Community rallies as child fights rare cancer
Family overwhelmed by support for middle school student in medical crisis.
Christopher Wilke, 12, of Burbank, is at Children's Hospital Los Angeles for treatment of a rare disease he is battling on Monday, March 3, 2014. The disease is a a bile duct cancer that is rare for adults, and nearly unheard of for children. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / March 4, 2014)
PHOTOS: Burbank 12-year-old's battle with rare form of cancer
The yellow beads — more than two dozen of them — represented the number of nights the 12-year-old Burbank resident has spent in the hospital in the last two months. The white ones stood for each round of chemotherapy. The black beads: every time he’s been poked. Silver: every clergy visit.
In total, there were nearly 300 beads.
“It’s like I’ve been through a lot,” Christopher said while looking at the strands that symbolized his life story since Jan. 4.
That’s the day the David Starr Jordan Middle School student was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile duct.
Christopher is the first patient on record at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles — and among the youngest patients ever — to be diagnosed with a pure cholangiocarcinoma, according to Dr. Hung Tran, the hospital’s pediatric oncologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
As hospital bills begin to pile up, the Wilkes have been overwhelmed by community support, which has come by way of $20,000 in donations for medical bills and home-cooked meals for the whole family, said Christopher’s father, Joe Wilke.
Joe Wilke’s co-workers at the city of Glendale raised $3,000 for him at a recent barbecue, and Christopher’s Boy Scout troop raised $5,000 by hosting a pancake breakfast.
Halfway through the pancake breakfast — for which the Scouts were equipped to serve 300 meals — they had to buy more sausages because they were running low on food.
On top of that, three of Christopher’s friends started “Change Works” — a campaign named by using his initials — through which they’ve been selling green wrist bands at $1 each to raise money for Christopher and other children with cancer.
“That was cool, we’ve been getting a lot of support from that,” Christopher said. “It’s spreading and spreading.”
So far, Christopher, an All-Star Team baseball player and Angels fan, has been through five rounds of chemotherapy, the most recent of which lasted 16 hours. His next round is slated for next week.
“We are trying all we can right now to shrink the tumor as much as possible,” Dr. Tran said. “Both Christopher and his parents have absolutely been so strong, and have been so graceful in this adversity.”
Christopher takes 14 different medications daily to treat his nausea, pain and other symptoms. Some he has to take multiple times a day.
“It’s really hard,” Christopher said, adding that watching TV or going for walks and drives takes his mind off things. “I haven’t been sleeping much.”
The Wilkes have been documenting the ups and downs of Christopher’s battle through their “Team Christopher” Facebook page, which has amassed more than 1,300 “likes.”
“I didn’t know we knew that many people,” Christopher said.
The family posts updates daily, keeping their followers — friends, family and strangers — informed on their “emotional roller coaster.”
Monday, for example, was a good day.
“His appetite is starting to return,” the Wilkes posted online. “He was able to eat a few bites of a Big Mac this evening along with some chocolate milk.”
The day before, however, Christopher was transported to the hospital in an ambulance after experiencing tightness in his chest, perhaps caused by muscle spasms from constant vomiting.
The family hopes that the exposure will raise awareness about the rare malignancy and help prompt research for better treatment options.
“We’re hoping someone out there will hear about it, and help find cure for this,” Joe Wilke said.
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