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Derek’s story raises awareness of childhood cancer

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At the beginning of 2018, the National Cancer Institute estimated as many as 10,590 children between the ages of birth and 15 years would be diagnosed with some form of cancer. Most of the cancers would fall into the categories encompassed by leukemias, brain and other central nervous system tumors and lymphoma.

Because the disease is rare in children, many people are unaware that cancer exists in people so young. Friday, many Hobbsans will participate in Gold Out Day by wearing gold-colored apparel or gold ribbons in an attempt to raise awareness of childhood cancer and the need for the community to support efforts to cure the disease and to support the families of children who have it.

Several high school and middle school organizations are participating in activities that range from wearing gold at sporting events to selling T-shirts as a fund-raiser for the Ronald McDonald House in Dallas, where the family of Derek Reber stayed during the treatments for the cancer which eventually took Derek’s life. 

“Derek Strong” T-shirts are being sold all week at Body Rejuvenation, 2116 N. Turner, next to Planet Fitness. The T-shirts are asked to be worn Friday. A local business, Fitness Fury, 2827 N. Dal Paso, Suite 113, will open its doors to the public from 6-8 p.m. Friday. Proceeds from the Fitness-a-Thon, $10 each person, will also go to the Ronald McDonald House in Dallas. 

A bake sale Saturday raised more than $3,000 and the Hobbs City Commission recently declared the week of Sept 24-28 as Childhood Cancer Awareness Week.

Derek’s mother, Regina Reber, provided a diary outlining her son’s life and his struggle with the disease.

She wrote, “On December 20, 2002 I was given the best Christmas present ever, our precious son Derek. As we took Derek home as a small baby we never imagined that only eight months later we would be praying and pleading to our Heavenly Father for more time with Derek. As an eight month old baby Derek was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor called medulloblastoma.”

For David and Regina Reber, walking through the doors of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas provided their initial look into a whole new world.

“We never dreamed the many beautiful children we observed that day who were experiencing a terminal diagnosis were giving us a glimpse of what lied ahead for Derek and our family,” Regina wrote. “As a young mom I didn’t realize the lessons I was about to learn, and what this amazing child was about to teach me. Derek went through more in his first two years of life than most of us will go through in a lifetime and he did it with courage, a trusting heart, selflessness, patience, and love for his family. This is why he quickly became my hero.” 

Regina described holding Derek in the lab at the hospital while, without being prompted, he would put his finger up to be stuck so they could capture his blood for counts.

“He never cried as they would access his port for infusion and although he was having to experience harsh chemo drugs, he took it like a champ,” Regina wrote. “I can look back at videos where he is pushing through therapy pale with low counts and nausea. His journey was not only hard, but it was long as he had to endure eighteen months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. I remember close to the end of his chemo regimen putting him in his car seat, and although he could not verbalize his feelings I knew exactly what he was feeling inside, that day if he could have spoken, he would have said, ‘Mom, I am so tired, and I am not sure how much longer I can go.’ At that moment I looked at him and told him, ‘Derek you can do this, I know you can and I promise you there will be life after cancer.’”

For 14 years, Derek did experience life after cancer, although the harsh treatments and surgery he underwent left him with some disabilities that he and his family worked hard to overcome. Speech and language were especially hard hit, but in kindergarten through second grade, in the Lovington schools, he “made great strides and learned to navigate his world,” Regina said.

“Derek entered school in Hobbs in third grade under the guidance of Mrs. Klepper and Mrs. Strickland,” Regina wrote. “We all soon learned how Derek could rise to an occasion if he needed to. He had tremendous growth academically in his elementary years as he learned to read, write, add, subtract and multiply. He was a perfectionist as every letter he wrote was meticulous and neat.”

Academics, as all adults know, is not the only aspect of attending school. Friendships are among the non-academic things to be cultivated and Regina, who has a master’s degree in special education, met with Derek’s teacher, Mrs. Klepper and his classmates and told them Derek’s story.

“We allowed them to ask any question they wanted to ask and that day there were many,” Regina wrote. “I asked this special class if they would work to make sure Derek knew their names by the end of the year. As I picked Derek up from school every day I would be greeted by a new friendship that developed that day as Derek’s new friend would want to show me how he could say their name. Within a couple of months Derek not only knew their first names, but he could write both first and last names of the entire class on his paper and knew each classmate’s assigned class number as well.”

Derek began to make lists. The first list was when his infamous lists began. His first-numbered list contained each of his new friend’s names and he invited all the children on that list to his birthday party.

“Almost every child attended his birthday party and celebrated with him,” Regina wrote. “On AR (Accelerated Reader) runs, the halls were filled with students cheering for Derek.”

According to Regina, Derek truly loved his friends and they brought him joy. As he made the transition to Houston into middle school, the friendships flourished, perhaps because Derek was always so happy.

“He could tell you the name and room number of every teacher at Houston. He loved wearing his ID, and would panic if his was misplaced,” Regina wrote. “One of Derek’s favorite memories at Houston was catching his hand on fire in science class. He showed that video clip every time he got a chance. He loved shopping in the snack bar, and would always try to purchase as many bags of chips as he could with a smile on his face, knowing that the ladies would limit his purchases. He thrived in each class, and each of his wonderful teachers had stories to share with me.” 

As Derek got older he had several benign tumors that had to be removed, but did not require any further treatment. He underwent six craniotomies.

In September 2017, as Derek was entering his eighth-grade year, he was diagnosed with a different form of cancer called osteogenicsarcoma.

“This cancer was ultimately caused by the radiation treatment Derek received as a small baby,” Regina wrote. “Derek’s strength would once again shine through as we watched him fight this battle as a young man. Derek has always been good at expressing gratitude. We were especially touched as he continuously thanked his nurses, doctors, and family for caring for him. To Derek everyone caring for him was called doctor. The nurses loved this, and never corrected him. Derek did everything he was asked to do. He faced every surgery with bravery and took every bit of medication given to him. He fought hard and dreaded but learned to endure long hospital stays.

“He was away from his dad and his three brothers Jared, Zach, & Nick whom he absolutely adored for nearly eight months. It was hard on him. He missed home and school so much, but he wanted to do everything he could do to get better.

“In May, it became apparent that the Lord wanted to take Derek home and I knew we had to make each tomorrow the best that it could be, and create memories that could sustain us for a lifetime. John 4:18, ‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ was the scripture that our family lived by. I took this scripture to heart, believing that love for our savior, family, and friends would overcome fear in our home.”

Regina and her family believe that Derek came to this earth and served his mission and his life’s purpose.

“He brought so much good and his life serves as such a great example of love, strength, and endurance,” Regina wrote. “He has left his fingerprints forever all over our hearts. I will always be grateful to Derek for changing my life and changing who I am. Derek’s second diagnosis was September 19, 2017.”

September 1, 2018, was the day he was laid to rest.

“The dates are significant,” Regina wrote, “because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Derek’s story is a reminder of not only the need to find a cure but also better treatment options.”

While medical science is looking for cures and for better treatment options, families like Derek’s need the support of family, friends, teachers and other community members. His family received support from all those entities, Regina said.

Those families also need the support of agencies like the Ronald McDonald House. Participating in Gold Out Day and contributing to the Ronald McDonald House will add to that support.

All are invited to Fitness Fury as part of offering that support.

Burkett Shaw
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