said, "Oh good, I get Christmas."
Stephen's next MRI is scheduled for early January, and if any growth is detected in the tumor, doctors will want to operate and start him on radiation. If there's still no growth, then they wait another three months.
"It's great that we aren't in and out of hospitals right now, but the waiting can be just as frustrating," Ries said. "But he's full of faith. He knows God got him through it the last time, and he believes that can happen again."
The family's faith came into play the day that Stephen told his siblings about the second diagnosis.
"We were sitting in Subway at Walmart, and Stephen said 'I have to tell you all something ... the doctors said the cancer's back,'" Ries said. "And the next thing I know, I look up and all his brothers and sisters had joined hands and bowed their heads. They were praying for their brother and the doctors who would treat him ... that image still touches me deeply."
Since then, the family hasn't discussed cancer much. Stephen, however, is more open to talking about it than he ever was. He figures that if he can beat cancer once, why wouldn't he be able to do it again?
"He is my little hero," Ries said.
The mother admitted that she had her moments of anger toward God, and gets caught up in the 'whys' from time to time.
"No matter how strong your faith is, you're still a human being, you react," she said. "But the main focus is not on the questions, but instead the promise of hope.
"That was one thing that was so great about Relay for Life this year," Ries said. "The tears, the laughter, the hugs ... it was all so encouraging."
She and her son participated in their first event this year, and Ries plans to continue attending for years to come.
"It's a wonderful way to give back and also to hopefully know the guts out of the beast," she said, in reference to the disease. "I want to see cancer wiped out."
Ries's oldest daughter also has been through an experience of her own, when she was diagnosed and treated for skin cancer nearly two years ago.
The cancer has taken a toll on the family financially, too. Ries estimated that the family has put at least $1 million, if not more, into doctors visits, treatment and surgeries.
"We don't have new cars, credit cards or loans ... that's how we've managed so far," she said. "But really, there are families out there who are worse off than we are."
Shenandoah County has been very positive in supporting the family, Reis said. People she doesn't know have sent Stephen cards, and a benefit dinner was recently held for him.
"Their help is so encouraging ... to all of us, including Stephen," she said. "You just never know who cancer is going to affect ... but you can't quit. There's always hope."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org