Battling leukemia, Edward Chambers wins school’s love

One day in elementary school, young Edward Chambers learned his teacher was feeling sad about a death in her family.

“He said – and I’ve never had a student say this to me before – he said, ‘Please accept my condolences.’ I couldn’t believe it. It just made me cry that he hugged me and said this. He’s this boy who’s been through so much. He’s kind. He’s empathetic. I just absolutely adore him,” said Dawn Bonenberger, his teacher at Westside Intermediate School.

An hour or so before she shared that anecdote on June 2, Edward, now 9, who has battled leukemia for three years, returned to school after an absence for treatment and was surprised by balloons and a cheering crowd of teachers and students who lined the hallways, chanted his name and held signs to welcome him.

Edward, in a Superman cape Bonenberger found for him, walked down the hallway, beaming.

“I only know about 50 of those kids,” he told the Salisbury Independent later, as he helped cook in the family’s kitchen.

He’ll attend school this week, after missing about 80 days this year, and, on Sunday, celebrate the end of chemotherapy at a big party with friends, members of Hogs for Heroes, his parents, David and Melissa, and five siblings, Tori, Stephen, Thomas, Elizabeth and Felicity, who uses the nickname Flik. Edward is the youngest. The oldest is 24.

Having chemotherapy has caused Edward – who, his mother said, is spoken to like an adult and whose conversation reflects that – develop a philosophy.

“Don’t judge people by how they look. Everyone ends up having a different story,” the boy said.

If a classmate would tell him, “You don’t have cancer. You have hair,” Edward would reply matter-of-factly, “Do you see the port?”

A good student who especially enjoys math and science, he wants to grow up to be a marine biologist, engineer or mathematician.

“I still have aches and pains but I want to learn to ride a bike. I want to play basketball. I want to join a soccer team,” he said. Because of risk of injury, he wasn’t able to enjoy those activities.

On the Facebook page bearing his nickname, Edward Bear Fights Leukemia, there are photographs of the youngster in various stages of illness and treatment, flashing his signature smile.

“I just felt like smiling,” he said casually.

His mother recalled the beginning of the illness. He was 6, living in Canada, when he developed an earache. A doctor diagnosed an infection and prescribed antibiotics, but they didn’t help.

“After having lots of kids you know that after 24 hours of antibiotics kids usually bounce back. There was liquidy blood coming out of his ear. We went back to the doctor and the doctor just looked at him and sent us to the hospital. He had little red dots all over. That’s an indication something is wrong with the blood,” she said.

Making matters worse, the family had taken a painful financial loss during the recession and was living in Canada. “We were homeless, jobless, insurance less,” Mrs. Chambers said.

“We lost our home. We lost everything. We cried for a few months then hit the road with the two youngest. The oldest was out on her own. The next two stepsons were living with their mom and the middle one, we ended up adopting her after their mom, my husband’s ex-wife, passed from breast cancer a year and a half into Edward’s treatment,” she said.

After his diagnosis, there were three deaths in the family.

“You just dig in and you do what you have to do. People say, ‘You’re so strong. I don’t know how you do it.’ It’s like being a new parent. It’s exhausting. It’s trying. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re learning,” she said.

Mr. Chambers, years earlier, had started the Philtronic Comtek business in Salisbury, then the family lived in Florida and Texas, where they sold their belongings and traveled.

Edward was diagnosed in Canada and was too sick to travel for a couple of months, so they delayed the move back to Maryland, chosen for its proximity to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“Thank God for Obamacare because Edward was able to get insurance. David worked for K&L Microwave before he started Philtronic, so they hired him back. We lived in Ocean City then we moved to Salisbury,” Mrs. Chambers said.

Through it all, and despite having treatment every day for three years, including taking 17 pills once each week, Edward hasn’t lost that sweet grin.

“That’s the one thing everyone points out and notices. He is always smiling. He has those little dimples,” he mother said.

At first, she recalled, doctors told her Edward’s blood was “99 percent filled with cancer.”

“After the first month, it was, amazingly, down to .001 percent. The first month, every day there was chemo. They hit him every single day. The majority of kids are in remission after the first month but because leukemia is so resilient, they have treatment every day, every single day,” she said.

Edward has an idea. Doctors, he said, “should talk to all leukemia patients and ask them exactly what they were doing when they got this.”

He might have something there, his mother said, since the family was living in Texas when he was 4, and there was fracking.

“It’s awful,” his mother said about the practice many believe causes health risks.

Later, she took her children to a climate march in Washington, D.C., and posted on Facebook a photo of Edward at the march, holding a sign stating “I have fracking leukemia.”

It caught the attention of many.

“They haven’t used the word ‘cured,’ but he has been in remission since after the first month. Around Christmas, they did another bone marrow biopsy. He got sick and they thought he had relapsed. He didn’t, though. They tested everything. He’s definitely had his ups and downs,” she said.

“He is such a trooper. He tries so hard,” his teacher, Bonenberger, said.

“If he feels up to doing his school work, he will. I have excused a lot of it. We try to catch him up on some things when he’s here. It comes down to prioritizing things to get him prepared for fourth grade, to focus on what’s Important,” she said.

His peers have been “wonderful and very understanding,” she said.

“They’re fantastic.”

“I’m not sure if we’ve ever had a child going through chemo during the school year. I feel like he’s kind of unique. A lot of things we didn’t really know how to deal with, like his port. Our director of nursing, we got her involved and tried to figure it out,” Bonenberger said.

“His mom would send me a message in the morning, an e-mail or a text, and say he had just thrown up. The toxins kind of filled up in his body from the chemo. I’d send a message back and say, ‘I’m so sorry. I will get him caught up on his work’ and as I was sending the message, I felt his arms around me. He’s such a trooper. Sometimes it has taken a toll on him. The second marking period his body just hurt so badly. There were times he had to come to school in a wheelchair but he was still here. If he gets too tired, he goes to lie down in nurse’s office then he comes back,” she said.

“He’s smart. He’s very smart. He is witty. He has a fantastic sense of humor,” Bonenberger said.

“I just really love him.”

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