Logging into his Facebook account less than three weeks ago, Jim Syfan stared at the computer screen with a heavy heart. He’d been praying about this for hours and hesitated even still as he carefully keyed in the words, crafting a message he hoped would resonate with the people of Hall County.
In his busy life, Syfan often avoided social media sites except as a means to view photos of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — those familiar faces that took him away from the daily routine. And, admittedly, the 72-year-old would post comments about “silly stuff” from time to time.
But, on this occasion, just a couple days from Thanksgiving, he updated his status as following: “I don’t ask for much, and I don’t post much, but I’m begging everybody to pray for Brecklynn.”
It had been only hours since the family learned of 2-year-old Brecklynn Allgood’s cancer diagnosis — a very aggressive form of the disease occurring only in young children — and it was shaping up to be a race against time to remove the tumors in her body.
It was a situation, Syfan thought, needing a lot of prayer. He hoped to get the attention of a few Christian men and women who could come together in agreement to help save “Breck.”
It’s amazing the difference two weeks can make — the signs, the viral posts online, the videos with well wishes for the blonde-haired blue-eyed daughter of Zack and Courtney Allgood. But, most importantly, Syfan said, the prayers have been working.
Doctors at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta performed surgery on her last week, removing two tumors from the child’s brain.
“We are thankful for all the support,” Syfan said. “The response from the community and beyond has been overwhelming.”
While the recent surgery was decidedly a victory, Brecklynn still has a long way to go. She still has a tumor on one of her lungs, on her shoulder and another on one of her legs.
“This all happened very fast,” Syfan said. “This thing’s been 90 miles an hour.”
‘A STRONG LITTLE GAL’
On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the Allgood family got a call from Brecklynn’s school.
Her mother, Courtney, went and picked her up. Syfan said the two went to their pediatrician, who “looked (Brecklynn) over and quickly ordered an ambulance to take her to Northeast Georgia Medical Center” in Gainesville. Medical staff in the emergency room discovered she had a mass on her lung. She was then transported to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta where doctors performed an MRI scan and found more tumors, including two on her brain.
The diagnosis was pleuropulmonary blastoma, a rare childhood cancer.
“This was such a shock,” Syfan said. “The weekend before we got this devastating news, we had a birthday party for Brecklynn’s little sister. We had one of those inflatable (bounce houses), and Breck was all over it. She was jumping and screaming and hollering, just like any other little girl who’s about to turn 3.”
It was her strength, he said, that kept her going despite the cancerous growths in her body.
“Typically, when they find out about this form of cancer, it’s in Stage 1 or 2 ... a small tumor has begun to form or is developing,” Syfan said. “But, by the time it showed up for Breck — because she’s such a strong little gal — she already had a good size one on her lung and in other parts of her body.”
He said that prior to the MRI at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the mass on her lung was “the real bad guy,” but when they discovered the tumors on her brain, those became the focus.
Within two days, the surgery was scheduled and both masses were removed from her brain. It was great news, because the surgeon did not originally think he could get both tumors during the same procedure.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Andrew Reisner was “extremely pleased with the outcome,” Syfan said, adding: “Obviously, we were, too.”
LONG ROAD AHEAD
While doctors plan to continue radiation treatments on her brain “to do away with any other cancer cells that could possibly be there,” the next focus is the tumor on one of her lungs, because it’s pushing on her heart and restricting the lung from functioning properly.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, pleuropulmonary blastoma is a rare type of childhood lung tumor that “begins in the chest ... and can spread to other parts of the body.”
The cancer type occurs most often in young children and is diagnosed often between the ages of 3 to 4. The overall survival rate is hard to estimate, according to the organization.
Whatever the odds may be, and despite the seemingly endless stream of doctor appointments, medical tests and cancer-killing radiation treatments, Brecklynn’s positive attitude has been the constant.
The family’s pastor, Terry Walton of Gainesville First United Methodist Church, attested to this. Last week, he drove down to the hospital to cheer her up. Armed with a cloth puppet, Walton sat by her bedside, coaxing laughter from the little girl.
“Everytime she would smile ... a big, big, smile behind her pacifier ... it was a sight,” Walton said, recalling the recent visit. “I think she did more to lighten my spirits than I could have done for her.”
Walton, who performed Courtney and Zack Allgood’s wedding and baptized Brecklynn when she was about 5 months old, said the whole family is “made up of great people.”
Added Walton: “And, little Brecklynn is special. You can just see it in her eyes. She has a love for life. She has a long road ahead, but she’s already been an inspiration to so many.”
“The surgery was a great success, but this ain’t over, and we’re thankful and appreciative for all the continued support we have here in our community and beyond.”
When asked to describe his great-granddaughter, Syfan instantly smiles. He’s quick with an answer.
“She’s a 21-year-old trapped in an (almost) 3-year-old’s body,” he said, laughing. “She is so intelligent. She’s talked almost from the beginning — not with single words, but in full sentences.”
Many of these sentences, quips and bouts of infectious laughter have been captured on video and posted to a Facebook page the family started about two weeks ago. The page, Pray for Breck, has since garnered nearly 22,000 likes.
Visitors can view photographs and watch videos of the little girl’s journey. Syfan said there are people from all over the country, and even some from other countries, posting well wishes and typing out their prayers.
It’s been a good outlet as well for the family to express their sentiments. In one such postdated Nov. 26, a member of the family wrote “thumbs up for the first day of chemo from our brave, brave warrior princess ... God is working to cure Brecklynn. One day at a time, one treatment at a time.”
Walton said Brecklynn’s story has spread quickly because, for most who hear the news, it hits close to home.
The idea of a child having cancer is “devastating for everyone who hears it. Most people have a child or a grandchild, or a brother or a sister ... someone in their life who is young and special to them. It creates a level of fear and a level of compassion quite unlike many other things in this world.”
Added Walton: “But, things like this happen, and we may feel helpless. We may feel like there’s nothing we can do, but there is something. We can pray.”
When Syfan attempts to imagine the thousands of people coming together over the past couple of weeks to pray for the well-being of his precious granddaughter, he is overwhelmed. He struggles to craft just the right words to express his gratitude. It’s not easy, and it brings about tears almost every single time, but he gives it a try, nonetheless:
“God is good.”