By Kanoe Ahuna
I never knew how much my faith and strength would be tested until my 14-year-old son was diagnosed with bone cancer.
The experience of his illness and the support from everyone on Kaua‘i and around the world turned out to be an unforgettable lesson in the true meaning of aloha, and why I feel compelled to share his story.
Our journey began Jan. 5. It was near the end of a typical workday for me, as my husband, Dan, and I often tag-team parenting our three boys (ages 16, 14 and 7) during the work week. I was working on a cultural project in O‘ahu when Dan and our 14-year-old son, Kaikea, called me from our doctor’s office on Kaua‘i. My heart sank and my eyes immediately welled up with tears when they told me the results: Kaikeaʻs CT scan was positive; he had a lesion the size of a quarter near the back of his neck, pushing against his vocal cords.
My son Rusdan-Rocket Kaikea Ahuna, known as “Kaikea” to family and “Rocket” to his school friends, had always been a healthy, active and well-rounded kid. Kaikea is happy, caring and loving, and those who cross his path often tell me I have a special son, full of light.
A straight-A student and a ninth-grader at Kapa‘a High School, we were so very proud of him for having made the varsity volleyball team in the fall. He loves sports, academics, hula and Hawaiian culture. From the age of two, he would wrap my pareaus around him and shake his hips! And, he was blessed with special hands, too, having been trained as a very young boy to make beautiful haku lei and lei hulu.
When Kaikea was 11 years old, he joined Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala. In 2012 and 2013, his keiki kane group took first place in kahiko and auana keiki hula competitions.
In the first week of the 2015 school year, Kaikea lost his voice after catching a flu. Though he bounced back, his voice never fully recovered. Following up on a recommendation from Kaua‘i pediatrician Dr. Carolan, we met with Dr. Murphy, an ear, nose and throat specialist on the island.
Dr. Murphy diagnosed Kaikea with a collapsed vocal cord, which is somewhat common. But to be safe, Dr. Murphy had Kaikea take a CT scan Dec. 15.
Returning on New Year’s Eve from a family Christmas vacation in Lake Tahoe, we were excited to start 2016. Then, on Jan. 5, everything in our lives changed.
Knowing my son had a lesion in his brain but not knowing its growth rate, or if it was cancer, or how to best treat it was frustrating. Not knowing its exact diagnosis and its prognosis was scary. I asked myself, why? Why him? But I also knew I had to shift these emotions of frustration, fear and anger in order to help him. I dropped everything in my life to focus on healing Kaikea. All I could think of was, how do I get the tumor out of his body? I wanted it to be gone, to disappear. I wanted my son to be healthy.
The doctors’ initial recommendation to do immediate open-brain surgery didn’t feel right to Kaikea or any of us, and our intuition led us to learn more about his condition before making any decisions. I put all of my energy into researching similar medical conditions and seeking a second opinion. And we were so glad we did this! Kaikea’s first diagnosis of Vagal Schwannoma was inaccurate, and he was later correctly diagnosed with Chondrosarcoma, which is another name for bone cancer. He had a tumor at the base of his skull, and it was expanding and affecting his vocal cords and possibly other nerves.
On April 9, our family left to San Francisco, Calif. to obtain medical treatment for Kaikea at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, a recommendation that came from our doctors on Kaua‘i. But when we arrived in California, our medical insurance company didn’t want to cover Kaikea’s out-of-state medical services. And soon after our arrival, our rental car was vandalized. Most of our personal belongings, along with Kaikea’s medical records and hospital get-well gifts and cards, were stolen. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
But the challenges never outweighed the blessings and aloha we received.
We got help from friends and family who threw a fundraiser concert on O‘ahu. A week later, the medical insurance was approved, and hundreds of people from around the world came forward to send new get-well cards and gifts to Kaikea. We even received support from the San Francisco Police Association and the Mayor’s Office, which had seen news media reports on Kaikea’s condition. And of course, his wonderful medical teams, from the surgeons to the orderlies, were simply amazing and so very caring.
But the best gift of all was the healthy prognosis Kaikea received after two back-to-back brain surgeries. Kaikea did so well that on May 28, the doctors gave him a clean bill of health and we returned to Kaua‘i where he is recovering and getting back to being a normal teenager.
I truly believe the support we received through the many prayers and aloha actually helped to heal Kaikea. Although it felt like my worst nightmare at the beginning of this journey, with the passing of time, that nightmare of pain turned into a beautiful dream that taught me so much about how to be present and open to receiving love.
When we are at our lowest point, when everything seems dark, love and aloha can uplift and heal. It did for Kaikea, physically and spiritually; and today he is healthy and enjoying his summer.