BISHOPVILLE — Most people are excited this week for a break.
A break from work. A break from school. A break from whatever's made life mundane or cumbersome.
Bayler Teal is excited for a break this week, too.
Teal, who turned 6 on Wednesday, has a week off from chemotherapy.
Even in that respite, Bayler's dad, Rob, wonders if it's the right call. Take even a day away from treatment? That springs a fountain of what-ifs in your mind.
Doctors reassure the Teals that it's OK. They tell Bayler to enjoy his birthday, Christmas and come in next week.
But there's no real sigh of relief.
See, when you're dealing with cancer, you're constantly looking over your shoulder as you're sprinting away. You're running with your lungs, legs and life to escape.
But it's a monster. It's bigger and fiercer than anything you've ever encountered on this earth.
Cancer is always in pursuit, always chasing. It's the hunter. And the innocent — in this case, a child — are the prey.
There is no break from this.
'A lifelong deal'
On Sept. 17, Rob and Risha Teal — both in their mid-20s — learned that their first-born son had neuroblastoma.
That's an aggressive malignant tumor that had developed in Bayler's abdomen.
The bad news got worse: The quick-moving cancer had already spread to his bone marrow and his lymph nodes.
"It was everywhere," Rob said.
Upon diagnosis, the Teals learned there was a 1-in-3 chance that the disease would kill Bayler.
And that's when they started running.
The first three weeks at Columbia's new Palmetto Health Children's Hospital were hell. There's no other way to put it.
The tumor caused Bayler's stomach to swell to the point where he looked pregnant. He couldn't move well. The powerful drugs going into him were doing all sorts of inexplicable things.
Rob said he was coming to terms with the idea that it might be too much for Bayler.
But things started to turn. The chemo, a mix that was concocted as essentially a trial run, began working.
The swelling subsided. Bayler's energy increased. His parents took a breath and settled in for more of the fight, but at a manageable pace.
Now they spend a week at the hospital every three weeks for Bayler's chemo rounds.
"We don't ever unpack our suitcases," Risha said.
The one time they did? Bayler ran a fever and they wound up back at the hospital a day after leaving. So, no, they don't unpack.
They're always on the go.
"It's a lifelong deal we're in," Rob said.
A familiar chord
Chad and Jennifer Holbrook — both in their mid-30s — understand what it feels like to be chased by cancer. Very well. Too well.
On Sept. 7, 2004, fatigue and some bruising led the Holbrooks to take their 2-year-old son, Reece, to the doctor. He was diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
It was a day that threw darkness over a family that had basked in light.
Chad was the assistant coach for North Carolina's successful baseball team. Jennifer was the administrative assistant for basketball coach Roy Williams. She was the right-hand woman to the most powerful man on campus (and maybe in the state).
Reece had grown up inside the Dean Dome and Boshamer Stadium, "playgrounds" as Chad called them. But playtime was over.
On the night of his diagnosis, Reece was receiving his first round of chemo. That was the initial treatment in what was to be a 38-month program. The next three years would be defined by how fast they could run to elude cancer.
The Holbrooks spent the next month in the hospital. At one point, Chad had to level with Reece about what he was facing. He said that's an impossible conversation to explain.
"The thought about your child not making it is hard to describe," Chad said. "It's hard to talk about now. But the feeling never leaves you."
The good news: The treatment, trying as it might've been, succeeded. Reece, 6, is in remission now.
The Holbrooks (including 4-year-old Cooper, too) are blessed that they've been able to slow themselves. But where is the finish line? When can they raise their arms to know they've arrived at a point of peace and rest?
"The struggle, the daily fight continues. Every step, you're looking for it to come back," Chad said. "Every cold, every bruise, every this or that, every sore throat. Your mind just races.
"That's as tough on the family as the ordeal itself."
Roy and friends
Having a child with cancer, spending all those days and nights in hospitals, that sometimes makes you feel isolated.
"It's a lonely, lonely feeling to watch a kid fight for his life," Chad Holbrook said.
So when you can connect to others, and others connect to you without so much as asking, it means something. Especially in times of pure crisis.
Williams came to the hospital the night Reece was admitted.
"I just remember looking at that little boy and thinking how unfair it was. It just wasn't right," he said. "If that doesn't grab you, there's something wrong with you."
It grabbed Williams enough for him to make Reece a big part of his priorities and his heart.
Williams even mentioned Reece in his address after winning the 2005 national champ-ionship with the Tar Heels.
Through an annual golf tournament, sports memorabilia auctions and other events, Williams has given visibility to the fight Reece and so many families like the Holbrooks face.
"They act like I did a lot for them. But I did basically nothing," Williams said. "What they've done, with being examples for others and helping others in need and giving people hope, that's what means the most."
That's modest. Chad said he very nearly walked away from coaching, but was deeply encouraged by Williams.
"Without him," Chad said, "I probably would've quit. Where would I be? What would I be doing?"
In addition to Williams, the Holbrooks credit North Carolina's players and the parents of the baseball team for their great support.
The Holbrooks, with that genuine help, have raised more than $500,000 for UNC's Children's Hospital.
"It's the most meaningful thing I've ever done, my family's ever done," Chad said.
Remember: That's out of the worst thing to ever happen to them.
Paying it forward
Chad is trying to pass along what Roy did for him and his family. Especially now that he no longer has an address on Tobacco Road.
