A tale of two triumphs

Summer 2012

ONE BOY'S FIGHT WITH CANCER AND ANOREXIA NERVOSA

"When you get a diagnosis of two life-threatening illnesses like we did, you feel like your life is over; you'll never feel joy again. But you can, and you will." ~ Shannon Malolepszy

Thirteen-year-old Dawson Malolepszy started skating shortly after he learned to walk. He dreams of playing in the National Hockey League and every week Dawson and his family spend hours on the ice (and on the road) for competitive hockey games and practices. Five years ago that dream—and busy schedule—came to a sudden halt when Dawson was diagnosed with cancer and shortly after developed an eating disorder; two life-threatening illnesses with competing treatment plans.

"I was young so I didn't really understand how bad it was," recalls Dawson from his home in Wellesley, Ont., just outside of Kitchener. "I think my mom probably took it much worse."

Dawson's mom, Shannon, says that is a bit of an understatement. "Complete and utter devastation," she says of how she and her family felt following Dawson's January 2007 diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and mid-2009 treatment for anorexia nervosa.

Dawson responded well to his chemotherapy treatment at LHSC's Children's Hospital and Shannon says his oncology doctors had a positive outlook. Eighteen months after beginning chemotherapy and having missed a season of hockey due to the treatment, Dawson was anxious to get back on the ice. In early 2009 he began exercising and often restricted certain foods to get himself back into shape for the upcoming season.

"At first, we all thought it was great that he was so committed to his health," recalls Shannon, who noticed that Dawson's strict regimen soon spiralled out of control. He almost stopped eating completely and his personality began to change. Referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Eating Disorders Program at Children's Hospital, Dawson was assessed and immediately admitted for inpatient treatment.

Working out to get fit for a particular sport is a common history seen in eating disorder patients, says Dr. Leanna Isserlin, psychiatrist with Children's Hospital's eating disorders program and one of Dawson's physicians. "It can be a trigger that causes obsessive thoughts and behaviours."

"For most children, the eating disorder is driven by distorted thoughts in their heads. Our program helps children and their parents to recognize those thoughts, and teaches them how to push the subsequent behaviours away," says Dr. Isserlin.

Inpatient treatment for an eating disorder follows strict dietary regimens, and family plays a large role in a patient's recovery. Food is considered medicine, and there are structured consequences if a child does not eat.

Dawson's case, however, posed some unique challenges as chemotherapy can cause increased nausea and taste buds are altered so food does not taste the same. Staff and physicians with the eating disorders program had to balance Dawson's strict eating routine while appreciating the side effects from his chemotherapy.

"In facing this highly unique circumstance, both the paediatric oncology and mental health teams were amazing," says Shannon. "They were all helping us to navigate unchartered waters."

Today, Dawson is cancer-free and fully recovered from his eating disorder. He and his family, including older brother Jake and dad Stephen are very open about their journey, hoping that their story might help others.

"When you get a diagnosis of two life-threatening illnesses like we did, you feel like your life is over; you'll never feel joy again. But you can and you will," says Shannon. "Just keep your head up and a positive attitude, and thank goodness there are wonderful people at Children's Hospital. They saved my son's life, twice. Without them, he wouldn't be here."

Getting ready to attend high school this fall, Dawson still has dreams of becoming a professional hockey player, though he's now got a plan B inspired by his health care journey.

"I obviously want to play in the NHL, but if that doesn't work out then I'd like to become a doctor."

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Dawson Malolepszy holding hockey stick
Dawson Malolepszy holding hockey stick
Dawson Malolepszy with family and dogs
Dawson and his brother Jake pose in their basement where Dawson practices hockey every day.
The Malolepszy family, Shannon, Stephen, Dawson and Jake pose for a family photo.
Dawson dreams of becoming a professional hockey player and uses the basement every day to practice his wrist shot.