When families in York County sit around their table this Thanksgiving, it will be in a solemn air as the community mourns the recent death of 12-year-old Wes Pak.
“Wes just had an affect on people,” said Pam Volkers, the boy’s grandmother — Wes called her “Nana.” “People knew what he was going through and respected him.”
Pak was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2011, one month after graduating pre-school.
Neuroblastoma is a form of cancer that is primarily present in young children, said Bryan Sellitti, the certified child life specialist at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.
Typically it occurs in children ages 1 to 3. When diagnosed at a younger age, the cancer is more treatable, Sellitti said. At the age of 5, Pak was already on the older end of the spectrum when he and his family learned his diagnosis.
“With neuroblastoma, these young kids, all they know is cancer,” Sellitti said. “While some of them survive, most of them don’t.”
Neuroblastoma is an aggressive form of cancer that starts early in nerve cells as a child grows. Sellitti said it is a common form of pediatric cancer, right behind leukemia.
For Pak’s family, the symptoms became noticeable when he started having stomach pains and bowel issues.
Afters taking him to have an MRI, they were told the diagnosis. In the month following, the 5-year-old underwent a series of treatments from a biopsy, a surgery to remove the cancerous mass from the left side of his abdomen, to chemotherapy.
Those treatments prevented Pak from attending kindergarten that year, and instead had teachers come to his home to tutor him.
“Kids, they get excited about getting on that big yellow bus,” Volkers said. “But Wes had to stay home.”
In November of 2011, Pak’s family decided to take him to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, where there were experts on his specific form of cancer. Over the years, the boy’s family would find themselves flying back and forth many times.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it impacts the whole family, Sellitti said. Many families worry about not only how they’re going to take care of their child, but how they’re going to afford it. For Krista Pak, the boy’s mother, the cost was her job.
“It’ll bring tears to your eyes watching these families figure out how to make ends meet,” Sellitti said. “Not only do they have the stress of a sick child, but usually they still have a mortgage and other children.”
Krista stayed by her son 24 hours a day throughout his treatments, Volkers said. She even started a Facebook page in honor of her son’s battle that garnered 33,000 likes over the years.
Wes made an impact on his own as well, winning the Seaford Elementary School Student Service Award in 2016 and helping to collect $50,000 worth of toys for other children through Wes’ Wish Toy Drive at CHKD.
The community came out to show support in a number of ways. This fall at York High School, students from both York and visiting Grafton High School wore gold t-shirts that read “#InspiredByWes.”
Wes was able to attend the game and even took part in the coin toss.
Throughout the seven years of surgeries, five relapses, and hours-long trips up the east coast, Wes stayed positive and continued to inspire his family.
“I think an adult would be more embarrassed of what they’re going through, but kids, they’re superheroes,” Volkers said.
Wes died on Nov. 3.
“I just want people to remember to love and hug your children daily,” Volkers said. “Be there for your kids, appreciate them and enjoy them.”