How a family fought cancer together

Story highlights

  • The Shepard family discovered when son Maddox was 2 that he had leukemia
  • Maddox's mom, Geri, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years later
  • St. Baldrick's, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness for childhood cancer, helped them connect with other families

(CNN)In June 2009, Brad and Geri Shepard took their two young children to visit their grandparents, expecting a nice vacation and quality time for the whole family.

But Grandma Shepard was worried as soon as she saw 2-year-old Maddox step out of the car. He looked pale, Brad said. Over the course of the weekend, the normally active toddler was tired, lacked an appetite and developed a fever. The previous month, Maddox had fevers and bruising, which his pediatrician chalked up to viruses and playing at the playground.
Brad and Geri thought they were being overanxious, but Grandma Shepard's reaction was enough to convince Geri that she should call the doctor at home and request a blood test.
    Maddox registered as anemic with low blood counts. After a bone marrow biopsy, it was confirmed that Maddox had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was put into isolation and began chemotherapy immediately. Maddox was scared. His parents were terrified.
    "How do you begin to explain this to a child?" Geri said. "At any age, cancer is awful, but for a kid, it's devastating. They should be having playdates instead of chemotherapy."
    Little did they know, the family's cancer battle was just beginning.

    Defining a new normal

    Brad took time off work and he and Geri took shifts at the hospital for five intense weeks before Maddox could continue his treatment from home. Maddox also had surgery to install a medical port in his chest, which made the chemotherapy treatments a little easier.
    They came up with names to make everything less scary for Maddox. Taking his blood pressure became "arm hugs," his IV was a "necklace" and the clinic he would visit on a weekly basis became "the kitchen," mainly because he loved to play with the toddler kitchenette set there.
    While Maddox was in isolation, their 1-year-old daughter, Danika, was in the care of her grandmother. Normally, she shared a room with him. She didn't understand why she couldn't visit Maddox, or that just going to see him in isolation could expose his vuln