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Rival schools rally to aid cancer cure
As classmate, teachers son recover, fundraiser aims to raise money
West Hall student Brian Ernst, right, talks with fellow West Hall students, from left, Courtney Brooks, Natalie Compton and Amanda Byers. The girls were selling T-shirts to support CURE, an Atlanta based cancer foundation. Brian was diagnosed with cancer in May 2008 and is about to complete his chemotherapy. - photo by Tom Reed

How to help

To donate to CURE Childhood Cancer, you can send a check made out to CURE to Lauren Howell, Flowery Branch High School, 6603 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch, GA 30542.

For more information about CURE

Cancer statistics, however unsettling, often go in one ear and out the other. That is until you or someone you know — perhaps your child or someone you go to school with — has it.

One to two of every 10,000 children in the United States develop cancer each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. In the past two years, that statistic has hit home for students at West Hall and Flowery Branch high schools.

Two of their own have been diagnosed with cancer.

West Hall student Brian Ernst, 18, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a malignancy found in bone or soft tissue, on May 23, 2008. Liam Howell, 2, is the son of two Flowery Branch teachers and was diagnosed with Congenital fibrosarcoma, a rare cancer found in soft tissue of infants, in early August of 2007 when he was only a week old.

And the kids are doing something about it.

West Hall and Flowery Branch high school students are selling "Cancer knows no boundaries" T-shirts for Flowery Branch’s Oct. 2 homecoming football game against West Hall. Proceeds benefit CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit pediatric cancer research agency based in Atlanta.

The T-shirt fundraiser has sparked a friendly competition between the schools to see which will have the most fans at the game sporting a blue shirt for West Hall or a red one for Flowery Branch.

SEER Cancer Statistics Review reports the average cancer patient is diagnosed at age 66. But Ernst wants people to know that even though it is rare, kids get cancer, too.

Ernst was a high school junior in 2008 and a standout pitcher for the Spartan baseball team. But chemotherapy and radiation treatments zapped his strength and he was no longer able to play.

Since his diagnosis, Ernst has rebounded from losing nearly 100 pounds. His last round of nauseating chemotherapy treatments is set for next week.

"I’m throwin’ a party. I’m having a huge party," he said. "I’ve been going through chemo for a year and a half. I’m looking forward to getting back to my normal life."

On Thursday, Ernst met Liam for the first time. The baseball player and basketball-loving toddler undoubtedly found they had more in common than a history of cancer.

Flowery Branch High teachers Will and Lauren Howell celebrated Liam’s birth on Aug. 1, 2007. The day before his birth, a doctor told his parents he had a tumor on his back.

"I held him for, like, five minutes and then they took him away. And he was fine, except for an extremely large tumor growing off his back," Lauren said of the day Liam was born. "It was like the size of his head coming off his back."

Liam was immediately taken to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.

Within three weeks, he was diagnosed with a rare congenital cancer and underwent chemotheraphy for about half of a year.

The intense treatments seem to have worked. Sixteen months after Liam’s last round of chemotheraphy, there’s no trace of cancer in the blonde 2-year-old’s body.

Although Liam will be scanned annually for the rest of his life to check for recurrence of the tumor or for new cancers, the Howell family said they feel blessed to have such a bright outlook for their son.

"I just feel like so many people did so much for us that now that we’re in a good place, it’s time for us to give back," Lauren Howell said. "I can’t walk away from this world knowing that there’s so many children out there who are still battling cancer. Our goal between the two schools is to see them come together on a very important issue that’s touched the lives of so many at both campuses."

She said students at the schools aim to raise $2,000 from the T-shirt sales before Oct. 2. Donations to the pediatric cancer research agency are crucial because the federal government only spends 3 percent of cancer research funds on pediatric cancer research, she said.

Now is an especially exciting time for the foundation, Lauren Howell said. She said CURE-funded scientists are getting closer to developing a treatment that would battle malignant tumors, sparing young children from the potentially life-wrecking side effects of chemotherapy.

Katie Birkhead, 17, is a Flowery Branch senior who said cheerleaders and student council members have risen to the challenge to raise funds for CURE Childhood Cancer.

"It really affected the school when (Lauren Howell) had her son and he had cancer," she said. "Everyone loves Mr. Howell and Mrs. Howell, so the school has done a lot to help them out in any way that we can. It just softens your heart more because you know if you were in that position, you wouldn’t know what to do. He (Liam) has his whole life ahead of him and to fight that, it’s hard."

West Hall senior Courtney Brooks, 17, said she’s glad to have an opportunity to help other kids. She said, too, that knowing Ernst has jarred her and other students out of thinking that cancer is something that happens to just older people.

"Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen to me,’ but then I see people like Brian and think, ‘Wow, that could actually happen to me,’" she said. "To know that it helps someone at our school is awesome, because you know it helps someone personally."