Posted on December 15, 2015
“One less thing to worry about means you have that extra energy to put toward what’s important.”
Marine Staff Sergeant Alan Young and his wife Jennie received one of the best holiday gifts any parent could ever want or imagine. Before we tell you what it is, though, you need to know what they’ve endured together these past few years.
Alan enlisted in the Marines in 2003 and re-enlisted about six years later while he was deployed to Iraq. He requested to be stationed in California, and he met Jennie four days after arriving there in early November 2009. They were married in 2010 and soon expanded their family to include two children, Cylan and Cydney.
In 2013, Alan (an airframes mechanic for the MV22 Osprey) was supposed to deploy a second time, but he and Jennie received stunning news: Cylan was diagnosed with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, an extremely rare cancer made up of cells that normally develop into skeletal muscles.
Their first child, not yet three years old, was given a 25 percent chance of survival and would have to undergo a year of chemotherapy plus an eight-week course of radiation.
“The very beginning was terrible,” Jennie said. “How do you explain cancer to a two-year old? He was being poked and prodded at, he didn’t know what was going on or why he had to stay in the hospital—it took him a while, at least a month or so of regular treatment, to even look anyone in the eye.”
“Cylan showed so much strength and bravery, it made it easier for us,” Jennie continued. “That, and the outstanding care he got at Balboa [known formally as the Naval Medical Center in San Diego]. His oncologist, the nurses—I remember asking one of his nurses, ‘How do you do this? How can you work here and see this every day?’ She said, ‘You know, somebody has to help these kids, why not me? I can help them.’ “
Jennie and Alan first learned about the Semper Fi Fund about a month or so into Cylan’s chemo treatments.
“The first few weeks we’re dealing with this, the last thing we’re thinking about is our checking account,” Jennie explained. “We’re split up, we’re driving back and forth to the hospital, we’re eating out because we’re not home, we’re burning through gas like crazy, the next thing we know is we’re broke.”
Jennie was introduced to Semper Fi Fund Senior Case Manager Sue Baker through the wife of one of the service members in Alan’s squadron (he was reassigned to a reserve Osprey unit when Cylan was diagnosed) who knew all about the Fund.
“Sue—I just love her, she’s wonderful—she came and shared with me some of the things they could help with,” Jennie recalled. “They provided us with a bunch of gas cards and Walmart gift cards. You know, these chemo drugs completely change your appetite. You need to eat whatever you can keep down, and we’re already talking about a very limited palate of a three-year-old. His favorite things tasted bad to him, so he was losing weight because of the drugs. Organic nutrition shakes were the only thing that kept him alive, he’d drink five or six a day. That ended up becoming so expensive, but we had no choice.”
“All the little stuff really added up, and gas cards and gift cards may not sound like much, but through all the stress, not having to worry anymore about things like being able to get our son these shakes, being able to have enough groceries, running out of gas—we didn’t have to worry, and one less thing to worry about means you have that extra energy to put toward what’s important.”
A little more than four months into his chemotherapy treatments, Cylan began two months of radiation.
“He’s a child, so he had to be sedated,” Jennie explained. “Adults know not to move, but you can’t send a three-year-old into this big room and expect him to remain still during the treatment. He hated being sedated. He could feel it coming on and didn’t like it because he couldn’t control it.”
Cylan’s last chemo treatment was August 10. On the way out of the hospital, Alan held his son while he rang the victory bell, below which is a sign that reads: “Ring this bell three times well, a toll will clearly say, “My treatment is done, this course is run, and I am on my way!”
And indeed he was. In early December, about a month and a half after welcoming their third child, Josephine, into the family, Alan and Jennie received some very good news: Cylan’s latest scans were all clear, indicating a remission that has lasted for four months.
“The Semper Fi Fund is an incredible lifeline and support system for service members and their families who are going through a life-changing event of some kind,” Jennie says, adding that the experience “restored my faith in humanity, really. Because without these other people, like the people at the hospital, our friends, our family, people my husband works with, strangers, anyone who would hear about it, I don’t know what we would have done.”
“People really do have compassion for others. You just can’t survive something like this without those people around you. People can help you through anything, really, and it’ll often come from a place you didn’t expect.”