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From Building Forts to Fulfilling a Future: A Kid Who Beat Cancer Grows Up

Pearce Murphy was a happy-go-lucky fourth grader who loved playing baseball, building pillow forts, and bonding with his three other siblings. Until one day he returned from summer camp with a stomachache that wouldn't go away. After multiple tests and possible theories including everything but cancer, Pearce was diagnosed with stage three, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Burkitt's type B. His mom, Janise, credits the tumors doctors found with saving his life, since the obstruction made it hard for him to keep food down.

Cancer as a 10-year-old was unimaginable for the Murphy family. During Pearce’s in-patient cancer treatment, another unexpected medical emergency unfolded which landed Janise down the hall from Pearce, with a hospital room of her own. However, with the expertise of Dr. Stanton Goldman at Texas Oncology–Medical City Dallas Pediatric Hematology–Oncology, the ongoing support of the Texas Oncology care team, and the radiating positivity of a tight-knit family, Pearce is now an adventurous 29-year-old with his whole life ahead of him. Hear more about Pearce’s story and learn about his incredible team at Texas Oncology.

Transcript

Ted Canova: A fourth grader diagnosed with cancer, grows up.

Pearce Murphy: It's hard to distinguish what parts of me would have been the same with or without the cancer because it was so long ago, that it was almost just part of growing up.

Ted Canova: Hi and welcome to Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment and recovery, so being right here makes a big difference. For expert cancer care, go to Texas Oncology.com. I'm Ted Canova.

Ted Canova: Could you imagine, having cancer as a child and it being sort of a blur?

Pearce Murphy: I'm Pearce Murphy and I live in Arlington, Virginia.

Ted Canova: Back in the day, Pearce was a happy-go-lucky fourth grader. He loved Nolan Ryan, A-Rod, and his Texas Rangers.

Texas Rangers Game Announcer: Oh my, that's out of here, a grand slam homer. Rangers have shattered the club record for most runs in an inning, they've got 16 runs… [fades out]

Pearce Murphy: I would say before my diagnosis, my memories are really more those that I shared with my siblings, building pillow forts in the living room, and building snowmen outside.

Ted Canova: At 10 years old, Pearce was also building his young life. Until one day he returned from summer camp with a stomachache that just wouldn't quit. He couldn't eat and he couldn't stop the pain in his stomach. It led to some embarrassing moments in the classroom.

Pearce Murphy: The only thing I really remember from being at school was that being embarrassing. My stomach would be making these noises in the middle of class when we're taking tests. And I hated that, because you know it draws attention to yourself, and you don't actually know what's happening. Having to go through that was the hardest thing that I can remember. I certainly felt like people are watching or wondering because I was too.

Ted Canova: Pearce couldn't keep food down and was put on Milk of Magnesia twice a day. He couldn't keep that down either. His doctor's leading theory was constipation. X-rays pointed to some kind of blockage.

Janise Murphy: I'm Janise Murphy. I live in Dallas, Texas.

Ted Canova: Janise is the mother of 4. Along with Pearce, she has another son and two daughters.

Janise Murphy: So, I call the pediatrician back and he said, "Ok, I tell you what, here's plan B, if Pearce throws up tomorrow morning after breakfast, go to the emergency room."So, the next morning, Pierce woke up, he had breakfast, he threw up, I said, "okay, that's it, get in the car, we're going to the emergency room."

Ted Canova: On the way, a specialist's appointment opened, so instead of going to the ER, Janise diverted to the specialist's office where more tests were performed on Pearce. Still, nothing conclusive was revealed, so they decided to perform exploratory surgery to see what could be wrong.

Janise Murphy: I was 110% on board because the theories that they had been discussing with us, the idea of cancer never came up. That was the furthest thing from anyone's thought.

Ted Canova: But then the furthest thing, became the first thing.

Janise Murphy: It was like a scene out of a bad movie. We were there in the waiting room. The clock was ticking louder than it seemed like it should have been, time was going in halftime. And then suddenly, the surgeon came through the door and looked straight at us and said, "please have a seat."

Ted Canova: Pearce was still under sedation as doctors told Janise that they found two tumors in Pearce's intestines that needed to be removed.

Janise Murphy: The world just kind of stopped. They told us they had found a tumor and he's going to need additional treatment. And that's when it dawned on us that it was cancer.

Ted Canova: Turns out the tumor had obstructed Pearce's digestive system, so no wonder his stomach growled, no wonder he couldn't eat, no wonder he couldn't hold down food. A miracle. Because the tumors that made him sick also saved his life.

Janise Murphy: Dr. Goldman came into the waiting room to explain that he was part of a pediatric oncology team with Texas Oncology that was headquartered at that hospital. So again, we felt like it was divine intervention. And then, when the test results came back from Pearce's tumor, further indication that we were in the right place was that he and many of his colleagues had studied non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Burkitt's type, in their residency.

Pearce Murphy: It was just kind of like a moment where everybody's a little bit in shock. I remember saying it almost like a song, when people would ask me what I had, it was like, I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Burkitt's type B, stage three. And I would just kind of repeat that over and over again.

Janise Murphy: They told us from the very beginning, they were going for a cure, they were going to fight fire with fire. The surgery that he had was on Friday, and they started chemo on Monday. So, they did not waste time and getting right to work.

Ted Canova: Janise tried to keep it all together.

Janise Murphy: Oh, well, there were many days, I was not keeping it together at all. In fact, a lot of times, I felt like asking the doctors, if they could just move another hospital bed right into the room, so that I could hook myself up to some good medicine while he was too.

Ted Canova: One thing that kept Janise "together" was the support she felt from the medical team at Texas Oncology.

