SALT LAKE CITY — Ten years ago, the Stromberg family lost Blake.
Blake Stromberg was the youngest of his four siblings. There was Cody first, then Jared, and then Jacee — the only daughter of Mark and Teena Stromberg, who raised the family in Bountiful before moving to Kaysville about a decade ago, when the kids had moved out.
Blake had nearly completed a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he got sick. He was diagnosed at the Huntsman Cancer Center with a myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, which is sometimes called "pre-leukemia" because in about 1 in 3 patients it develops into acute myeloid leukemia.
Initially, though, Blake's prognosis was quite good. He received a bone marrow transplant and seemed to be on track to recovery. However, that transplant failed, as did a second one from the same donor, and Blake's cancer progressed into incurable leukemia. He died in November 2010 at the age of 22.
Blake's death was a shock to the whole family, but it brought them closer together. Mark Stromberg remembers thinking that his family had just endured the hardest thing they would ever have to face.
"I think as humans, we all know we're going to go through trials and challenges. We believe that's what we're here for, to be refined and trying to deal with them," he said. "But sometimes we're 'box-checkers' — we think, 'OK, we've done that. We've checked the box. We've lost a son, we certainly won't have to deal with that again, thank goodness.'"
But against all odds, 10 years later, the cancer that took Blake is now threatening not just one, but both of his older brothers. The Strombergs now find themselves relying on family, faith and community to get them through a challenge they'd hoped never to face again.
'A state of disbelief'
Kirsten and Cody Stromberg have been married for almost four years now, and they recently moved into a new home in suburban Memphis, just over the state line in Mississippi. Cody told Kirsten about Blake early on in their relationship, she said, but assured her that he wasn't at a higher risk of cancer because of genetics. Mark Stromberg said there was little incidence of cancer on either side of the family before.
"Nobody in the family had any idea that this could happen," Kirsten said. "No idea."
When Cody first became noticeably sick in April of this year, doctors first assumed that it was a result of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Even after Cody tested negative, doctors said it was probably the new coronavirus and told him to quarantine. "So for an entire month, we believed that it was COVID," Kirsten said.
But eventually, those symptoms subsided a bit and Cody went to an appointment with his endocrinologist where a blood test was performed. "And that's how we found that his blood counts were low," Kirsten said.
Kirsten rushed Cody to the emergency room for a blood transfusion. He spent hours there and was later transferred to a different hospital, which is where he called Kirsten with shocking news: "This isn't COVID, and it never was COVID. This is leukemia."
"I was like, 'There's no way,'" she said.
Cody's father felt the same disbelief, but testing confirmed the doctors' suspicions. "We were flabbergasted," Kirsten said.
"When you hear the word 'leukemia,'" Mark said, "it's like you've already been through the intersection, you've been broadsided, and you're just coming to. Life's getting back into kind of a different normal, but you're moving forward. And all of a sudden, another car comes through the intersectionand you're hit again.
"It really puts you into a state of disbelief that can't be described."
It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on Facebook but I do know that many good friends use it as a means of staying...Posted by Mark W Stromberg on Sunday, September 13, 2020
More bad news
After his diagnosis, Cody started chemotherapy. He alternated long stretches in the hospital with brief periods at home, but started feeling pain in July after his second round of chemotherapy.
"It got to a point where it was too painful for Cody to even sit or move," Kirsten said.
Cody went back to the emergency room, where doctors discovered a septic abscess that required surgery. After chemotherapy, it wasn't clear if Cody's body could handle the surgery. His parents flew to Memphis to be with Kirsten during that scary, uncertain time.
Cody ultimately survived his surgery, but while in Tennessee, Mark got more unbelievable news from his middle son, Jared, who called his father because his calf had swollen up. At first, they assumed this was probably related to the mountain biking they'd recently done together. But with Cody in such precarious health, Mark felt his son should have the problem checked out, just in case.
Doctors found blood clots and, after testing, diagnosed Jared with MDS.
"To say we were in disbelief before," Mark said, "I don't think there's been a word created yet ... that could explain how we felt. Now, literally at the same time, we've got another boy who's been diagnosed with the same thing."
The American Cancer Society says MDS is rare before age 50, is most commonly seen after age 70, and may be diagnosed as few as 10,000 times in the United States each year.
Unlike in Cody's case, Jared's cancer has not turned into leukemia and doctors are working to keep it that way. Jared has had one round of chemotherapy in Utah, Mark said, and hopes to receive a bone marrow transplant in the next few months.
Hope in Houston
Meanwhile, doctors are working to bring Cody's cancer into remission so he can receive a bone marrow transplant as well. After his initial treatments in Tennessee, doctors there had done all they could for Cody. Fortunately, the Strombergs were able to get Cody into a clinical trial at Houston's renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he is being treated under the supervision of MDS and leukemia specialist Dr. Naval Daver.
"One of the clinical trials Cody is on, (Daver) has told us he is seeing positive results," Kirsten said.
Cody just started another round of chemotherapy last week.
The Strombergs said 2020 has been a particularly hard year to be fighting cancer. Hospitals' COVID-19 prevention policies have often kept them away from their loved ones; and the virus, for a time, closed the churches and temples that bring them comfort.
"Our faith is really the anchor that's been able to keep us hopeful," Mark said. He said Latter-day Saint temples are places his family goes to gain comfort and get more perspective on life. "We haven't had that" this year, he said. "That has just compounded this."
But the Strombergs have been able to rely on each other. Mark said Kirsten has been a "rockstar" through the experience. And the family has received an outpouring of support from the community, as well.
Mark said anyone who wants to help can give blood, as his sons have needed a lot of it through their treatments. Kirsten invited supporters to check out BeTheMatch.org, where they can find out how to be tested to possibly donate bone marrow for Cody and others like him.
Jacee has also created a GoFundMe* page to support her brother with his medical expenses.
Most of all, Mark asked for the community's prayers during this time — for his sons and for anyone else battling cancer.
"We are a very, very close family," Mark said. "My boys have always been my best friends, literally. And they are each other's best friends. ... We're just a family that loves each other, supports one another, has faith in God. We know that His will, will be done. And we hope that our will aligns with His. We're hopeful, and we're faithful."
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