The Holbrooks wanted to move last summer to Columbia, to be closer to Jennifer's family. A job was open on Ray Tanner's baseball staff, but the timing wasn't right because of Reece's treatments.
With Reece in remission, Tanner hired Holbrook this summer. Chad moved in July. Jennifer just moved last month, sticking around to help Williams as long as she could. (She's still going to be employed by UNC on a part-time basis.)
The Teals are the beneficiaries of the Holbrooks' arrival. And not just as big Gamecocks fans.
USC outfielder Graham Couch, a Citadel transfer from Bishopville, told Chad about the Teals.
And Holbrook took it from there.
Rob Teal said he gets a call from Holbrook at least once a week and sometimes three times a week.
"We talk about baseball, we talk about our kids," Rob said. "That's meant a lot to me. I don't know if I could've handled this without him."
Additionally, players from South Carolina's football and baseball teams have been to visit Bayler at the hospital.
On top of that, Holbrook helped spur the baseball team to collect $750 for the Teals for Christmas gifts — for Bayler and their other son, 3-year-old Bridges.
The Teals received the money earlier this week.
(The baseball team did the same thing with another Columbia-area family. And the football team donated more than $1,000 to a non-profit organization called GOoD Works that helps the less fortunate in the Chapin and Columbia areas.)
The dollars aren't the bottom line. Where the teams' hearts are, that's the point.
"We'll do what we can do, I guess," Holbrook said.
Every little bit means a lot. Risha put her real estate career on hold to tend to her son. And, hard as it is to believe, Rob was fired for spending too much time away from his job in insurance.
He has plans to start his own insurance company in the new year, but you can only imagine the stress from being an unemployed couple with a child in the fight of his young life.
"It's a slap in the face," Rob said. "You realize what every second of every day means through everything that's happened."
'Kicking cancer's butt'
They haven't met one another yet, but Bayler and Reece have something in common: Their poker faces are incredible.
Even when they should've been feeling pretty rough, you'd have absolutely no idea.
Both are upbeat kids with energy to burn — despite living in a world of germ masks, needles, nurses, spinal taps and chemo side effects. They're fighters.
"He'll go in the bathroom and get sick," Risha said, "and come out singing a Christmas carol. That's just the way he is."
Added Rob: "He has this peace that can only come from God. There's no other way to explain it."
As doctors leave Bayler's hospital room, they smile and tell him they're "going to go visit a sick kid now" because he certainly doesn't have the demeanor or appearance of one.
When the players visited Bayler, he urged them to go see other kids in the hospital because they needed them. He's also given away some of the gifts — like coloring books and autographed balls — he's received.
"It's easier for us because he's handling it so good," Rob said. "Even when he feels bad, he doesn't complain about it."
Reece has been the same way for years.
There's a YouTube clip of little Reece playing a harmonica and bopping out a version of "I Feel Good" that would make James Brown grin wherever he is.
He used to play baseball in the hospital hallways.
"With these kids it becomes their normal thing," Chad said. "Reece's doctor was his best friend. He used to want to see him."
As much as Sept. 7, 2004 is a date that makes the Holbrooks shudder, Nov. 13, 2007 holds more emotional value. Just the mention of it this week makes Jennifer, who's talked about Reece's situation time and again, tear up.
On Nov. 13, 2007, Reece was taken off chemo and told to go be a kid. Remission was a wonderful word.
Williams said he still remembers being moved by Jennifer's immediate e-mail with the news. To hear it in person was even more stunning.
"The look on her face," Williams said, "it was indescribable."
On the Web site to help keep family and friends up to date, the headline offered by Jennifer was this: "Reece Kicked Cancer's Butt."
A year later, Reece is still cancer-free. Four more years of that news, and he'll be officially cured. So the finish line has been determined, but it's not yet in sight.
Meanwhile, despite dramatic improvements, Bayler can only pray for that day. His battle will intensify very soon.
He'll have surgery in January to remove the tumor, reduced in size by the chemo, in his adrenal gland.
Then, in February, he'll go to Charleston to have a stem-cell transplant. It's basically a cleansing of the blood. Rather than take someone else's parts, like you do for most transplants, your own stem cells are replaced after being processed.
It's tough on a little guy like Bayler. He'll need at least two or three weeks to recover from the procedure, which has been in use since 1986.
From there, Bayler will get back on his regular chemo cycle, staying in the hospital for a week at a time every three weeks until the end of the nine-month program.
That's when the Teals hope to hear the same word — remission — that greeted the Holbrooks a year ago.
The Teals said, even though they feel like the answer would be positive, they're afraid to ask the doctors if his 33 percent survival rate has improved.
They'll take the visual positives, and go with it.
Last week, the Teals went to a USC fan function and brought Bayler.
There, they ran into Captain Munnerlyn and Kenny Miles, two of the football players who came to visit Bayler in the hospital just a couple of months ago.
They were in shock to see him walking and talking.
"They thought he'd never get out of that bed," Rob said. "I'm not sure I thought he would, either."
But he did.
Picture Reece Holbrook and Bayler Teal. It's 15, 20 years down the road.
They're happy. They're healthy. Heck, they might even be athletes. And they're comparing notes about how they kicked cancer's butt.
"We can see it," Risha Teal said.
Maybe there is a break from this, after all. A permanent one. It requires hope, the very kind offered by the Holbrooks, Teals and Williams, to see it.
Reach Travis Haney at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the South Carolina blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/gamecocks.
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