Origin Story: A Boy, His Dog, and a Cancer Diagnosis
Branson’s cancer journey began like most superhero origin stories, explaining how they gained their powers, and what events occurred that led them to dedicate their lives to the role of the hero. The difference in this origin story is that it was the spark of two new superheroes, Branson, and his dog, Marvel.
Branson and Marvel, the family’s three-year-old Labrador retriever, always enjoyed running around in the backyard together. In spring 2022, while the two were chasing each other, they collided. Everything seemed fine at first, but not long after, Branson complained about some knee pain. Branson’s parents, Andrea and Dave, took him to the doctor who initially thought was that the collision may have caused an ACL strain; however, Branson was consistently spiking fevers. Doctors also considered that he might have Lyme disease. After tests came back negative, his parents took him to Penn State Health Children’s Hospital for another opinion. It was here that Branson was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in his right tibia, and Branson’s family deemed Marvel a superhero for discovering his cancer helped find the cancer early before it spread.
Over the past year, Branson has received seventeen treatments, most of which required him to spend several nights in the hospital each time. Just like many children undergoing chemotherapy, he also dealt with side effects. “The nausea was the worst,” said Branson. “I felt drained, my tastes would often change, and I dealt with a little bit of chemo brain.” Branson also indicated that COVID swabs were one of the worst parts of treatment. He also underwent an eleven-and-a-half-hour surgery where the cancerous part of his tibia was removed and replaced with cadaver bone and titanium screws. Additionally, the surgeons rerouted part of his fibula to encourage a live bone meld with the cadaver bone.
Growing Up During Cancer Treatment: Raising a Teenager with Humor, Structure and Love
While Branson’s course of treatment was clear after his diagnosis, the journey to finishing treatment did not come without struggles, much like the journey of a superhero. “It was hardest at the very beginning,” said Andrea. “Branson became neutropenic and had consistently low white blood cell counts and lots of infections.” Neutropenia occurs when you have too few neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, that fight infection by destroying harmful bacteria and fungi that invade the body. “He also doesn’t like to admit that he isn’t feeling well, and with so much time in the hospital, it just became a struggle of not wanting to do it.” This is when some of Branson’s superpowers developed, primarily his humor. Through all of this, Branson charmed the doctors and nurses, and developed a great rapport with the pediatric cancer care team . “Keep yourself occupied,” said Branson. “Bring a lot of stuff to do and keep your mind busy, and most important, keep your sense of humor.”
Parenting a teenager is a tough task to begin with. Andrea describes parenting a teenager with cancer as “the battle of a lifetime.” Dave added that “Branson did well balancing growing up during treatment. We still had to parent and provide structure, but we are lucky that he is a good kid.” Branson spent the last year going to school virtually. As many parents know from the COVID pandemic, this is a challenge, and a hospital bed is not the best environment for school. Overdue assignments were common because of treatments and his challenging learning environment, but his school has been amazing and provided extensions and the flexibility Branson needed to be successful.
Bell Ringing: From Inpatient Cancer Treatment to Walking Again
Now that Branson has rung the bell and his cancer treatment has finished, he gets to spend the summer regaining his strength and a sense of normality. Branson likes to be outside and often wheels around town for 3-4 miles a day. While he cannot bear weight on his leg yet because chemotherapy slowed bone growth and healing, the surgeon is hopeful that 3-6 months post-chemotherapy he will be able to. “I’m looking forward to walking again, that’s pretty hype,” said Branson. “Until then there’s new video games, YouTube and being in the pool this summer.” Branson wanted to make sure we plugged his YouTube Channel here: BransonTheMan. The whole family is also looking forward to attending Penn State THON this February for the first time. As a Four Diamonds family, Branson is paired with Phi Beta Lamba, a business fraternity at Penn State. “They have been fantastic,” says Andrea. “They come to the house for dinner, watch movies, play video games and someone even came for his bell ringing!”
Four Diamonds dad Dave is so grateful for the treatment Branson has received at the Children’s Hospital and for the dedicated care team funded by Four Diamonds. “The first two weeks were the worst time for us as a family. The unknown of what we are dealing with was difficult. What are his chances? Is the cancer localized or metastasized? We never knew when we were going to be in the hospital, so we always had a to-go bag packed.” There was a point in time where Dave felt like they were living in the hospital. “Four Diamonds and our social worker, Aubrey, were there for whatever we needed, and this was such a big help.” The family also praised the work of pediatric psychologist Dr. Blackall. He was right on level with Branson and really understood him.
With treatment complete, one superhero is ready for freshman year of high school (in-person), physical therapy and walking again. Our other superhero, or rather “Marvel,” is there for Branson whenever he is called upon. They both have their origin stories told, and must remember, with great power comes great responsibility.¹
Branson's story inspires our mission to ensure that all children receive the highest quality care and holistic support services without ever worrying about a medical bill for their care. Learn more about your impact or how you can get involved in the fight against childhood cancer today.
¹ Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider- Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”).