By Marissa Harshman / The Columbian
VANCOUVER, Wash. — In his 14 years, Ayden Mills has endured more major health issues than most adults ever face.
An infection nearly claimed his life as a toddler. The damage the infection inflicted on his little body led to years of dialysis and, eventually, a kidney transplant. A decade later, the drugs he takes to sustain his life likely caused yet another devastating diagnosis: lymphoma.
“You can’t get angry about it, as much as you want to, you can’t,” said Ayden’s mom, Carole Mills. “Our fate is already dealt to us.”
When Ayden was just 1 year old, he contracted pneumococcal disease, an infection caused by a bacteria. The bacteria can cause many types of illnesses, including ear infections, meningitis and, as in Ayden’s case, sepsis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ayden’s entire body was shutting down. He recovered from the infection, but the damage to his kidneys was too severe. He was on dialysis for three years before undergoing a kidney transplant.
After the transplant, Ayden was prescribed a regimen of anti-rejection and immunosuppressant medications. One of those drugs came with a slight chance of causing something called post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder. Only about 5 percent of people taking the drug after an organ transplant contract the form of lymphoma, Mills said.
Ayden was among them.
Last December, Ayden started complaining about back pain. Then, he found a lump in his belly. Mills took Ayden to see his doctor. He was admitted to the hospital the same day. Soon after, they received the cancer diagnosis — a devastating blow after many uneventful years.
“When Ayden got diagnosed, I couldn’t even say ‘cancer’ for the first week,” Mills said. “I just said, ‘the C-word.’”
“You have to come to terms with it,” she added.
Ayden underwent chemotherapy and lost his hair in the process. He completed chemo in March, and has been in remission for five months. He returned to school after treatment, enduring teasing from other kids because he didn’t have hair, and continued with karate. Last month, Ayden graduated to junior black belt.
“Ayden persevered through it,” Mills said. “He’s my little warrior.”
After going into remission, the Children’s Cancer Association made one of Ayden’s dreams come true. In late August, the association worked with Austen Everett Foundation to send Ayden to Seattle for a long weekend to hang out with the Seattle Seahawks.
Ayden and his parents, Carole and Bernie Mills, spent an afternoon at Virginia Mason Athletic Center, watching the Seahawks practice before the team’s final home preseason game. Once practice wrapped, the players headed toward Ayden and the handful of other kids there to visit.
Ayden, wearing a No. 16 jersey, got to meet and take a photo with the man who wears the number for the Seahawks, wide receiver Tyler Lockett. Ayden tossed the football with Lockett and quarterback Russell Wilson. He met tight end Jimmy Graham and coach Pete Carroll. And he got autographs from 28 players. Lockett also signed Ayden’s No. 16 jersey.
Ayden wore the jersey when he went back to school at Alki Middle School. His friends liked the jersey but were in disbelief when Ayden told him he met Lockett.
“I told them I got it signed, and their jaws dropped,” he said
The Mills family got to stand on the sidelines during warm-ups for the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs and had tickets to the game. The Seattle trip also included tickets to see iconic landmarks in the city.
The trip was memorable for the whole family.
“That’s something we never would’ve been able to do,” Carole Mills said. The family was still trying to recover financially from the out-of-pocket costs incurred from Ayden’s cancer treatment, she said.
The family was fortunate, Mills said, because they had good health insurance. Now that they’ve come out on the other side, the Vancouver family wants to help other families who aren’t as lucky.
One way they’re doing that is by supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s local chapter, which provides assistance for families and helps fund research.
During the weekend the Mills family joined thousands of people in Portland for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night. Event participants carry illuminated lanterns — white in honor of survivors, red in support of patients, and gold in remembrance of those who died — as they walk through the city.
This will be the first time the Mills family participates in the event, but Carole Mills hopes it’s the beginning of their efforts to help other families fighting cancer.
“If we can get one less kid to go through this, one less family to go through this, then we’ve met our minimal thing that we have to do,” Mills said.