In January 2016, Josh Sexton was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. With the care of the oncology team and other specialists at Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children, he immediately began chemotherapy. In an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading, Josh's right arm had to be amputated.
Josh's mother, Alishia Bates Sexton, visited with Jenny Cox Holman, Lifestyle & Travel Editor, for Mississippi Matters, about her family's courageous journey in the battle against childhood cancer for their son. Alishia and her husband hope to be a source of comfort and support to families in the battle against childhood cancer. They want those who have received a cancer diagnosis to know that they have a community of warriors who have battled cancer and are on their team to combat the difficulties of cancer with words of encouragement, prayers and tangible acts of service.
Alishia, would you share with us about the Josh you know and highlights of his childhood - what is his favorite pastime, where does he attend school and what does he hope to be when he grows up?
Josh has always been a happy child, always running and playing, never slowing down. He definitely had us on our toes all the time. He is very clumsy like his mother and by the time he started school he had already had two set of stitches, a major concussion, a fracture of his shin bone, and had broken both forearm bones (falling out of an above ground pool). Although Josh was so big for his age, he was very coordinated when it came to sports. He loved playing any sports, especially football.
Josh attends Florence Elementary and loves it. Josh once dreamed of being a veterinarian because he loves animals and they love him. However, due to cancer and the amputation, he has rethought that dream and now wishes to be a paralympic athlete or a game designer.
Recalling those fateful days and events that led up to Josh’s diagnosis, what was the turning point that led to Josh’s diagnosis?
Josh and his brother Caden were playing and throwing a football in the front yard. Josh threw the football as hard as he could and he heard a popping sound in his arm. We initially thought he pulled a muscle.
Our friend, Kira, who lived up the street from us at the time, is a sports trainer and looked at his arm and wrapped it up thinking it was a pulled muscle as well. After two days of not moving the arm it should have been better but it still wasn't any better. I talked to Kira and she said there would be a doctor at the high school football game the next day and we could just see what he said.
The doctor told us immediately that he thought it was a fracture and that we needed to go in for an x-ray. He told us to attend the free high school/college clinic on Saturday. We went in on a Saturday morning to the Mississippi Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Clinic, where they rushed us back to get an x-ray. I really had an uneasy feeling the entire time. Then the doctors came in and asked Josh and Caden to sit in the waiting room. Then they proceeded to tell us that they were referring us to a pediatric orthopedic oncologist. They thought at that point it was lymphoma or leukemia. After meeting our awesome pediatric orthopedic oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Barr, we had a biopsy that came back clear. After Josh's arm was in a sling for a while, Dr. Barr gave him the all's clear to be a boy again. So Josh did just that and finished football season and basketball season.
Two days after Christmas 2015, Josh came to me complaining of his arm again, saying it was swollen and hurting like before. I got in contact with the doctor and although she wasn't available, she got us in the next day for an x-ray. It was clear that something was wrong . Josh was diagnosed by January 7, 2016, with osteosarcoma, bone cancer of the right upper arm.
Alishia, as parents how were you and your husband able to grasp the news that your little boy had cancer?
We really didn't know much about childhood cancer or even thought it would happen to us. It was hard to see the statistics on survival of childhood cancer or osteosarcoma itself. As a Christian I knew that I had to rely on God's plan and trust Him. I prayed the prayer no parent wants to pray. I prayed that God's will be done, even if it meant that he would take my baby. I also prayed that He would use this to glorify Him and grow His kingdom. In my mind, if that didn't happen then there was not a good reason for us to go through this. I wanted this journey to have meaning besides pain and heartache.
It’s hard to imagine the strength you both had to take hold of in order to share with Josh about his diagnosis. What helped you as parents with such a difficult discussion with Josh?
When we had the first scare, we decided that we wouldn't tell either kid until we knew exactly what we were dealing with. Wil prayed about it and talked to our parents. We decided to break the news to Caden first so that he would have time to process the information and ask what he wanted. Then Wil, Caden, Josh and I all got together along with Wil's parents, and my parents and grandmother. We thought having numbers would be better; in case Wil and I got upset someone else could step in.
When we told Josh he said only two things. First he asked what was the worst case. We were honest with him and told him that some people with cancer will die.
He started crying ,and when I asked him what he was thinking he said, "If God wants me to go to heaven I am okay with that, but I am just worried about what y'all are going to do without me." Although that is hard to hear, I had a little peace knowing that Josh knew he was going to heaven if he did die.
What was the most heart-wrenching part of his battle against cancer?
It was hard to just see him suffering and there was nothing we could do to help ease the pain. There were times that he had chemo-induced mouth sores so bad from the outside of his mouth all the way through his stomach down to his bottom. He didn't want to eat or do anything really. It was hard to be the mom that had to force him to do things he didn't want to do, but I was trying to keep him alive. The time I lost it the most was after his amputation. I didn't really know what to expect and it was and is hard to see your son laying there with no arm or shoulder.
Children are truly resilient - can you share how Josh inspired you with his courage?
We were worried how Josh would do as an amputee; however he has showed us over and over that nothing can stop him. He smiles all the time and never lets anything get him down too long.
Do you have any advice that you would like to share with other parents who will unexpectedly find themselves in a battle against childhood cancer?
Do not keep people around you who do not support you or don't respect your wishes. Keep God in the center of everything. Fight for your kid no matter if you have to correct a doctor or someone that is friends or family.
What can you tell parents who have school-age children, to give their children direction on how to be the most compassionate friend to a classmate who has cancer.
Just talk to your kids about what's happening. Let them know it's okay to ask questions. Even as parents, ask questions. We would rather you ask us instead of stare at us.
Many times friends and family members would like to offer encouragement and don’t know what to say that will offer a source of comfort. Can you share what meant the most to you and your family and any tangible ways that you could let others know how to reach out to individuals and families in a battle against cancer.
Just knowing that everyone was praying for us was very comforting. Tangible ways to help were sending cards or gifts not just for the child with cancer, but also for the other siblings. It is hard on them too. Also, gift cards and money always help because most likely one parent is unable to work. That is the only way we were able to survive in our regular non-hospital life.
What has been your source of strength and comfort through Josh’s cancer journey and recovery?
God, Bible, family, prayer and all our supporters who helped throughout our journey.
What is the greatest piece of advice that you would like to offer other parents whose children have cancer?
Rely on your faith, don't be afraid to share your story and be your child's advocate.
Fear can seem to creep in and take hold during such a scary time as battling cancer. What has been the source of strength and courage?
I still struggle with the fear. Fear of every time Josh hurts himself, a bump comes up or on scan day. I feel like on scan day I am holding my breath until I get the all's clear from the doctor. However, I listen to praise music and pray a lot. I try my best to lay it at His feet and not pick it back up; but being human it's hard.
When you think of Josh, what are your hopes and dreams for your precious child?
I pray and hope that he never lets his limitations stop him from doing what he loves. I pray he stays kind, loving, and leans on God always.
Looking back over the difficult journey and recovery from cancer, what do you want others to know about Josh and your family?
This journey has made us closer to God and each other. Josh has taught us how to fight, love and get over the small stuff in life. We still struggle with losing friends we have made but we are also thankful for Josh's success.
To learn more about Josh Sexton's courageous journey with cancer, visit their Facebook page. For more support, resources about childhood cancer, visit American Cancer Society. For more stories on Mississippi Matters' read here.