Borough boy beats cancer

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Christian Caruso, 10, hangs out in his Naugatuck bedroom recently. Caruso, a fifth-grader at Hillside Intermediate School, battled cancer and was declared cancer free earlier this month. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
Christian Caruso, 10, hangs out in his Naugatuck bedroom recently. Caruso, a fifth-grader at Hillside Intermediate School, battled cancer and was declared cancer free earlier this month. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — The comic book storyline goes something like this: The hero is a brave young boy named Christian who has to fight a nasty villain named cancer.

Christian undergoes four months of grueling battles, but in the end, he defeats the villain.
Christian Michael Caruso, 10, of Naugatuck, loves comic books and drawing, so his mother and a nurse at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center have encouraged him to work on a comic book about the last four months of his life.

In that time, Christian has undergone intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments that have made him hungry, weak and bloated. Treatment has been difficult, but it appears it has worked. Christian, the Hillside School fifth-grader whom the community has rallied around, is now cancer-free.

The affable child, who often tucks his head and the tops of his ears under a cherry red ball cap that says “No Fear,” returned to school two weeks ago ready to tell his classmates his good news.

Principal Johnna Hunt offered him an opportunity to share his news with the student body over the school’s loudspeaker. She asked if he was up for the challenge. “Mrs. Hunt, I got this,” he said.

“He bravely explained to the school that he will still go through two more rounds of chemotherapy to increase the chances that the cancer does not come back, but that the results showed no live cancer cells,” Hunt said.

From the main office at the front of the building, both Hunt and Christian could hear applause and cheers from the fifth-grade wing down the hall, and students jumping and screaming in the sixth-grade classrooms above. Students were thrilled. Educators cried tears of joy.

And Christian maintained the same unflappable demeanor he has demonstrated since he was diagnosed on Oct. 7 with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“In four months, our boy beat the odds and won the fight against cancer,” Hunt said.

Christian’s mother, Stephanie Chimera, said she was “pretty much devastated” when she learned of the diagnosis. She said she had an idea going into the doctor’s visit that he may have Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She works as a medical assistant and though she tells patients not to search online for a diagnosis — “you can drive yourself crazy,” she says — she couldn’t take her own advice when her oldest son started feeling ill.

He had inexplicable pain in his limbs, he lost about 20 pounds, he had no appetite, he was lethargic and he had a swollen gland in his neck.

Christian spent two weeks in the hospital following his diagnosis at CCMC. He would be back and forth from the hospital dozens of times over the next four months.

“The whole time, our focus was on doing whatever we needed to do to get him better,” Chimera said. “I don’t think there was ever a point during all of this that him or I ever broke down. We just did what we needed to do.”

Meanwhile, Christian’s friends at Hillside and at his previous school, Andrew Avenue, started sending him cards and letters, which brought a smile to his face, his mother said.
A medical professional and counselor from CCMC spoke to students about Christian’s diagnosis and what they could expect. The medical professionals also told students that Christian could use support from friends and family.

The students immediately got behind Andrew Avenue School teacher Susan Yammine’s idea to form “Team Christian.” They would frequently wear purple, the color for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, they sold wristbands that proclaimed their membership on the team, and they continued to reach out to Christian while he was undergoing treatment.

Hillside even held a rally, at which Christian shaved the head of teacher John Forish in the school’s gymnasium. Forish went bald to look like Christian, who lost his hair due to chemotherapy treatments. It has since started to grow back.

“No words can really describe how the schools have made us feel,” Chimera said. “They went above and beyond. It has been amazing.”

Christian said he was overwhelmed by the support. He said it helped him get through tough times when medicine made him feel sick.

“It’s kind of amazing how generous people can be,” said Christian, an above average student who speaks with an intelligence and maturity that belies his age. “I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through this alone.”

He said he heard stories of people buying 20, $1 “Team Christian” bracelets and donating $50 or more; donations were given to the Chimera family to help offset medical and related expenses, including travel to and from Hartford.

Christian knows he’s not done with cancer quite yet. He still has to finish chemotherapy and perhaps radiation treatments to kill tissues in his chest that could regrow cancer cells — that is a precautionary measure, his mother said.

Once that is complete, Christian is looking forward to being a normal 10-year-old boy again — playing with his sister, 8-year-old Angelina, his baby brother Damon, 16 months, and his friends around the neighborhood near Andrew Avenue School on Naugatuck’s west side.

He will play with his Legos, write and sing music, and learn to strum his guitars. He may play Little League baseball in the spring and might even finish his comic book.

And whether or not he hits home runs or plays the protagonist in his own comic book, Christian Michael Chimera will always have superhero status in his hometown of Naugatuck.