It was just last month, four year old Tyler Shannon was on the sidelines of a boys basketball scrimmage with his unmistakable smile, passing out water to players.
Being the water boy is a task Tyler takes very seriously. He asked his mother Jenn, a geometry and algebra teacher at Salem, months before this season started if he could be on the bench with the state championship winning squad from last year. In a world where spilling a cup of water may be this preschooler’s biggest fear, Tyler now faces a fight not nearly as easy to clean up.
Just three days after the scrimmage, on November 22, Tyler was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a condition in which a malignant tumor develops on the eye. The cancer is highly treatable if detected early, which doctors say Tyler’s was. Three tumors were spotted by doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center – two on one eye, one on the other. Jenn recalled the events through the fall that led up that to the diagnosis.
“He had no symptoms,” she said. “Back when he was three, he would rub his eyes and they would water a lot. We thought maybe he needed glasses, so we took him to the optometrist. They checked his eyes and told him to come back in one year.”
Shannon was at her own appointment in August at Vistar Eye Care in Salem when she quizzed her doctor about Tyler. He was referred to Dr. Ficcaini, a Pediatric Ophthalmologist, and by November, the Shannon’s found themselves at the University of Virginia Medical Center with a team of oncologists. The time in between those visits became worrisome for Jenn and her husband, Trevor, once in particular.
“Tyler began having seizures,” Jenn said. “There was one time in October where he had 21 in one day. We took him to the hospital and they said it was completely unrelated.”
Since his diagnosis, Tyler has already started undergoing chemotherapy at UVA, and will continue to on a monthly basis as long as necessary. The doctors give Tyler a chemo duck which contains a port that is inserted into his chest. Jenn and Trevor try to simplify things for Tyler as much as possible, referring to the places on his eyes as ‘bad spots that will be zapped away.’
As word of Tyler’s condition made its way around Salem, people began finding different ways to help, both inside the school and throughout the community. A webpage was developed on the fundraising site GiveForward.com. The initial gift goal of several thousand dollars was quickly escalated as the mark was exceeded several times. Eventually, over $20,000 was raised to help Tyler Shannon. Salem High School Principal Scott Habeeb says the response to help does not come as a surprise considering the character of Mrs. Shannon and her family.
“She’s a wonderful teacher and a leader of our faculty,” Habeeb said. “When we found out what they were dealing with, I started getting bombarded with different ways to show support. It’s been really neat to see folks come together and be a part of a very generous, giving, and supportive group.”
One of those groups that has rallied behind Tyler is the Early Childhood Education Program at Salem High School. Taught by Debbie Stratton, the class gives students a chance to work with preschool age children, such as Tyler, as part of the curriculum. When he had to miss extended classroom time, seniors Alyssa Bradley and Jessica Hall took time out of their schedules to bring the instruction to Tyler at the Shannon’s home.
“If Tyler has a bad day, whenever he starts learning, it seems to get him out of that,” said Hall. “He loves to smile, and loves to learn. And he has a way of brightening my day too.”
Tyler’s liking to preschool is why lessons would be recorded on video and taken to him without making him feel like the treatment was holding him back. Jessica and Alyssa would make sure he got the whole experience.
“We brought him a calendar and the weather supplies that we use, we brought him a songbook, we sang with him, and we would just bundle up preschool and take it to Tyler,” said Bradley. “We are so connected with every preschooler; we would do it for any of them.”
In addition to the lessons, Bradley took a video of classmates saying they miss him, the boys’ basketball team wishing him well, and the Salem band playing a song for him.
“I got everyone I possibly could think of to try to say hello to Tyler,” Bradley said. “I think it was really special to him and his mom, just to show everyone was thinking about him.”
The support has made a big impact on a mother who refuses to breakdown in the midst of a life changing ordeal.
“I have two choices,” she said. “I can be depressed and cry and ask why, but it’s not going to get us anywhere…we have a strong faith and somehow this is going to affect someone in a positive way, and if that’s the case it will be worth the whole fight.”
The outlook is translated to a school united in support for the Shannon’s.
“Jenn and her husband have a great spirit about them,” said Hall. “You can just feel how positive they are about this, and how it just radiates off them.”
“We are a family,” said Habeeb. “And family takes care of itself…when another member has a need, we rally to their side.”
The Shannon’s will get a clearer idea about the effectiveness of the chemo when Tyler returns to UVA right before Christmas, at which point doctors will measure the tumors. But he was not going to wait for those results before doing what he loves – he was right back on the floor December 13 when the basketball team hosted William Byrd.
“I know God would never give us anything we can’t handle,” said Jenn…”So if this is what God gave me, I must be one tough cookie…but Tyler – he must be one really tough cookie.”