9-year-old cancer survivor gives Christmas to other patients

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LAYTON — Tanner Nielsen knows what it's like to spend weeks in a hospital bed, even at Christmastime.

"It's really boring," he said.

The 9-year-old was a patient at Primary Children's Hospital last November, when he was diagnosed with his second bout of cancer — acute myeloid leukemia, caused by the chemotherapy he received for stage 4 liver cancer he had as a toddler.

Tanner also survived a liver transplant in 2006, kidney disease in 2010, heart failure following another round of chemotherapy late last year, and a bone marrow transplant earlier this year.

"He has been through a lot," said Tanner's mother, Megan Nielsen. "Looking at him, though, you'd never guess."

With each new sickness, Tanner has camped out at the hospital for extended periods of time, filling the days, weeks and months with lots of movies, books and dozens of rounds of board games and card games, including plenty of UNO, which quickly became one of his favorites.

"We'd play it over and over, usually four or five games more than mom wanted," Nielsen said. "It was a good way to occupy the time and be engaged and laugh and have a good time while we were there."

It all proved to be a good distraction while Tanner fought off whatever illness was thrown at him.

A "picture of resiliency," Nielsen said, Tanner is now nine months cancer-free.

Quarantined to his home for much of his ongoing recovery time, Tanner decided last month that he wanted to do something for the kids "stuck in the hospital" at this time of year.

"I feel a little bit like Santa Claus," he said Wednesday, sorting through nine large cardboard boxes filled with at least 100 toys carefully selected for boys and girls around his age.

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The boxes were filled with games he enjoyed during his many hospital stays, as well as action figures, art projects, a balloon animal kit, videos and other toys — all bought with money collected in a PayPal account connected to his mother's Facebook page.

"What a difference a year makes," Nielsen wrote on Nov. 19, asking for donations to "Tanner's Christmas Giving Project."

"This year, we are so blessed to have him home and are grateful for the opportunity to give back," she said.

The Nielsens would have provided at least a few toys for the kids at the hospital, regardless of how much was collected.

But the simple pitch garnered more than $720, with which the family, including Tanner's brothers, Austin, 14, and Noah, 12, went shopping.

"It just tells them that somebody else knows what you're going through," Nielsen said.

Her still-fragile son wore a mask while visiting several stores, and they went at times it wasn't expected to be too busy, as relapse is always a worry, she said.

"The further out from cancer we get, the better," Nielsen said. "I don't think he realizes what all he's been through."

Cancer — and everything else that came with it — was the furthest thing from Tanner's mind as he proudly marched through the doors at Primary Children's Hospital on Wednesday to deliver the goods he'd collected. His mom and brothers followed, carrying the overflowing boxes of toys and games.

This year, we are so blessed to have him home and are grateful for the opportunity to give back.

–Megan Nielsen

"We are always in need of various supplies," said Hillary Lindsey, a child life specialist who works with patients admitted to any one of the 32 hematology and oncology patient rooms at the hospital.

Lindsey was given careful instructions from Tanner to give out the toys before Christmas comes so kids aren't left without.

It's important, she said, for young patients to have things that help them cope with their often complex environment.

"Children aren't usually confined to a small space like this. They're not used to it," Lindsey said, adding that "playtime" gives them an opportunity to grow and learn, just as normal kids would.

"Just because you're hospitalized doesn't mean you're not a kid," she said.

The surrounding community is quite generous, offering lots of donations throughout the year, Lindsey said. Because Tanner was a former patient and "knows firsthand what it feels like to stay here," his contribution is "a special scenario," she said.

"It's nice to see our patients in a more healthy light," said Lindsey, who counseled Tanner during his hospitalizations.

The young boy — now with a full head of red hair and a smile that can light up a room — still takes countless medications and heads to the hospital at least every two weeks for blood work and physical exams.

He hopes to join his peers at the end of fourth grade, but it's more likely that he'll miss out on the school year altogether, Nielsen said. The two play games at home to learn various skills, and Tanner often works on his handwriting and math lessons using his tablet computer.

But Tanner's Christmas "giving project" likely taught him a lesson no textbook or classroom could.

"It feels nice," he said.

Contributing: Keith McCord


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