ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJLA) — September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. One Maryland mother doesn’t want the month to pass without sharing her son’s struggle with the disease that nearly took his life.
Easter Sunday 2019, Ashley Whitney’s son, Riley, was diagnosed high-risk neuroblastoma, a cancer that was already taking over her 5-year-old’s body.
“He had multiple tumors throughout his body, they believe originated in his adrenal gland, but also it was throughout his entire bone marrow. He’s gone through about five chemos, surgery to remove tumors, he’s done radiation therapy,” she told ABC7 reporter Victoria Sanchez during a Zoom interview Thursday.
“I’ve seen my own child hurt and go through things that I wish I could take in his place,” she said as the mother of four boys held back tears.
Treatment began at Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C. Whitney’s mother moved into their Annapolis, Maryland home to help with the other children as Riley’s parents traveled back and forth.
Whitney documented each step of the journey on social media, not knowing what the outcome would be.
“Were you ever afraid that this wasn’t going to be a fight that your family would win?” Sanchez asked.
“Many times,” she said. “We know many families who lost their child.”
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down visitation at the hospital, Whitney’s online posts helped keep friends and family informed.
“Hello everybody. I’m sitting here waiting while Riley gets his, he’s out, but he’s currently getting a blood transfusion,” she said in one Instagram video.
Throughout it all, Riley’s signature grin never left his face.
“Actually, he was born smiling practically, and he has always had this joyful disposition,” Whitney said as Riley sat next to his mom on the couch. “He is our Smiley Riley and he has been since day one.”
The Northwest Washington hospital became “Smiley Riley’s” new home. Eighteen months later, the now 6-year-old got to throw away the bag that contained his last medications.
“Riley, that is your last treatment and Lauren has the bucket,” his mom said as she recorded a video on her phone.
“Ready friend?” said the nurse.
“Put it in the trash. Three, two, one!” encouraged his mom. “Yay! You did it bud! High five!”
During the interview with ABC7 News, Riley teased his nemesis.
“You kicked cancer’s what?” asked Whitney.
“I kicked cancer’s butt. I kicked cancer’s butt!” he said in a sing-song voice.
The “little middle” child is now back with his three brothers and parents in Annapolis. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Friends, family and neighbors lined the street, cheered and held signs congratulating the boy who fought and beat cancer.
Through the surgeries, chemo and bone marrow transplants, Smiley Riley’s resilience even surprised some celebrities.
“Hi!” said actress Kristen Bell through a video call. “What’s your name?”
“Riley,” he said shyly.
His strength throughout the 18 months rivaled the "god of thunder" and even earned him a video call from Thor himself.
“Hello! Nice to meet you mate!” said actor Chris Hemsworth.
Whitney credits her faith, son’s determination and the staff at Children’s National Hospital for helping the family get through what seemed like an impossible task.
“It was a very daunting checklist, but he did it all. Didn’t you?” she said turning to her son.
“I did,” said Riley.