Families find comfort together while children battle cancer

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Eighteen-month-old Emily Mata giggled, a glow of approval in her eyes as Tobin Volberding, 8, calmly flipped business cards across the table.

Amid a confusing tangle of doting adults, these two were acting like a couple of average healthy kids. Sadly, that's not the case.

Both have medulloblastoma, a type of cancer originating at the base of the brain. Responsible for about 20 percent of childhood tumors, the disease usually occures in the first decade of life with half of the diagnoses occuring in those under age 5. Boys are slightly more susceptible to the disease than girls.

This abnormal growth may spread to other parts of the brain and rarely to other parts of the body through the cerebrospinal fluid.

Tobin is the son of Alyce and Louis Volberding of Dayton, and Emily is the daughter of Sergio and Teresa Mata of Carson City.

Both are being treated at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento . The families met there through a nurse familiar with both cases, and have been a source of strength for each other ever since.

Teresa (Emily's mom) is from Mexico and her command of English is marginal, but Alyce said the language barrier hasn't been a factor. Using both English and Spanish, the two mothers have learned to communicate their concerns.

"She's learned a lot more English than I have Spanish in the last few months," Alyce said. "We hug and we cry together."

Tobin recently completed a 17-month regimen consisting of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but Emily's fight has just begun.

Diagnosed almost one year to the day after Tobin, she started her chemotherapy regimen in April. She is too young for the more effective radiation therapy, but chemotherapy has thus far been effective. It is hoped that the disease can be kept in check until she is old enough to receive radiation at age three.

Symptoms are related to the size and position of the tumor, but headaches, vomiting and visual disturbances are common. Children can also suffer with loss of coordination, slurred speech and personality changes.

"They (initially) thought it was the flu," Alyce said, noting headaches and nausea were Tobin's first symptoms in April of 1999.

But from the start she felt it was more serious, and during a repeat visit to Carson-Tahoe Hospital, Tobin received a CAT scan which showed the tumor.

He was immediately flown to Sutter Memorial and within 48 hours, 98 percent of the tumor had been had removed.

A six-week regimen of intensive radiation therapy together with weekly doses of chemotherapy followed.

White cells central to the body's ability to fight infection decrease dramatically with this kind of intensive therapy, leaving the patient open for infections. Tobin contracted pneumonia and colitis and was in and out of the hospital regularly in the early months.

That battle is over, at least for now. Doctors won't call it a remission, but Tobin has completed his chemo and radiation therapy. And while radiation therapy is very effective, it also causes nerve damage. Tobin battles daily with fine motor, gross motor, hearing loss, and learning problems.

Fortunately, the Volberdings and the Matas get support and financial help from Carson Advocates for Cancer Care, an organization of about 25 local volunteers dedicated to helping victims of cancer locally.

They help with medications and doctor bills, as well as getting cancer victims in touch with those who've had experience with the disease.

"It's a horrendous strain on family life and finances," Alyce said, noting that "Without CACC, I don't know what we would have done."

Alyce said the staff at Sutro Elementary School, everyone from teachers to therapists, has been very supportive.


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