- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

EDINBURG, Pa. (AP) - Near a homemade track that weaves through backyard brambles far outside Pittsburgh, 5-year-old Keegan McDade and his dad are laughing on the back of a roaring, full-size dirt bike.

Keegan hops down and yanks off his helmet, revealing a tuft of brown hair that static-warped into a mohawk. His mother, Cetta, watches with his baby sister, Reese, and pets the family’s slobbering Labrador, Buddy.

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but life changed for Keegan and his family on June 7, 2014, when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The illness means that Keegan must undergo daily chemotherapy and travel monthly from home in Edinburg, Lawrence County, to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for blood assessment and spinal taps, where doctors extract samples of spinal fluid.

But shortly after that initial diagnosis, when he was 3, Keegan climbed on his first dirt bike, donned his red, white and blue helmet and began to follow in the footsteps of his father, Mike, a professional motocross racer.

At first doctors were hesitant to let Keegan race because of his blood count levels and overall health during chemotherapy. Nobody knew what to expect. Mr. McDade said he had constant anxiety when he was competing away from home.



“There are nights where he gets a fever and we have to rush to the hospital at 2 a.m.,” he said. “But when Keegan got sick, everyone was just really supportive.”

“At first I was really nervous to put him on a bike with chemo, but Keegan always wants to be outside. He has all his hair back … he doesn’t look or act sick,” Ms. McDade said.

“He’s been so resilient and he just loves it. If there’s a problem or he shouldn’t be riding, the doctors will tell us right off the bat.”

Keegan, who turned 5 on Monday, now competes on a regular basis and travels five hours or more every month, sometimes to North Carolina or Florida. Keegan raced on an outdoor children’s track with dirt jumps and sharp turns over the Fourth of July weekend, coming in third place, shortly after undergoing a routine spinal tap.

The family now splits its time driving to Keegan’s dirt bike competitions and making the trek from home to Children’s Hospital.

When Keegan is racing, most people at the track call him “Bobblehead” because he likes to look around while he’s on the track, making his heavy helmet bob all over the place.

“But I still have to pay attention to the track,” Keegan assured everyone.

During a visit to the McDades’ home, Keegan gave a tour of his backyard race track. He then ran over to a regular children’s bike and tried to pedal across the yard.

“He didn’t even learn to ride a bicycle until last year. He’s the opposite of other kids and couldn’t understand the concept of pedaling,” Ms. McDade said laughing.

Even though their financial situation was grim, both parents took off work when Keegan was first diagnosed because of nonstop hospital trips.

“We stayed in the hospital for the first 34 days and pretty much lived there. For a while after that we went three times a week to get things done,” Mr. McDade said.

“Now the treatment has mellowed out. Keegan is taking more medicine, but the hospital mainly just monitors him.”

During those difficult months in 2014, a friend created a GoFundMe for Keegan and named it Keegan’s Krew. The site raised $22,000 in donations.

“We wouldn’t have been able to pay our cars, our bills and keep our house,” Mr. McDade said.

Now the ‘Krew’ wants to give back. The official Keegan’s Krew website, started earlier this year by Mr. McDade and business partner Broc Streit, sells merchandise online and at races that go as far as Daytona, Fla. The website has taken in about $2,500.

“We initially started this to donate to research, but then we started thinking about getting more involved with individual families,” he said.

He wants to help similar families struggling with medical bills, daily oral chemo, the grind of painful and frequent spinal taps and Christmases spent in hospital wards. When Keegan goes for an appointment at Children’s Hospital, they’ll assess his blood levels, give him a spinal tap and go to the “treasure chest” where Keegan picks out a toy.

“The treasure chest at Children’s is always low, and that’s what the kids really look forward to. We want to fill up the chest,” Mr. McDade said.

After researching more on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Mr. McDade saw that survival rates have gone up significantly. According to a recent study by the American Cancer Society, more than 21,000 children with Keegan’s form of leukemia have a survival rate of 90 percent.

But Ms. McDade said the feeling of comfort hasn’t set in, even though Keegan acts like a normal, hyper 5-year-old.

“We’re taking 26 chemo pills a week, and we go once every three months for spinal taps,” she said.

“He’s not supposed to be in places with a lot of germs, and we weren’t allowed to send him to any kind of day care. But he’s starting to get to a better point now.”

The family is debating between donating to the St. Baldricks Foundation or the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raise money to fight childhood cancer. They also want to set up a booth at CureFest this September in Washington, D.C., where foundations meet to spread awareness of childhood cancer.

For now, the “Krew” relies on motocross connections and the families they have met along the way. Not a surprise, Keegan’s 5th birthday party was a riding party with his 10 buddies who meet him at the races.

“Motocross is like a family,” Ms. McDade said. “You see the same people at each race and you stick with them.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2akTH69

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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