At just eight years old, Rex Fleming has been to the hospital more times in the last three months than most people have in their lifetimes. Eighty-five days ago, the Flemings learned that their son had a rare brain tumor that has changed their lives.
Rex has been through surgery to remove the tumor and continues to undergo photon radiation therapy treatments nearly every day of the week, coupled with regular blood work, to make sure the medicine he is taking does not damage his kidneys or liver, and physical and occupational therapy to regain strength lost on the left side of Rex’s body during surgery.
It started in late October when Rex began experiencing headaches and vomiting, but there was something different about this illness. The symptoms only occurred between the hours of 9 and 11 A.M. and usually while he was in school.
“We didn’t know one of the signs of a brain tumor was vomiting and having headaches at the same time of day,” said Rex’s mother Jill.
If you ask Rex, he claims that up until the day his parents told him otherwise, he thought he just had the flu. After all, who would expect an eight-year-old boy know what “cancer” or “brain tumor” means much less understand it.
Early on, the doctors thought it was about as serious as the flu, diagnosing a sinus infection and then treating it as such. The treatment proved to be effective for a few days, until the headaches came back soon thereafter.
After seeing an ophthalmologist, Rex was sent to Hendrick Medical Center to get an MRI of his head after what Rex’s father, ACU sports information director Lance Fleming, described as a migraine-type headache.
“For some reason in the back of my head, I was thinking there was something wrong,” said Lance.
And something was wrong. November 22 would end up being a day Rex’s parents would never forget. After undergoing the MRI, Dr. Robert Wiley walked into the room and told them their son had a golf ball-sized tumor in the middle of his brain.
“You’re prepared for a lot of things as a parent, but one of the things you can’t be prepared for is, ‘Your son has a tumor,'” Lance said.
The next day, Rex was on his way to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth (CHECK) to get more testing, which eventually turned into a scheduled surgery to excise the tumor in his head.
The question then became, how do you tell your eight-year-old son he has to go to a hospital to have a tumor checked out and removed. The simple answer, you don’t.
“We told him at first that we were going to see if the doctors in Fort Worth could figure out why he was having headaches and throwing up,” said Rex’s father. “At eight years old we didn’t think right then was the time to tell him, ‘You have a brain tumor, it might be cancer.'”
Even still Rex calls the tumor that was in his head a “bubble” that had “bad cells” in it.
The average reaction you would expect when you tell a child they have to have brain surgery is, ‘Will it hurt?’ But in much the same spirit he has had in every aspect of this ordeal, Rex was more interested in how they were going to cut into his head than the fear of what they might find inside it.
“He handled it great; he’s handled it all great,” his dad said.
The doctors were able to remove 100 percent of Rex’s tumor and initial signs look as though it was the best possible news, a benign tumor that required no further treatment other than physical and occupational therapy.
Then a second tidal storm came when just a handful of days later, the Flemings got the test result back from Dr. Peter Berger Director of the Neuropathology Surgical Consultation Services at Johns Hopkins University. He had discovered that although 85 percent of the tumor was harmless and benign, 15 percent of the tumor was classified as a grade-three malignant glioma, a tumor that carries just a 30-40 percent, five-year survival rate.
“Apparently the statistics show that a grade-three malignant tumor is 30 to 40-percent survival rate for five years,” said Lance. “But our son is not a statistic; he’s our son.”
It was after they found out this piece of information that the Flemings decided to tell their son that another word for the “bubble” in his head was a tumor and that some of the cells in his “bubble” were bad.
“They told me that some of the cells were good cells but some of them were bad and that I had to take some extra medicine,” said Rex.
The doctors prescribed 30 radiation treatments for Rex along with some medicine that would hopefully prove to be just preventative measures.
Through all of this, what stands out to Rex and his family is the outpouring they have received from people they barely know, and according to Rex, nothing more so than the countless prayers he has received.
“The prayers have made everything go so good,” said Rex.
The things that astonish his parents the most is how Rex has been giving everyone else strength through his battle with cancer and how much so many people are willing to do for an eight-year-old boy.
After being allowed to go home for Christmas, Rex found a special gift under the tree. Former ACU standouts Johnny Knox and Daniel Manning got the entire Bears defense plus Knox and Jay Cutler to sign a helmet and shipped it to Abilene just in time for Christmas.
Some of the other people Rex has met that are relatively well-known include: Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Felix Jones and a few former Cowboys players in a press box during the season finale. And for a kid who has a passion for sports like his dad’s, there could be nothing better.
“I really liked getting to meet Josh,” said Rex. “He signed three baseballs for me.”
Another gift is on the way for the Fleming family – some of the parents of Rex’s friends have decided to put on a 5K Fun Run benefiting Rex and his family. Proceeds from the run will all go to help Rex and his family with medical and travel expenses for Rex’s treatment during the next two years.
“That is just another incredible thing we are being blessed with,” said Rex’s dad.
The fun run will take place Saturday, Feb. 19 from 9 a.m. to noon at Crutcher Scott Field. To register for the fun run, visit the Facebook group Run4Rex 5K Walk/Run.