Far from home: Love, loss and community in a battle with lymphoma

SPONSORED: The Ante family took a 2-­year detour when 6-­year-­old Bryant was diagnosed with cancer.

Readers can find other stories in our Far from Home series here (Justin Woods) and here (Michael Frey).

In 2007 Bryant Ante was just a regular, energetic Alaska kid who loved the outdoors, getting his hands dirty and John Deere tractors. He had just finished kindergarten and was looking forward to a summer of adventure under the midnight sun.

Then his mother, Christy Ante, discovered the lump. The golf ball-­sized lump protruding from her son's neck. Worried, she scheduled an appointment with their family doctor to have Bryant checked out. He was prescribed some medicine, sent home and the lump went away—for a while.

Then, the lump came back. This time much bigger. Bryant went in for test after test, his mother hoping for a diagnosis, but they were left frustrated and with no conclusive answers. No one could tell her what was wrong with her son, in fact, everyone kept telling her it was nothing to worry about.

"It took a long time to diagnose," she said. "When the results finally came back, it was literally the last thing we expected, because everyone had been telling us it was fine. Eight hours after diagnosis we were airlifted to Seattle."

The diagnosis? Stage three non-­Hodgkin lymphoma.

Life irrevocably changed for the Antes as they prepared for a transient life between Seattle and Anchorage, and their son began the fight of his life at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"The first stint was four and a half months," Ante said. "He had very rigorous chemo, in­patient treatments, surgery—he was a real trooper."

Bryant and his mom came home for a while before going back for another four ­month round of intense treatment. While in Seattle, Bryant and his mom stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, their home away from home.

"He never complained—I did more complaining than he ever did," said Ante describing her son's good nature despite the painful treatments and marathon days spent in hospital rooms at Seattle Children's. Having a place to return to that had home­ cooked meals, welcoming faces and soft, warm beds offered comfort during an intense and difficult time.

"It's such a huge ordeal when something like this happens," Ante said. "It's so much more than a place to stay. I don't think people realize that. Groups come in and cook for you, there's a pantry stocked with food, like mac­-n-­cheese. It's such a blessing."

For Ante, the House became the community she needed, offering support only parents of children with serious illnesses can understand.

"I made friendships and bonds," Ante said. "There's one lady who I'm in touch with still today."

Christy said she is excited and hopeful for the families who will get to experience Alaska's first-­ever Ronald McDonald House, set to open on the Alaska Native Medical Center campus in 2017.

"Just having closer medical access will be huge," she said. "I just think mentally, for the kids, knowing that they're in their home state will really help."

Even though Bryant couldn't be in Alaska for his treatments, she tried to make life as normal and comfortable as possible. Friends and family sent photos and they changed his sheets to his beloved John Deere ones. He even got to fulfill his Make-­A-­Wish Foundation wish and travel to the John Deere headquarters in Illinois. But weeks turned into months and Bryant grew restless, tired of being cooped up inside, frustrated that he had to wash his hands all the time, one of the true downsides—when you're a kid—to maintaining a sterile environment.

"He was a funny kid. I remember I stood with an umbrella over his head for over an hour so he could dig in the dirt," Ante said laughing. "He always had to wash his hands and he just didn't have time for that—he loved having dirty hands."

Spring gave way to summer and on June 1, 2009, two years after they learned of Bryant's cancer, the Antes received the news they had been waiting to hear.

He was declared cancer free.

Overjoyed, Christy and Bryant packed up and flew home back to Anchorage, back to their family, to pick up where they had left off when his cancer diagnosis caused a detour two years earlier.

But their happiness was short-­lived. Two weeks after returning home, Bryant developed Bell's Palsy. The Antes rushed Bryant to the hospital and the familiar drill of tests yielding inconclusive results was performed again.

"Looking back now—it was the beginning of the end," Ante said, her voice cracking. "They ran tests, but just couldn't figure it out and by the time they did, it was just too little, too late."

Bryant's cancer had relapsed and moved into his spinal fluid. They tried another round of radiation, but his body could not handle it, and the Antes had to make the hardest decision of their life: to stop treatment.

On July 10, 2009, eight-­year-­old Bryant passed away.

"It was such a huge emotional roller coaster, going from him being declared cancer­ free—to going downhill so quickly," Ante said crying. "It took a few years—I wish I could say that I got it together—but I didn't."

After Bryant's death, Christy, her husband and daughter picked up the pieces, doing the best to move forward with life without Bryant, and then Christy got pregnant.

"I wasn't planning on having any more—I didn't want to have any more," said Ante. But in 2012, Christy and her husband welcomed Dalton to the family. "I kind of feel like this is God's concession, like he took one away, but he gave us another. He looks so much like him, acts like him."

Bryant's photos still adorn the Ante's walls in their homes and Christy said she never wants to be the parent who doesn't talk about her child. She feels that even though it's still so difficult to talk about, the not talking about him is more painful.

During one of her of conversations with Bryant, Christy made a promise to her son. One of Bryant's last wishes was that one day, he and Christy would run a marathon together.

"We pinky promised," she said. "Finally, a year ago I joined Team in Training and I ran my first marathon this summer."

Christy's now training with TNT for her second marathon later this year in Chicago. She is sponsored by John Deere, the company her son loved so much and is working toward raising

$100,000 to create a research grant in her son's memory. She hopes to continue marathoning and raising money towards children's cancer research—anything she can do to make a positive contribution.

"I decided to do it because he never got to," Ante said. "I never wanted him to just be a statistic."

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This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.