It took Janet Pollok the same amount of time to lose her son, as it did for him to grow inside her.
Luke Pollok was diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric cancer in January 2009, called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). DIPG is characterized by highly-aggressive and difficult-to-treat tumors that appear on the brainstem. With no known cure and the location of the tumor(s) being inoperable, children with DIPG are given 9-12 months to live. On September 30, 2009 Luke passed away. He was only 10 years old.
Luke’s mother, Janet, began to notice changes in her son in the fall of 2008, as he started the fourth grade. He got irritated and emotional more easily, and homework was taking longer to complete. He complained of double vision, asking if it was normal to see two of everything.
His parents took him to an optometrist but the technician assured them that his young eyes were still developing, and that he needed glasses. But soon, Luke began having headaches, dizziness and balance issues. By January, it had become increasingly evident that something was very wrong, and so they went to Children’s Hospital in San Antonio — where they were given the news that changed all their lives, forever.
“All I can remember that next moment is just pure shock,” Janet recalls. “My mind reeling, holding back tears, still in some denial and immediately automatically trying to figure out the next step to ‘get around’ his prognosis. Hugging and loving on Luke was all I knew to do.”
The next months were filled with radiation, treatments, rushing back and forth to the emergency room, and hospital stays. And, of course, an agonizing emotional roller-coaster as Luke’s family watched him fight the unstoppable tumor.
“DIPG steals your child completely away from you, as you sit by and watch helplessly as it happens before your eyes, and there isn’t one thing you can do to change the outcome,” Janet says. “A short nine months later, a cure was not found, despite our valiant efforts. Luke took his last breath, me holding him to take it. It was the most surreal moment I will ever have in my life, next to giving birth. It was a sacred, intimate moment I will have etched in my memory forever. And it is one that I hope no other parent will ever have to experience.”
This September — National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month — marks eight years since Luke’s death. In that time, Janet has turned her grief and pain into action, becoming a relentless advocate for children and their families living with cancer; and for raising awareness and funding for research for childhood cancers.
Every day, 46 children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer, and it kills more children than all other diseases combined. Childhood cancer is far different from adult cancer, and children often react to treatment far differently; yet only four percent of federal funding is dedicated solely to childhood cancer research. That is something that Janet is on a mission to change.
“I vowed the day after Luke died, that I would do my part in helping other families not have to face what we did,” she says. “The strength my son showed me and taught me will continue to fuel my fire.”
She started a fund in Luke’s name and teamed up with St. Baldrick’s, a volunteer-powered charity committed to funding the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers and give survivors long, healthy lives. Through the years Janet has tirelessly attended and organized fundraising events, has reached out in support to other parents with children who are fighting cancer, and has even shaved her head for the St. Baldrick’s signature Head-Shaving events — twice!
Every day brings memories of Luke, with smiles and tears. The photograph that Janet chose to represent her son in her efforts was taken on his last birthday, in November 2008. “It paints a picture of what was to come, and we didn’t even know it,” she says.
As she made Luke’s favorite dinner, spaghetti, her oldest son Brent snapped a picture of Luke with his arms up like a fighter — a pose he had never done before, that Janet remembers.
“It was a memory that I will always treasure and never forget, but I have a lot of regrets about it too. If only I had known. If only I took more pictures that night, recorded video of him feeling so happy on his special day, singing and playing, doing what he loved. If only. It was the last happiest day of my little boy’s life before it drastically changed forever. I never, ever saw him like that again, after that day.”
But for Janet, all of this is what fuels her desire to help find a cure for other children that will face a brain tumor or cancer diagnosis.
“These children deserve to grow up. We know that researchers are capable of finding a cure, but without enough funds to sustain these efforts, we won’t gain much progress. Just as Luke never gave up hope, we will not give up hope for advances in research to be made to not only give these kids a chance to live out their dreams, but to improve the quality of survivorship. Through helping other children fighting this disease, we know his light will shine forever.”
To donate please visit https://www.stbaldricks.org/hero-funds/livingforluker
To get involved visit https://www.stbaldricks.org/get-involved