The last weekend of October, 2016 will always be firmly implanted in Amanda Hopkins’s memory. It was all such a whirlwind for her and her seemingly healthy eight-year-old son, Owen.
Owen was in the midst of his fourth year of playing hockey with the Cloverdale H4 Wildcats.
During that month of October, Amanda noticed Owen wasn’t quite himself. He was leaving the dinner table halfway through his meals, an odd sign for the young athlete.
Owen’s coach, Tyler Erickson also noticed something wasn’t right. Owen was curiously fatigued at practice, often lying on the ice for a while before getting up. He would sit at the bench with his head down in his skates.
After Erickson approached Amanda, she took her son into the hospital for testing. When the results came back, she learned that Owen had an extremely aggressive cancer called Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
“You never think that’s going to happen to your child,” said Amanda. “Within 48 hours, I went from having a healthy kid to one that had cancer.”
Owen was in the fight for his life. After being rushed to hospital, Owen endured one of the toughest weeks of his young life. He had an IV line poked straight into his chest shortly after his diagnosis.
Later that week, they drilled into his spine to take samples of his bone marrow. By the following Sunday, he was undergoing chemotherapy.
“When we got to the hospital, the doctors told us that we should have started chemo yesterday,” said Amanda. “I had to sign papers that said this treatment might kill your child. There was no time to assess the situation.”
Burkitt’s Lymphoma is one of the most aggressive cancers known to man. When Owen’s tumour was first discovered, it was the size of a golf ball. Within 24 hours or being assessed, Hopkins tumour doubled inside.
“At its largest point,” Amanda said, “it was the size of a large watermelon.”
Owen was confined to B.C. Children’s Hospital for the next two months, without leaving the hospital for more than a few hours.
His pain was unbearable, and doctors were giving him adult-sized doses of morphine to ease his pain.
“They even had to give him fentanyl for the pain,” said Amanda. “He was a kid who had barely had Tylenol, and all of the sudden he was taking these heavy painkillers.”
The Cloverdale H4 Wildcats banded together and helped raise money for their teammate. Shortly after Owen’s diagnosis, the team put up a GoFundMe Page to help pay for expenses.
With Amanda taking time off of work to be with her son, it put a financial strain on the family. Since Amanda lived in Surrey, she commuted seven days a week to see Owen. Without a job, the expenses were starting to drown her.
“Without his hockey team, we wouldn’t have made it,” said Amanda.
The team would go visit him in the hospital as a team, making the trek out from Surrey to put a smile on his face. During the season, they would also tape their sticks purple in honour of Owen.
What the team didn’t realize at the time is that they were all in for memorable experiences, thanks to a another noteworthy sports organization in the city.
Canucks to the rescue
The Vancouver Canucks are active in the community with children, but Owen has experienced a different relationship with them altogether.
Owen was selected as one of the Canucks junior trainers during the Canucks first preseason game in 2016. He was living the dream of young Canucks fans everywhere, as he sat on the bench watching the Canucks skate onto the ice. It was the first time Owen attended an NHL game.
After Owen’s diagnoses, the Canucks rallied around him. Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton in particular spent a lot of time with Owen and B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Tanev gave Owen a signed jersey from the entire team as a present during one of his visits. The defenceman also skated with Owen’s name on his jersey in warm-up during Hockey Fights Cancer Night on Nov. 17, 2016.
Early in 2017, Owen and the entire Wildcats team enjoyed a spectacular night. The Canucks offered the entire team and their parents tickets to the Canucks game on Jan. 15, 2017 against the Florida Panthers, the night where Henrik Sedin scored his 1,000th point.
Owen had surgery to remove part of his tumour just seven days before.
During the procedure, they also removed parts of both his small and large intestine.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” said Amanda. “Owen was so happy, he usually took medication for the pain, but that night he didn’t ask for any, and he didn’t complain once.”
The Canucks continued to support Owen, and they stepped it up on Jan. 19. Seven players from the organization, including Tanev and Hutton, surprised the entire Cloverdale H4 Wildcats team at Cloverdale Arena in Surrey. The video of the event was featured on national TV during Rogers Hometown Hockey Segment .
Owen shares special memories from that day, especially when he was joking around with Hutton.
“Ben [Hutton] and Chris were bugging each other, so Ben and I sprayed Chris [Tanev] with a water bottle,” said Owen.
“It’s all about making memories,” said Amanda. “When something like this happens, you never know how many more memories you’ll be able to make.”
A miracle on ice
Amanda looks fondly upon Owen as he hits the ice again with his team at Cloverdale Arena, just 10 months after his diagnosis.
“It’s amazing to see him back on the ice,” she said. “I never thought he would play hockey again.”
“I feel good,” said Owen after practicing for the fourth time since his return.
While Owen likes to play both defence and forward, he’s suiting up as a defenceman this season for the Wildcats. Owen scored a goal during the scrimmage, which featured players from 9-12 years old.
“If I had more time, I could have deked him out,” said Owen confidently.
Owen’s sister Avery, 4, was also there to watch her big brother get back on the ice. Amanda said the two siblings share a special bond. Avery really looks up to her big brother, and she had a big smile on her face when I asked if she was happy to see her brother back on the ice.
She replied with a resounding “yes.”
“She’s been to every one of his practices since she was four months old,” said Amanda. “She really missed watching him play.”
The fear never subsides
Owen’s story is one of perseverance and survival, but it doesn’t come without fear of the future.
“Even after we got out of the hospital, there’s always that risk,” said Amanda. “There’s always that fear that something is going to happen again.”
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about two-thirds of childhood cancer survivors will have at least one chronic or long-term side effect from their cancer treatment.
After being thrust into a tragic situation, Amanda is now an advocate for supporting other families who have been affected by childhood cancer.
“Every time Owen and I go back to the hospital, there are always new faces.”
The Canadian Cancer Society also reports that there were 4,715 cases of childhood cancer between 2009 and 2013. In British Columbia, virtually every childhood cancer patient ends up at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
“Children come from all over the province, said Amanda. “They’re lives get completely uprooted, especially if they live outside of the Lower Mainland.”
While these families get to stay at the Ronald McDonald Charity House, they still make no income in many cases, putting most families in a financial bind.
Amanda knows their position first-hand, which is why she’s been active in the community ever since Owen’s diagnoses. She shows me the short hair under her ball cap from when she shaved her head at a charity drive in May, put on by Balding for Cancer.
With September being childhood cancer awareness month, Amanda is taking part in more fundraising events around the city. The most notable one would be a Blood Drive taking place at the Canadian Blood Services centre at 4750, Oak Street in Vancouver on Saturday, Sept. 24.
“Owen needed eight blood transfusions and one platelet transfusion during his treatment,” said Amanda. “Those treatments helped him immensely. Once he had those transfusions, he always felt better.”
It’s generous donations that allowed Owen to beat cancer and step back onto the ice, playing the game he loves.
Trevor Beggs is a freelance contributor to the Surrey Now-Leader.