For most kids, starting 7th grade is just a normal ending to summer. But for 12 year old Tony Salerno, it is a big deal. When he was only two and a half, Tony was diagnosed with Stage 4, high risk Neuroblastoma—just two weeks before his little sister Samantha was born.
At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, almost a two hour drive from their house in Holmdel, the Salernos were given very sobering odds of treatment success, despite the fact that the hospital is ranked number one in the world for treating Tony’s type of cancer.
At the time of his diagnosis, the survival rate for high-risk neuroblastoma was just 30% percent, a bleak outlook for a little boy just starting his life.
Tony began a grueling treatment path–five rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries to remove tumors in his abdominal cavity, two stem cell transplants, radiation and more. But despite the exhausting treatments, Tony was always smiling and rarely complained. He was a favorite of his doctors and nurses for his positive spirit. “He went to hell and back with a smile on his face the whole time,” said his mom Karen. “I can’t tell you how many adults who have gone through chemo treatments who told me that when they had bad days they just thought of Tony, knowing that if he went through it, so could they.”
The Salernos learned about ECF from Karen’s mother Betty, who has been involved with us for more than 30 years, holding numerous garage sales to raise money and providing donations to ECF families for urgent needs such as broken refrigerators or back rent payments. After Samantha was born, ECF brought diapers, baby food, toys and a high chair to her grandparents’ house, where she was staying while Tony underwent treatment in Philadelphia. When Tony had resection surgery a week before his birthday, ECF delivered wrapped birthday gifts to Tony’s house. During the holidays we provided presents for both Tony and Samantha because his mom “couldn’t imagine getting out to the stores to shop.” And after Tony’s stem cell transplant, when he wasn’t allowed to be around other people because he was immunocompromised, ECF arranged a private tour for his family to go through the Six Flags safari, where he and Samantha got to feed giraffes, elephants and baboons from their hands. “ECF also invited me to attend a motorcycle rally where I was able to touch and sit on some of the motorcycles,” Tony said. “That was a big deal to a three year old boy!”
Though the treatments were ultimately successful, Tony endures many long term side effects, including lens replacements on both eyes due to cataracts, pins in his hips, and the loss of a kidney which causes him chronic hypertension and kidney disease. He takes ten different pills multiple times a day, as well as growth hormone injections and thyroid replacement therapy. His medical team includes a dizzying array of audiologists, ophthalmologists, endocrinologists, pulmonologists, orthopedists, oncologists, and more. But as throughout his ordeal, Tony does not let any of this get in his way. “He’s like the Energizer bunny,” Karen said. “He just keeps on going….with a smile on his face no less!”
In many ways Tony is a very typical 12-year old—he enjoys having his summers off from school, swimming in the pool and playing video games. He loves being a boy scout and earning a variety of merit badges. He loves to play with his pet beagle, Cosmo. But Tony also loves to help others by volunteering his time with ECF and other pediatric cancer charities. His boy scout training only further inspires his desire to help. “I have learned that the boy scout slogan is ‘do a good turn daily’ and I take that idea very seriously. I try to give back wherever I can.” Tony helps his grandmother with the garage sales and has unloaded groceries at an ECF food pantry. Even when Tony was nine and in a wheelchair from hip surgery, he volunteered with his family at a disaster relief center helping people affected by Hurricane Sandy. His little sister Samantha helps too; in honor of her brother she has donated her hair three different times to charities that create wigs for kids with cancer. “I think Tony is one of the bravest big brothers around,” Samantha said. We think so too.