The adolescent years are supposed to be the best years of one’s life. It’s the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, and is likely the most memorable and revered stage for most.
During these years, teens often struggle with mood swings, social issues and body changes.
What if one of the body changes isn’t one shared by the rest of your peers?
What if it’s inoperable, incurable, aggressive brain cancer, which is so rare, physicians can’t determine a prognosis?
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That’s the body change, and the inconceivable burden, that is currently resting on the shoulders of 15-year-old Brison Ricker and his family.
“We have a new normal,” said Kim Ricker, Brison’s mother, referring to the scary circumstances currently being faced by the family.
One year ago, the Rickers were a healthy bunch. There were no signs of what was to come. Brison was 14 and preparing for another season of “SJO Supercross” dirt bike racing at events throughout the state of Michigan.
Brison’s bedroom is busting at the seams with trophies he’s won as a dirt bike rider.
Brison Ricker's motocross photos
“During the dirt bike season, we’re at the track two or three times a week,” said Kim. “It was something we loved to do as a family.”
The other sport Brison excels at is soccer, which begins soon after dirt bike season ends and stretches into November. Brison is so talented at soccer that he made the cut onto the Cedar Springs’ varsity team as a freshman.
And not only did he make the team, he was named offensive player of the year.
“it’s been fun watching him score a bunch of goals,” said Brian Ricker, Brison’s father. “He did whatever he could do to make his team better.”
After the varsity soccer season ended at Cedar Springs, Brison began playing in an indoor soccer league, and that’s when the Ricker’s “new normal” began to reveal itself.
“It was right around Thanksgiving,” said Brison, discussing his early symptoms. “I was lying in bed one night when I looked at a light, and saw two of them.
“After that, the double-vision didn’t go away, then I told my mom about it.”
The Rickers immediately called the family pediatrician, who referred them to an eye doctor.
“They prescribed prism glasses for him, which were supposed to help with the double-vision,” said Kim. “The glasses did nothing.”
Since the glasses were not effective, eye surgery for Brison started being discussed.
“That’s when I began researching,” added Kim.
She spent the majority of her time through the holiday season, and into early 2016, learning as much as she could about Brison’s symptoms. In late January, Kim had a breakthrough.
“As I Googled Brison’s condition, I kept reading that people have to rule out any underlying causes connected to the symptoms, so I then started to dig deeper into what some of the underlying causes were, and one of them was a brain tumor,” said Kim.
Brison Ricker's soccer career
Thanks to the family’s aggressive internet research, the Rickers brought Brison to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on January 22. Physicians gave Brison an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and when the results came back, the family’s worst fears were confirmed.
“They said he had a brain tumor,” Kim said. “We were devastated; it didn’t seem like it could be real.”
“Brison’s tumor is called Astrocytoma,” said Dr. David Dickens, MD, pediatric oncologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “It’s located on his brain stem, and it’s very rare.”
This type of tumor does not usually spread outside the brain and spinal cord and it does not usually affect other organs.
“The tumor is on Brison’s brain stem, and of all places that you can have a tumor, this is by far one of the worst,” said Dr. Dickens. “The area of the brain where the tumor is located controls Brison’s breathing, his heart rate and a lot of nerves in his face.
“Our typical process when somebody comes in and has a tumor or a mass that’s detected on an MRI or CT Scan is to biopsy it; that’s the best way to know exactly what a patient has. The problem in Brison’s case, again, is the location of the mass. The mere process of putting him through a biopsy would risk his life, and if he didn’t die in the process of obtaining a piece of that tissue, he most certainly would have some other type of bad side effect from it because the surgeon would be operating on a location of his brain that controls a lot of functions of the body.”
The Rickers had to endure one more piece of news regarding Brison’s case.
“This is another area that makes it very difficult, because it’s hard to give this family a straight answer,” said Dr. Dickens. “There are types of tumors in this area of the brain that are associated with a 90 percent cure rate; radiation therapy cures the patient. However, the high grade tumors that we see in the brain stem are not thought to be curable.
“It’s possible that Brison has a very good prognosis tumor, and it’s possible that it’s a very bad one.”
When Brison presented, his right eye was already drooping, and almost entirely closed, indicating the tumor was already at work, compromising the part of the brain that controls facial functions.
“I was not expecting anything bad at all,” said Brison, referring to when he was hearing the doctors reveal his diagnosis. “It was a lot to take, and I was very scared.”
“After receiving this news, I went on a mission to find something that could cure him,” said Kim.
Kim began extensively researching again, and says she sought a series of second opinions. She contacted the University of Michigan, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center, Texas Children’s Brain Tumor Clinic, Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital, Duke University, Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute/Chicago Children’s Hospital, University of Chicago and the Chicago Proton Center.
“The majority of the opinions I sought agreed that Brison needed radiation, because trying to shrink the tumor would buy more time to determine a future course of treatment.”
Brison started radiation therapy two weeks after he was diagnosed. He’s been traveling from Cedar Springs to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital every day for the treatment which, according to Dr. Dickens, is to last a total of six weeks. It’s set to end the first week of April.
“After six weeks of radiation therapy, we will repeat the MRI scans and see how we’re doing,” said Dr. Dickens. “Seeing Brison do well in clinic, and continue to be stable, is a good sign because I feel like he would be getting worse if the tumor were getting worse.”
While Brison continues to receive intense medical support, it may be the ground swell of community support from his hometown of Cedar Springs that is carrying him through this challenging time. The walls in the Ricker’s home are almost completely covered with signed posters from students and faculty who attend all the area schools, and Bible verses.
“It all reminds us we have to stay strong,” said Kim. “After you get news like that, there can be a lot of negative things to focus on.
“All the posters and cards are a sign of how everybody loves him and what a great kid everybody thinks he is.”
The signs aren’t just covering the family’s walls. Hundreds of specially-created signs are plugged into the yards of almost every house along Dio Drive, which is where the Rickers live.
“For eight-tenths of a mile, they’re all you see,” said Brian Ricker.
“They were all put up just a couple days after we returned from the hospital,” said Kim. “Every time I turn down my street, I start crying because I can’t believe the support we have.”
Inside the Rickers' home
Brison has lost 25 pounds since he began the radiation therapy but, according to his oncologist, he’s far from lost his will to fight for his life.
“He’s a remarkable 15-year-old,” said Dr. Dickens. “Brison came to us already equipped with the ability to accept that his reality has changed significantly, and move on through his life with the same capacity that he did before.
“He didn’t have a choice to meet me, but what he does have a choice about is his attitude going forward. He already does an exceptional job at that, and I think he’s a great example for people, not just 15-years-old, but for adults, too.”
The cancer journey ahead for Brison Ricker and his family is unknown.
“I know I can do this,” said Brison, referring to his strong will to beat his cancer. “It’s amazing to see all the people that support me and care about me.
“It keeps me strong.”
The Ricker family has set up a GoFundMe page. Their goal is to collect $50,000 to help offset Brison’s medical expenses. If you’re interested in getting real-time updates from Brison’s family about his progress, or if you’d like to make a contribution, you can find the page HERE.
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