Family embraces one last holiday with Thomas Radley

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

It’s the holiday season, and all Jolene Burch wants for Christmas is for her kids to be happy. To be frank, she expects it to be the last she’ll spend with her 14-year-old son, Thomas Radley.
She believed last year could have been her last holiday with him as she processed the news of Thomas’ metastatic alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (a soft tissue cancer that often occurs in the arms, legs and chest, and moves into the bones). She didn’t know if he’d make it then.
However, he did. And he may do it again this year, but, according to doctors, the family expects the end is nigh.

The 14-year-old plays video games from his bed. Provided photo

According to Burch, a recent positron emission tomography (PET) scan revealed Thomas’ body was “infected” from the waist down and doctors said there was nothing more they could do. He’s aware of where he stands but doesn’t talk about it directly because it causes him anxiety.
“Thomas straight up told me he’s done with all the treatments and feeling like crap,” Burch said.
Earlier, Thomas had said he wanted a PlayStation 5 and gaming computer for Christmas. But now his family focuses on a more priceless gift: putting aside any tension between Burch and her ex-husband, Casey Radley, and spending their final moments with Thomas together.
“I just want my son to be happy and at peace,” she said. “All Thomas cares about is love. He likes love, he likes to give it, so this is probably one of the best gifts we can give him.”
The cancer began in the late fall of 2021 as a tiny spot on his foot and “just went crazy from there,” Burch recalled.
Like the heroes in such classic video-game battles as “Galaxian” or “Double Dragon,” the doctors at Oregon Health and Science University Doernbecher Children’s Hospital have been using chemotherapy and radiation to suppress a persistent invasion of cancerous cells throughout Thomas’ body.
“It started with my left leg hurting,” Thomas said. “After, like, a month of it hurting, it got pretty bad, so I went to the ER and then they sent me to Doernbecher’s in Portland.”
That’s perhaps the quickest way to explain what happened, but Burch remembers the details and her concern while watching her child’s health decline so rapidly.
Shortly after Thomas started playing with the Freedom Football’s Wolverine team in 2021, he began limping and complaining of pain in his leg and back. It was just after Halloween and, according to Burch, his doctor at each visit concluded that the pain was caused by muscular football injuries. That made sense; football’s a rough sport. But her son’s condition quickly worsened, which became more apparent after he returned from a vacation with his dad.
“When he came back, I noticed he had lost a tremendous amount of weight in two weeks,” she said. “He was white with big black rings around his eyes. He was just tired and not his normal self.”

THOMAS RADLEY GIVES A THUMBS-UP to express his reaction about getting to ride in a helicopter. Provided photo

Again, Burch took Thomas to a doctor, who told her he might have kidney stones and needed to stay hydrated. The next day, however, he couldn’t walk more than a few feet, so, on Nov. 28, 2021, Burch rushed him to the emergency room and “demanded” answers.
“That’s when (they found) his hemoglobin was super low, which is consistent with cancer,” Burch said. “A CT (computed tomography) scan showed lesions in his pelvis, which confirmed cancer, and then he was ambulanced after that to Doernbecher’s. They did an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] and that’s when they found he had the fractures in his back.”

The cancer was so dense in his bone marrow, she said, that it took four times longer than usual to receive the biopsy that would reveal what kind it was. He was, technically, already at Stage 4.
When Casey Radley first heard the news about his son, his world stopped.
“It was heart-crushing, devastating, to understand one of your kids has cancer that was terminal and had no cure,” he said.
Since his diagnosis, Thomas has endured weekly rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, followed by PET scans to determine how much the tumors have shrunk and where new ones have popped up. He was close to remission at one point, but recent scans put a twist in the plot: the cancer was returning, even with chemo treatments. Now it’s everywhere; in his legs, muscles and bone marrow.
A young man of few words – at least on this day – Thomas said his view on life has changed since his diagnosis, but elaborated only by saying he believes what’s most important is family and friends.
Burch, too, agreed. Her perspective on what’s important has changed, and normal stressors in life don’t bother her as much now.
“I’ve learned that life is so much more valuable, and the things that matter the most are the things that you get to keep here,” she said, pointing to her heart.
Since they don’t qualify for home care, Burch left her job in the healthcare industry to watch over Thomas full-time. She has relied on friends, family, government assistance, her community and skilled budgeting to maintain her household of three boys, which includes Casey Jr. and Ashton. Thomas also has a sister, Keirsten.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I’ve done it,” she said.
Casey Radley, on the other hand, couldn’t quit his job. However, he’s enjoyed weekend visits with Thomas in his family’s home just outside of Salem.
“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, trying to work and be supportive and strong not only for Thomas, but for his other siblings, and to try not to let everything consume me,” he said. “There’s countless times I’ve had to stop on my way home or just give myself a minute and secretly break down.”

Thomas (left) with Jacob Colvin in a McLaren 650S. Provided photo

During the past year, community members have rallied around the family by hosting fundraising events, providing meal trains and giving Thomas some new experiences in life. For his 14th birthday in April, car enthusiasts from throughout the Pacific Northwest held a massive show at Willamette Speedway that included a chauffeured ride in a McLaren 650S with YouTube and TikTok star Jacob Colvin.
He also received autographed gear from the Dallas Cowboys and Portland Trail Blazers, a special video message from Blazers player Jusuf Nurkić, a new Corgi puppy named Winston, and a ride in a helicopter.
For all of the support, Thomas said, simply, “Thank you.”
“I am beyond grateful,” his mom added. “There’s probably no words, honestly, that could say how grateful I am.”

Thomas at the hospital during one of his treatments. Provided photo

She’s endured “a rollercoaster of emotions” this past year, not to mention a couple of mental breakdowns.
“There are some days that are better than others,” she said. “A lot of anxiety and depression. I have anger, sadness, and then I have to stay strong for everybody. I’m the glue. So sometimes it’s really hard to do that.”
Has the battle affected her faith?
“It depends on the day,” she replied.
Throughout the year, Thomas regularly received palliative care of five-day chemotherapy treatments, “which kind of shrinks (the tumors) and kills them a little bit so it’s not as painful,” she said. But those are now off the table and Thomas has been ushered into the loving arms of his parents, grandparents and siblings to say goodbye.
“I’m grateful and thankful that I have him here with me now,” Burch said. “I take every day one day at a time and appreciate every day that we all have together.”
For Casey, his son is an inspiration.

Provided photo

“(The journey) has shown me how strong my children are, and it shows me the love and caring that everybody has for one another,” he said. “It has been nice seeing there are people who actually care regardless of family or blood.”
He added that, as a parent, his priority was to see his children be more, do more or have more, to shoot beyond his own experiences. And perhaps Thomas is doing just that in his own way.
Like a shooting star, he hurdles through the lives of those who have known him, being a light of love upon which many make their wishes. Through tears, miracle moments, rallies of support and breakdowns experienced in secret, wishes and cheers have been made upon that star, Thomas Radley.