- Associated Press - Sunday, October 8, 2017

LENOIR, N.C. (AP) - The last thing Lisa Hodges expected after her son experienced continuous exhaustion and sickness for two and a half months was cancer.

“He had sinus infections, pink eye, an ear infection, strep throat,” she said. “We had gone on vacation and came back, and he had an ear infection, and we thought, ‘Oh, he picked up something on vacation.’”

Ethan Hodges, who was 11 years old at the time of his diagnosis, also has asthma and allergies, which she thought was just contributing to his illnesses and exhaustion.

“I was really tired all the time, and when I’d go to P.E. and play, I’d have to sit and rest a lot,” Ethan said. “I couldn’t really do much, and my mom kept having to write me notes.”

Eventually, his teacher decided he would no longer accept Lisa Hodges‘ note and told Ethan he would only accept a doctor’s note.

“I didn’t even call the doctor,” Lisa Hodges said. “I just went down there and showed up.”

When she arrived, she demanded her son have a blood test, but she still wasn’t expecting what would happen next.

“We’d just ordered and sat down to eat at McDonald’s when I got the call,” she said.

Ethan’s pediatrician read the test results to her, which revealed Ethan had a white blood count of 125, when the healthy range is between 8.0 and 12.0, and his hemoglobin was 4.0, when it was supposed to be between 12.0 and 15.0.

“He said, ‘Lisa, you need get to Brenner’s immediately,’” she said. “And I said, ‘I don’t even know where Brenner’s is at, what’s wrong?’”

Lisa called her husband, Steve Hodges, and without delay the family drove to Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, where doctors were awaiting their arrival.

After hours of tests, doctors confirmed Ethan had acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“Astonished; I was amazed,” Ethan said, about hearing the news. “I really didn’t grasp how serious it was. I thought I’d maybe spend two or three nights in the hospital, go home and be fine.”

Over the next seven months, Ethan went through five rounds of intense chemotherapy, which caused nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dangerously high fevers that sometimes spiked to 105 degrees.

“Thankfully, I don’t remember much about being that sick,” he said about the time when his fevers would spike.

His parents, however, remember every moment of it.

“Probably, the hardest question a parent will have to answer is when your kid looks up to you and asks, ‘Daddy, am I going to die?’” Steve Hodges said. “That’s something we’ve never done. We’ve never lied to him. The best answer, the only answer, I could give to him was, ‘I don’t know.’”

For the Hodges family, they said their faith in God and the love and support of the people around them is how they got through the most difficult thing their family has ever faced.

Both Steve and Lisa Hodges‘ jobs were supportive. Coworkers and friends donated money and gift cards and supplied an endless amount of prayers for Ethan. The staff at the hospital even became like family.

To pass the time at the hospital, Ethan would play foosball and X-Box in-between pranking his doctors. His favorite pranks included hiding behind doors and hiding rubber bugs and snakes under his sheets.

“This one doctor told me there’s no one that’s been able to prank her,” he said. “So I made it my mission to prank her. I tried everything, bugs, snakes. I hid in that little hallway between the doors to my room, and I scared her so bad she had to go back out and wait 10 to 15 minutes before she came back in.”

Ethan also loved to get mail, so a family friend started a social media campaign, which led to Ethan receiving more than 26,000 Christmas cards from around the world.

“They had to buy the woman a new cart,” Lisa Hodges said about the woman who delivered the mail at the hospital. The large volume of mail Ethan received every day for several weeks was almost too much for the hospital to handle.

“We’ve kept every card,” she added.

Now, Ethan is 17 going-on 18, and hit the five-year cancer free mark over the summer.

“I was overly excited,” he said about the day he learned he was in remission. “I knew I still had a long road ahead of me, but I knew that since I was in remission, it shouldn’t be as bad of a struggle anymore.”

His parents also were excited, but the threat of relapse was still a worry.

“I was totally beside myself with elation,” Steve Hodges said. “But it’s always there in the back of your mind that it might come back.”

Five-year survival rates for children with AML is 65 to 75 percent, according to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

“We don’t take each day for granted,” he added.

And they don’t. Every day when Steve Hodges comes home from work, Ethan is waiting at the door with a cup of coffee with the question: “What are we going to do today, Dad?”

Some days that means hunting, others fishing, or simply running errands and doing yard work together.

When Ethan isn’t spending time with his family, he’s a student at Caldwell Career Center Middle College in Hudson, where he receives college credit for his high school classes.

Once he graduates, Ethan hopes to pursue a career in wildlife biology and continue to live his life to the fullest.

“Cancer’s made me look at life differently,” he said. “I don’t see how people can be so doom and gloom all the time. You have to live each day like it’s your last, because you really don’t know. I try not to dwell on the bad things.”

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Information from: The Hickory Daily Record, https://www.hickoryrecord.com

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