Johnson County parents want answers in childhood cancer cases

Shelby Howard was diagnosed with leukemia last year.

It's a sentence no family wants to hear - "Your child has cancer." You don't ask why or how, you ask, "What do we have to do to beat this?" There is no time for anything else.

But what if there is a high number of childhood cancer cases in your area?  Should someone be looking into it?

Several families in Johnson County came to us and asked, "What if it were yours?" 

So begins a WTHR investigation - "One Too Many."

There are always obstacles to overcome in life.

"Oh no, you fell down. Can you get back up?" Kelly Howard asked her son Shelby as he played with his small motorized car in the backyard.

The six-year-old knows all about getting back up.

"This is what he does. This is what makes him happy being outside, playing in the dirt.  First couple of months when he wasn't able to was pretty rough," Kelly revealed.

A year ago when Shelby was having trouble kicking a cold with flu-like symptoms, the Howards, who live in rural Johnson County, took him to the doctor.

"She said, 'Well, he's got leukemia.' My son? That's not possible. We are all healthy," she remembered.

They checked into Riley Hospital that night. The first two months were the worst. He missed half of kindergarten.

One year has passed and now Shelby is down to monthly maintenance visits.

"Well, there he goes. There you go. He is doing great," Kelly added as her son took off running at full speed to catch up with his car.

The Howards are not alone. Johnson County has a 21.9 incidence rate of childhood cancer which is higher than both the state and national average, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"Shocking. These were all people within how many miles of us who were all affected. That is shocking," Kelly Howard admitted.

We invited Johnson County families affected by childhood cancer to our WTHR studios to share their stories about their children.

"When we walked into this room, being one of the last to get here I said to Larry, 'That is a lot of people,'" Sandy Davis said the night we met with families.

Sandy and Larry Davis came directly from the hospital where their son Cooper was coping with a high fever and just so happened to take a seat next to Kari Dotson Findley.

"This is just a full circle moment because I prayed for your daughter a lot," Sandy Davis disclosed to the group but specifically to Kari Findley.

Kari's daughter Emma Grace died in 2014, just three months after she was diagnosed.

"One of your biggest fears is that people are going to forget. Forget who your kid was. Forget how important they were. Forget their suffering," Kari Findley shared as tears ran down her cheeks.

"I didn't know you and I didn't know who you were until you turned your picture over when we started and I turned to Larry and said, 'This is Emma's mom,' and I remember, I just thought, 'I don't know how you do that?' Now I do," Sandy revealed.

Because just a few months after Emma's passing, Sandy Davis would be starting a new prayer chain for her own 12-year-old son Cooper.

He could barely get up and down the stairs, much less out of bed.  As it turned out he had a fractured back. 

"I got worse and worse.  The more work I put into my back it hurt more," Cooper shared as he slumped in the chair in the family living room.

Cooper had leukemia.

"We are hurting right with him. We are not physically going through what he is going through but when he hurts, we hurt," his mom said.

"Like Sandy said it is hard to look at your child knowing there is something wrong inside that you can't fix. I take care of a lot of things around here. I take care of the cars and the house. I got a tool box; I can fix it but I can't fix this," Cooper's father Larry added.

42 weeks of intense chemo couldn't fix it. Low immunity means school is out for the 12-year-old as he continues round-the-clock treatment at home.

"I feel like I can still take care of my child who I can't cure but I can still take care of him," Sandy Cooper said taking solace in the fact that she has undergone all the training necessary to accomplish that.

Fortunately, Coopers Troopers have been there to help as well. Literally. A big Star Wars fan Cooper has felt the loving embrace of community, caretakers and his church.

While the Davis's remain puzzled about the high number of cases of childhood cancer in Johnson County they refuse to accept the rationale that it's just bad luck.

"Bingo," Cooper exclaims as he successful navigates the virtual puzzle.

Not surprisingly, almost to a person, these families, during our meeting here at WTHR,  said while they've had concerns about the high number of instances of childhood cancer in Johnson County they have just been too busy with the round the clock 24/7 care of their own children to address it.

But as one mother said, "Please care enough about our kids to look into it."

Watch our story at 11:00 pm for more on the investigation.