My dearest friend since junior high, Susan (then Zahner, now Armenio) and her wonderful husband, Anthony (always Armenio) became parents for the first time on August 2, 2001 to their gorgeous son, Justin. The video camera was always out to record all the firsts in Justin’s life. He was such a happy baby. He had Susan’s infectious smile and Anthony’s sparkling eyes.
When Justin was a little more than a year old, Susan called to tell me that her baby had cancer. My blood ran cold. I must have heard her wrong. Susan did everything she was supposed to do while she was pregnant. She and Anthony did everything — and more — that parents are supposed to to for their baby. This was not supposed to happen.
The type of cancer Justin was diagnosed with was Neuroblastoma. Susan explained to me that Neuroblastoma primarily affects children under 5, especially babies, and is cancer of the sympathetic nervous system. I had no idea that we even had a sympathetic nervous system until then, let alone that one can get cancer there. It is unfathomable that there is a cancer that targets babies.
During the course of the year that followed Justin’s diagnosis, he went through a variety of treatments. I kept asking Susan if we could come up to visit when she told me Justin was home between stays at the hospital. But we couldn’t. My daughter was 4 years old and going to Pre-K; in other words, she was a germ factory. The chemotherapy that Justin endured left him weak and highly susceptible to infection. The risk was too high that we could get him sicker. I relied on the reports that Susan gave me regarding Justin’s progress. At times, it was very hard to hear. Susan was always the exuberant bubbly one. She has a smile so powerful not only does it light up a room but you could hear it on the phone. That light was gone. As a human being, I could not comprehend how sweet, innocent Baby Justin could be experiencing the horrors of cancer. As a mother, I cannot imagine what my friend was going through. As a friend, I wished that I could do something to make it better for Susan. Cancer is a thief, ruthlessly robbing people of so much that is beautiful in their lives.
Justin was strong. He battled his cancer. He made it through the horrors of chemotherapy. It looked like he had the Neuroblastoma beat. But on October 17, 2003, Justin succumbed to cancer, with his Mommy and Daddy by his side.
Susan and Anthony carried on. I still don’t know how they did it. They are two of the strongest, most courageous people I know. They now have two beautiful daughters and I am sure that their Big Brother Justin is looking out for them (and their Mommy and Daddy) from Heaven. They are a happy family but there is still a huge hole in their lives.
Susan and Anthony are very private about their tragic loss but once a year they honor Justin by participating in the annual Children’s Cancer Fund walk. This year it is on October 2nd at FDR Park. It is their hope to raise awareness about pediatric cancer and to raise funds to help combat it. Pediatric cancer, as we learned through Justin, can happen to any child, at any time, without warning.
To date, Susan and Anthony’s team, “Jogging for Justin” has raised $75,000 since they began participating in this annual event. If you’d like to contribute to Jogging for Justin — any amount is appreciated — click here.
Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer occuring in babies. The overwhelming majority of people who get this cancer are under the age of 5. In fact, it is extremely rare that older children or adults are diagnosed with it. Each year about 650 families are given the same news Susan and Anthony received about Justin; their baby has cancer. That is too many. September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Please, this month, do something to help.