Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Devin Cherry suffered from a rare pediatric cancer. He recently donated his artwork to an auction with aTeam Ministries, a pediatric cancer nonprofit.
A birthday party or a basketball game can cause Viette Smith to feel a twinge of worry for her son, Devin Cherry. More than a year after Devin completed chemotherapy, she’s still concerned that normal childhood activities could cause him to fall ill again.
“For me, I just felt like if I could put him in a bubble and allow him to go to school or allow him to go to church and do those things,” Smith said. “I would say I just got to the point where I was comfortable with not checking on him.”
Devin was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a fast-growing cancer that attacks parts of the immune system, in September 2013. Smith remembers her 9-year-old son was unable to stay awake in class, lost his appetite and couldn’t move his arms above his head. After multiple trips to the hospital with no diagnosis, it was an allergist who found the tumor in Devin’s mouth and sent them to Children’s of Alabama.
In the early days of Devin’s treatment, they stayed isolated in their own hospital room. Devin remembers being scared of the treatments at first. Smith said the staff at Children’s encouraged them to get out and talk to fellow patients and families in the oncology unit. It helped her cope with the overwhelming emotions surrounding Devin’s chemotherapy.
“Before, we used to be closed in a room and slowly the door would open and he would finally come out. And once he was out, it was like they had their [IV] poles, they had everything hanging and they’re like, ‘See ya! See ya, mom!’ It comforts you,” Smith said.
Through aTeam Ministries, a local support organization for pediatric cancer, Smith found emotional and financial support from families who could relate to her experiences. She said aTeam, founded by Vestavia Hills residents Andy and Jan Thrower after their own son’s leukemia diagnosis, were her “wings to lift me up” during that time.
“Our stories are the same, just maybe a different diagnosis. Our emotions are the same, our feelings are the same,” Smith said.
Her neighbors in Bluff Park and Devin’s classmates at Bluff Park Elementary, however, also played an important role.
“I literally was going to fall and break or bend, and they were like, ‘Oh no.’ They were strangers in the beginning, but we’re family, literally,” Smith said. “They didn’t know me. They knew Devin or their child knew Devin and this was strictly from their children going home and telling them. And their parents were just amazing. I didn’t have to cook, I didn’t have to worry about a meal. If we were blessed to come home on a weekend, I didn’t have to do anything.”
In May 2014, Devin received the last of his chemotherapy treatments and a bone marrow transplant. Smith said the initial transition was difficult, as her world had been entirely focused on her son’s cancer for around nine months.
“Coming back out of that world and joining the real world, I didn’t have a plan,” Smith said.
After spending months rebuilding Devin’s immune system, every cough or pain would make her panic. A lot of people also didn’t understand the urgency of using hand sanitizer around him. While he was in remission, Devin was not at full health.
“A lot of people don’t understand if someone sneezes, it’s like somebody’s going to jail if they sneeze around him,” Smith said.
Returning to Bluff Park, Devin said he had a lot of attention from classmates. Several became friends with Smith through social media and would always check in with her if Devin missed a day of school.
“I had more friends come to me, ask me a lot of questions about what happened and they would check on me if I wasn’t feeling good,” Devin said.
Devin and his mom are both more comfortable now in handling the lingering side effects of his lymphoma, especially as his energy levels increase and he has stopped taking maintenance medication. This summer, doctors removed the port from Devin’s chest that had been used to deliver chemotherapy. He attended aTeam’s annual Champions of Chemo lake party in July to celebrate his progress
He teases her about being a “helicopter mom,” but he also knows how to handle risks and remember his sanitizer.
Smith said her son has about a 50 percent chance of the cancer returning. However, they are looking at the future as a fresh start. Devin is a new sixth-grader at Simmons Elementary and has the chance for new friends, new activities and a childhood outside a hospital room.
After the support they have received so far from their community, Smith feels confident this is the right place for her son to be.
“I would not have wanted to take this journey anywhere else,” she said.