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Justus Heise

When Justus got cancer, his new family never gave up—at Gundersen, neither do we

At the age of 5 Justus found his forever home and family when Natalie and Dave Heise adopted him. But a few months after his adoption in 2014, during a visit to Emergency Services at Gundersen, the Heises learned that Justus had cancer.

"When we adopted Justus, we made a commitment to him that we would be his family. Cancer is a family disease and we promised he would never be alone," say the Heises from Hokah, Minn.

Lucky to have the unwavering support of his new family, Justus was also fortunate to live near Gundersen Health System in La Crosse. Gundersen has one of the leading pediatric cancer treatment programs in the region.

"Dr. Jen Orozco [one of Gundersen's pediatric cancer specialists] came to us in the emergency room at midnight full of love and compassion, to explain in detail about the cancer that was ravaging our son's body. She explained that he had Wilms tumor (nephroblastoma), a football-sized tumor in and round his left kidney," recalls Natalie.

At Gundersen, area children with cancer receive cutting-edge treatments and personalized care close to home. For Justus, that meant removing the tumor and the affected left kidney followed by radiation and targeted chemotherapy.

"Childhood cancer not only affects the child, it impacts the parents, siblings and extended family. For this reason, we not only treat the child but the whole family. Our pediatric cancer team works with Child Life, Social Work, Spiritual Care, Behavioral Health, Nutrition Therapy, Music and Pet Therapy, and Palliative Care to ensure all of the family's needs are met," says Dr. Orozco. "And because we're a community based program, we can spend extra time with the children and families, or make classroom visits for age-appropriate discussion of the child's diagnosis."

After his surgery, Justus was able to go home on Dec. 23, to celebrate his first Christmas with his new family. For the next six months, Justus received radiation treatments and chemotherapy. By June of 2015, there were no signs of cancer. "Justus was excited to be done with cancer and to get his life back. He was feeling well and happy," recalls Natalie.

Sadly, less than a year later, cancer resurfaced. This meant a second surgery and more treatments. But today, Dr. Orozco is cautiously optimistic: "Justus had his surgery, which went well, and he recently finished his last chemotherapy admission. He will have a scan in a few weeks to evaluate for any active disease, but he is likely in remission."

She adds, "If they should need it, our patients also have access to cutting-edge clinical trials sponsored by the Children's Oncology Group (COG), the world's largest pediatric and adolescent cancer clinical trials organization." Through COG, Gundersen collaborates with other institutions, such as MD Anderson and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, to identify the most effective cancer treatments.

With hope for remission, Justus, now 8 years old, loves spending time with family and going to school. And his family says, "We are thankful he is ours. He has taught us what is important in life."

Learn more about pediatric cancer care at Gundersen

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