Janise Murphy: You hang on the doctors and the nurses and everybody that surrounds you during every part of the process. The encouragement, the optimism, the confidence that they have in understanding what you're going through and understanding the disease and what's required is really a comfort. I don't know how we would have gotten through it otherwise.

Ted Canova: It's hard to put yourself in the shoes of a mother watching her son bravely go through surgery and cancer treatment.

Janise Murphy: He was just out of surgery and still was kind of groggy with the sedation and everything else. I was just sitting on the bed, and I got a call from my mother to bring her up to date on everything the doctors had shared with us and what was ahead. And of course, I talked with her about cancer. I hung up the phone, and from behind me this little, tiny voice said, "I have cancer?"

Pearce Murphy: And when I was waking up, I remember hearing conversation around me. And one of the words that kind of stuck out was "cancer".

Janise Murphy: That was the realization I think that came to Pearce and I thought to myself, "Now I am going to have to have this conversation. I'm not prepared. I don't know what to say."

Ted Canova: And those first words that came out of Janise's mouth?

Janise Murphy: I think I just said something like, "Yes, honey, you do, you're sick, but you're going to get better and you're going to be well." And that was really our mantra.

Ted Canova: During chemo, Pearce lost his hair which put him in a class by himself with his friends.

Pearce Murphy: I didn't want to lose my hair when I was getting treatment. But once it happened, it was kind of like a badge of honor. Almost.

Music bridge

Pearce Murphy: After the surgery, the doctors at Texas Oncology had prescribed a six-month regimen of chemotherapy. I would stay for a couple weeks at a time; I would receive treatment. And then I would get to go home in between these rounds.

Ted Canova: Pearce had an adverse reaction to treatment during his first round of chemotherapy. Doctors likened the symptoms to third degree burns throughout your body, from your mouth, all the way down through your digestive tract. Once again, Pearce couldn't eat solid foods, he developed sores in his mouth, and his throat was swollen. It forced him back to the ICU.

Janise Murphy: The cancer he had was really aggressive and fast growing, so they had to fight it with medicine that was equally harsh. It's not an uncommon reaction. But of course, for a kid.

Ted Canova: Time and again, we hear how faith plays a role during cancer treatment. Janise never stopped believing that God would answer her prayers and that Pearce would someday leave the hospital and return to "just being a kid."

(Music interlude)

Ted Canova: But faith was surely tested. As Pearce was going through his second round of chemo, one night Janise woke up in his room with high fever and convulsions. She stumbled out to the nurses' station. They wheeled her to the ER, and an MRI revealed that her appendix had ruptured.

Janise Murphy: I had emergency surgery that next morning as soon as they could get a surgeon assigned. I very nearly lost my life. They could not stitch me up because the infection spread so rapidly. I think they pretty much opened me up through the length of my abdomen and took out a good portion of my intestine because of the infection, and then put me back together and put me in a room down the hall from Pearce's.

(Music interlude)

Janise Murphy: I remember, Pearce wandering down at some point to come visit me, dragging his IV pole with him. And he came over to my bed and looked down at me where, and I had a tube down my nose into my stomach. He looked down on me and the first thing he said was, "you know, that's going to hurt when it comes out."

Ted Canova: Now both mother and son knew they were in good hands. Sharing a life-altering experience that bonded them to his care team – and to each other.

Pearce Murphy: I always felt optimistic because the doctors at Texas Oncology were so positive. I think the treatment that you go through is just as much about treating the cancer as it is treating the patient from an emotional standpoint and keeping them thinking positive. And looking forward to things. And there's a lot of people in place for that, the nurses are just so amazing there.

Ted Canova: Pearce remembers one amazing nurse keeping things light during, well, let's just call it a mishap.

Pearce Murphy: There was an incident where I woke up in the middle of the night. I would have to go to the bathroom in these jugs so that they could, I guess, measure the contents of what my body was processing from the chemo. So, I got up out of bed, I grabbed the thing and I guess I was half awake, half asleep, and I just started going to the bathroom all over the floor. And put it back empty on the counter, went back to bed, didn't even realize what had happened.

(Heartfelt music)

Pearce Murphy: Later, I remember walking with one of the nurses, Jamie, and we were passing some trash cans. And she said, "Hey, next time, we'll get you one of these, so you don't miss."

Janise Murphy: Texas Oncology takes a very communal approach to treatment, they know that it's not just about treating the disease, but it's about helping families get through the traumatic event that is represented by treatment.

Ted Canova: After six months of chemo, Pearce was declared cancer free, but his doctors recommended immunotherapy, an extra precaution, to top it off. And although he missed his 5th grade year at school, he spent the summer catching up so he wouldn't have to leave his classmates with whom he had grown so close.

(Music interlude)

Ted Canova: Pearce is now 29 and he's lived two-thirds of his life cancer-free.

Pearce Murphy: Every day I'm so thankful to be alive and living every day in that way. But I think it is the spirit of that idea, I think, influences me more indirectly. It does change how you see the world and how you approach (54:34) challenges. It kind of just puts things into perspective a little bit, in terms of like what's actually important, what's actually scary, what's worth being scared about.

Janise Murphy: Hearing Pearce today talk about his life and his ambition and his loves and all that is ahead of him I couldn't be prouder of the man that he has become. I know that the experience that we shared together through cancer really imprinted on him…his bravery has become even a greater source of pride for me now…. you know, I think being in the hospital, being helpless…gives him a special kind of empathy and kindness that I am in awe of, truly, he is a very, very special kid with a very big heart…. I could not be prouder of him.

Music transition

Ted Canova: After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in film production, Pearce started his own video production company and got married. So, you can bet the next phase of his life, and that of his wife, will be filled with adventures.

Music full :02 and under

Ted Canova: We hope you enjoyed Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment and recovery, so being right here makes a big difference. For expert cancer care, contact Texas Oncology.com. I'm Ted Canova. See ya next time.