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Lions Clubs take on kids cancer in N.L. and around the world

Placentia Lions Club president Sheldon Slaney and his son Kaleb during treatments at the Janeway.
Placentia Lions Club president Sheldon Slaney and his son Kaleb during treatments at the Janeway. - Submitted

New focus hits home for Placentia Lions Club president

Sheldon Slaney can tell you in detail that the weather on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 in St. John’s was warm, bright, and sunny.

He was sitting with his wife, Nikki, in a Disney-themed room of the emergency department at the Janeway. They were waiting for an explanation to their three-year-old son Kaleb’s 11-day fever that had already seen them back and forth to the doctor several times with no relief.

“Considering my current life situation, you can imagine the emotion that bubbled up when I was made aware that Lions Club International would be taking on pediatric cancer as its newest project.”

Sheldon Slaney

The Slaneys are teachers. They had been looking forward to starting their summer vacation with Kaleb and his younger sister, Karleigh, who was a little over a year old at the time.

Sheldon Slaney with his family: wife Nikki, son Kaleb, and daughter Karleigh. —Submitted
Sheldon Slaney with his family: wife Nikki, son Kaleb, and daughter Karleigh. —Submitted

At the Janeway, pediatrician Bhanu Muram assured the couple he would do all the tests necessary to confirm it was a viral infection, and began ordering blood work. After nearly an hour, a resident doctor returned and said they needed to take additional blood to do more tests.

“It was our first inkling that something wasn’t right,” said Slaney.

The resident checked Kaleb’s breathing, ears, and throat and began to make pen marks on his body. After nearly two hours, Dr. Muram returned. He spoke about the symptoms, and possible explanations, for several minutes.

“Eventually Nikki politely interrupted and asked him to just tell us what was wrong. All I remember is Dr. Muram saying Kaleb’s blood is 98 per cent leukemia blasts,” said Slaney.

“As we sat in silence, the word that kept causing the tears to run down our faces was the word ‘cancer.’ How could our innocent, blond-haired, blue-eyed, energetic, funny, intelligent son have cancer?”

Slaney says the next few hours are a blur, but that warm July day was suddenly “cold, dark, and dreary.”

“I closed my eyes a thousand times that day and prayed that when I opened them that this was a nightmare. But I was wrong, this was no nightmare. I couldn't shake myself and wake up in our home and hear the pitter patter of feet running towards our bed for morning cuddles.

“Instead I was watching nurses hold Kaleb down as they placed an IV in his arm and administered meds to stop yet another fever. People were moving around me like I wasn’t even there. I have felt pain in my life physically and emotionally, but nothing compares to the pain of seeing your child sick, and no Band-Aid, hug, or kiss could ever fix it.”

Today, Slaney is president of the Placentia Lions Club.

“Considering my current life situation, you can imagine the emotion that bubbled up when I was made aware that Lions Club International would be taking on pediatric cancer as its newest project.”

Added as a focus

This year, the Lions Club added pediatric cancer as one of their focus areas, in addition to their already established focus areas of vision, diabetes, hunger, and the environment.  Slaney jumped at the chance to sit on the three-person committee the Lions District N4 (which serves 50 Lions Clubs between Gander and St. John’s) created to address the new focus area.

Patrice King and Sam Wells make up the rest of the committee.

“To know that there’s a specific aim and purpose with regards to pediatric cancer means an awful lot to me,” said Slaney.

Back in 2015, Slaney describes the next few days after Kaleb’s diagnosis as “pandemonium” as they were flooded with information. Kaleb was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Type B. He had his first dose of chemotherapy in his spinal cord. In six months, he underwent intense chemotherapy, lost his hair twice, had a tube inserted in his nose to feed him for nearly a month, and yet —

“That small, frail, very sick little boy smiled through it all,” said Slaney.

It’s more than two years later and Kaleb continues to have chemotherapy. He takes an oral chemotherapy pill daily, one intrathecal injection monthly, and one lumbar puncture injection through his spinal cord every three months. But there’s an end in sight.

On the very same day that Kaleb turns seven this September, and after spending exactly half of his life on chemotherapy, he will receive his last treatment.

“We are ecstatic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, because when we started, we were certainly in the darkness.”

But Slaney says that darkness was lightened significantly by the support of the community who rallied around them.

“When he got diagnosed, I was a part of the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. I’ve never experienced that much support from anywhere or anyone in my life.”

Both Slaney and his wife are from St. Lawrence, but they accepted teaching positions in Placentia and hadn’t been living there for very long when Kaleb was diagnosed. Still, the community held fundraisers, they had a car show, and they raised hundreds and thousands of dollars for the family. 

“It kind of caught us off guard because, you know, we had just moved in, which was insane to think about — that these people who didn’t really know us as such, at the time, just poured out their hearts and supported us in the way that they did.”

“I think, honestly, that’s what’s made this journey a little easier for us, is that initial and ongoing support that we received.”

Slaney says he will never forget how excited Kaleb was to receive a gift card from the Placentia Lions Club for Toys R Us. He bought a LEGO to build while receiving chemotherapy.

Now Slaney is passionate about paying it forward through his work with the Lions Club and their newly formed committee to begin initiatives around pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising.

“We want to make sure that each and every person understands that the diagnosis is a one-day process. It happens. You get diagnosed. But it’s what happens after that’s the major effect on families and what they have to go through. That support that you show them, whether it be financially, emotionally, spiritually — that’s what we want to get across and that’s what we’re really focusing on as a committee right now.”

Awareness is their initial goal, but over the next couple of years the committee is aiming to give back to the Janeway “in some big way with something that is very impactful,” he said.

“My hope is that with the assistance of Lions Clubs across our province, country, and around the world, we can help families like ours lessen the burden of a pediatric cancer diagnosis.”

He says that could involve anything from purchasing hospital equipment to buying toys for children who are receiving chemotherapy.

“Lions can make a huge difference, and I look forward to sharing this journey and helping to lead the lion pack towards assisting families burdened by pediatric cancer.”

Slaney says it will take five years after Kaleb’s last treatment this September before doctors will consider him cancer-free, and he will need to get regular blood work during those five years. However, his family can now see the sun again, and he looks forward to a future of giving back to the community as passionately as they helped his family these past several years.

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