By Sarah Kuper
More than 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.
A number that large may seem daunting, but the Vestavia Hills community is doing its part by rallying behind two of its own.
In February and March, Pizitz Middle School students Will Nailen and Sam Cunningham were diagnosed with cancer, Nailen with bone cancer and Cunningham with leukemia.
A social and athletic 13-year-old, Will, was feeling pain and tingling in his leg that he and his family first associated with his wrestling. But an MRI showed a lemon-sized tumor on his pelvis.
Since the diagnosis, Will has had numerous tests and has begun chemotherapy. The family writes an online journal that keeps friends and family apprised of news regarding Will’s treatment and well-being.
Like Will, Sam is a sports enthusiast and energetic middle-schooler. Since his leukemia diagnosis in March, he has had rounds of chemotherapy and numerous other procedures.
According to the Cunningham’s online journal, the chemo has been effective, but other infections have kept Sam hospitalized.
While the two boys have undergone many treatments and procedures and their parents have had many sleepless nights, they aren’t alone.
In the past few months, there have been several fundraisers, including a car wash at Spellman’s Classic Detail, an event at Vintage Barber Shop with a Full Moon Bar-B-Que food truck at Vestavia City Hall.
The haircut and bar-b-que event raised more than $6,000.
Brailyn Hardy with KC Projects PR, which helped with the event, said she wasn’t surprised that the Vestavia Hills community would turn out to support the boys.
“Their families are part of the Vestavia Hills family and the owner of Full Moon has kids that go to the Vestavia schools,” she said.
Sam and Will’s classmates are rooting for them with personal messages and, of course, custom social media hashtags #samstrong and #withwill.
Inspiring each other
The boys also are rooting for each other.
When Will began to lose his hair as a result of treatment, he shaved his head. He then went to the hospital to visit Sam, who was losing hair as well but was hesitant to shave his head. In the end, it was Will who inspired Sam to be brave and shave his head.
The support for the boys has even reached some of their favorite sports stars. Will has received autographs and notes from college wrestlers and coaches, and Sam has video messages from Auburn coaches and players, including football coach Gus Malzahn.
Patrick Cunningham, Sam’s father, said the outpouring of love and prayers has made him proud to be from Vestavia Hills.
“My wife and I grew up here and moved back here after college,” he said. “We are overwhelmed.”
The community continues to find ways to support Sam and Will. Right now, people can help the Cunninghams and Nailens in several ways.
Put a gold bow on the mailbox. Gold is the color for pediatric cancer and bows can be purchased by emailing email@example.com. Proceeds go directly toward the families’ needs.
Buy a “Wrestling to Win” or “Grand Slam Sam” T-shirt. For details on how to order and more information on Sam and Will’s fight to beat cancer, visit caringbridge.com and search for Sam Cunningham or Will Nailen.