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Second-grade cancer survivor to help dedicate Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital

By Joanie Morris

Kannapolis Citizen

Since finishing up his chemotherapy treatment last July, Malachi Johnson has excelled beyond even his mother’s wildest imaginings. He’s doing all the things he was doing before — including running and, hopefully, playing football this coming spring.

Malachi, 7, was diagnosed last February with a Wilms tumor, a cancer affecting the kidney that is relatively rare — only about 500 children are diagnosed yearly.

Malachi’s mother, Tonia Cannon, knew something was wrong with her son earlier this year, but she had an appointment with the doctors at Cabarrus Health Alliance in just a week.

She had noticed “a little puffiness” on his left side about a week before. By the time the appointment came around, the puffy area had grown.

Dr. Linny Baker looked at Malachi’s side and decided immediately that he probably had a Wilms tumor.

Baker called Dr. David Hoover, a pediatric surgeon with Carolina Pediatric Surgery at NorthEast Medical Center, who quickly agreed and scheduled surgery for the next day.

The surgery lasted about three hours and everything went well. He was in the hospital for a little more than a week before returning home to his mother and sisters.

Following the surgery, the second-grader began seeing Dr. Mark Mogul, a pediatric oncologist in Charlotte, for chemotherapy.

Now, Malachi, who loves to play video games and got all kinds of special treatment from the doctors and nurses who helped him through his chemotherapy, has a long horizontal scar across his belly, where the tumor and his left kidney were removed.

His answers to questions are limited mostly to one word responses like “yep” and “fun.”

Wilms disease is a “very curable disease,” Mogul said earlier this year when Malachi was receiving treatment. It affects 5 percent of child cancer patients. The other 95 percent includes leukemia and other childhood cancers.

Also called nephroblastoma, the malignant tumor originates in the cells of the kidney. It is the most common type of kidney cancer, even if it is rare.

The disease occurs as early as infancy and as late as 15 years of age, but in most instances, the tumor is diagnosed by age 3, according to the University of Virginia Health System Web site.

The tumor is easily spread, so experts don’t recommend manipulating it, even doctors. If it bursts, the cells can quickly spread to the other parts of a child’s body. If that happens, the occasion for recurrence is high.

Baker only practices three days a week at the Cabarrus Health Alliance and quickly realized what the tumor was because he had seen one during his residency at Duke University School of Medicine.

“If you see one, it’s probably as many as you will see” as a pediatric doctor, Baker said in July.

Wilms tumors don’t usually run in families, the University of Virginia Web site says. Most are sporadic and caused by genetic mutations of cells in the kidneys after birth.

Symptoms of the tumor — of which Malachi had most — include a lump in the abdomen, swelling of the abdomen, large veins across the abdomen, blood in the urine, pain in the abdomen from the pressure of the lump, decreased appetite and weakness or fatigue, fever and high blood pressure.

The long-term outlook for Wilms tumors can vary, but all the doctors agree that Malachi’s outlook is great.

Forest Park Elementary School Principal Jill Roach visited Malachi’s class last week and read to his classmates the stories that have been printed about the brave boy.

“How were you so brave, Malachi?” Roach asked the boy sitting in the rear of the classroom.

“God,” he answered quietly.

Roach was reading the stories in advance of Malachi’s participation in events surrounding the grand opening of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital. Malachi will be one of four children who will help cut the ribbon at the newest addition to NorthEast Medical Center.

“This way, people in our community can be close to their children who are in the hospital,” Roach told Malachi’s fellow students. Students at Forest Park raised $15,000 for the children’s hospital.

Malachi’s two favorite sports are football and basketball.

He knows all about Jeff Gordon, though.

“He’s a race car driver,” Malachi said, even providing the number on the side of Gordon’s car — No. 24.

Tonia Cannon reflects on the changes in her life since noticing that puffy spot on her son’s side.

“I’m doing good,” she said. “A whole lot better.”

For Cannon, everything has happened so fast, “I really didn’t have a chance to catch up,” she said.

“It’s wonderful. I was thinking it was going to be a long process.”

Instead, her son can run like any other 7-year-old.

His favorite football team is the Carolina Panthers, and his favorite player is Julius Peppers.

He said he’s looking forward to helping cut the ribbon at the new hospital and even has a speech prepared.

“I’m nervous,” he said, but offered the words for a reporter:

“This is a place of healing, a place for children to come when they are sick or hurting.”

*

Contact Joanie Morris at 704-932-3336 or jmorris@kannapoliscitizen.com.

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