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Family celebrates child's triumph over cancer this Christmas

PERU Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2006 were times of crisis for the Cunningham family, but this year they are celebrating like never before. Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, Jill Cunningham was helping her identical twin two-and-one-half-year-olds, Gabby and Elly, get dressed. She was horrified to discover a lump on Gabby's left thigh and immediately contacted her pediatrician. The day after Thanksgiving, she and her husband, Tom, were given the devastating news Gabby had embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of childhood cancer. Gabby's aggressive treatment began with chemotherapy Dec. 11 of last year. She received a total of 42 weeks of chemo, mostly as an outpatient at the Vermont Children's Hospital Oncology Department. The cycle of treatments included at least several weekly day trips to Burlington for chemo, with two blood tests each week. Every few weeks, there was a grueling two weeks of chemo every day. Needless to say, the staff at the hospital became like an extended family to the Cunninghams, just as they do to all the other children and their families who receive treatment there each year. Currently, there are 300 children receiving treatment at the hospital, some come from as far away as Texas and California, as the hospital has some of the most advanced treatment for brain cancer in the country. Five to seven of these children are inpatients, while 15 to 30 receive daily treatment, but stay near the hospital. About 20 of the 300 children treated at the hospital are from the North Country area in New York and Vermont. In the midst of all of the chemotherapy, Gabby's treatment also included seven weeks of proton beam radiation, with radiation under anesthesia administered five days a week. This treatment took place at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston, the only place in the eastern U.S. where it is available. During the Boston stay, Christopher's Haven provided Jill, Tom and the twins with a beautiful apartment near the hospital. Jill's parents moved into the Cunningham home to care for the couple's three school age boys in the family Carson, Mitchel and Cody. They also took them to Boston many times so the whole family could be together. The radiation treatments ended April 12 and the whole family was able to celebrate the twins third birthdays the following day in their Peru home. The taxing treatments caused Gabby to lose some weight, some of the rosy color in her cheeks, and all of her wavy blonde hair. But the treatments could not weaken her cheerful attitude or her vivacious enthusiasm for life "Her blood levels stayed so good throughout her treatment," Jill commented. "I believe it was due to her positive attitude brought on by our friends, family and faith community. I just want to thank everyone for being so special and so supportive." Friends, family, their faith community and their "family" at the Vermont Children's Hospital, worked to keep everything as light and fun as possible. Friends, family, and members from St. Augustine's Church donated meals and helped with house cleaning. One close friend, Bonnie Pellerin from Dannemora, held a "Locks for Love Hair Drive" in Gabby's honor last May. Dannemora hairdressers Hartson and Kristen Parker donated their time, offering free hair cuts to all donors. The event was a success and an encouragement to the Cunningham family, with 36 people donating a total of 418 inches of hair. The staff at the Vermont Children's Hospital made everyday special for Gabby. "They had dogs come in and visit the children, which was Gabby's highlight. They would bring in bubbles, paints and craft activities," Jill explained. One evening, her physician, Dr. Homans, went out to the store and bought breakfast sausages for Gabby because it was the only thing she felt like eating. He let her paint his fingernails green and orange to celebrate her last chemotherapy treatment, which took place earlier this fall. Over a year has passed since the day the Cunninghams received the devastating news their daughter had cancer. Just a few days later, they attended the Peru Town Christmas Tree Lighting in a state of shock. This year, the family attended in a state of celebration and the town celebrated with them. The tree was dedicated to Gabby and she and her family were the guests of honor. Just before Santa Claus arrived at the park in a Peru Volunteer Fire Department fire truck, Gabby and Elly helped light the tree in celebration of Gabby's life and triumph over cancer. The event is organized by the Peru Youth Commission, and the members of the board select someone from the community to light the tree each year. Because the Cunningham boys are all active in the town's sports programs, the family was well-known to all of the board members. "The Cunninghams are a really nice family and we wanted to honor Gabby's life and the fact that she has made it through her illness," said youth commission director John Flynn. "Lighting the Christmas tree will be something she will remember her whole life," said Jill. Thankfully, it looks like that is going to be a very long time.

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