School and community get behind boy with brain cancer

April 12, 2011

Richfield — Ryan Staniak doesn't like being the center of attention.

A shy, reserved 10-year-old at Rockfield elementary, Ryan was understandably overwhelmed when upwards of 400 people showed up at Germantown High School last week to support him and his family.

Ryan couldn't be there because he was returning from Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center where he was undergoing proton radiation therapy and chemotherapy. It was the end of an arduous six-week treatment that was, for Ryan, the fight of his life.

Stunning diagnosis

The lengthy treatment belied the suddenness of his diagnosis. On Jan. 19, after battling what doctors initially diagnosed as migraines, Ryan was sent to have an MRI of his head. Ryan's mother, Marcie, knew being sent to a neurologist was an indication something was seriously wrong.

"(You are) just crossing your fingers and hoping this is a just a routine thing where they're crossing something out," she said.

Ryan was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. The next day, Ryan faced a 12-hour surgery at Children's Hospital that doctors deemed successful, and the reality of the road ahead began to set in.

"It was all very sudden," said Ryan's father, Tony, an accountant with Quad Grapics. "I mean he had these symptoms, but to find out on the nineteenth that the next day he'd need to be in this surgery, it was very … we were all very overcome."

From there, the Staniaks learned about the treatment options with the radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors said there was an innovative treatment with proton radiation, supposedly the latest technology to minimize the effects of the radiation on a growing brain and body like Ryan's. Tumors in his spine would also be targeted by the treatments.

Tony Staniak said he believes that has helped and appreciated the doctors telling the family about the treatment even though it wasn't offered in the area.

After 31 treatments of the proton therapy along with some chemotherapy, it's a struggle for Ryan to get around and even speak at times - although that doesn't stop him from remaining at his post as oldest of three and chastising his sister for misbehaving.

Getting back to friends, family

A sports-loving, straight 'A' student, Ryan was most eager to return to his friends and family after what was, no doubt, a trying month and a half in Texas. His mother had stayed with him in Houston, but Ryan's sister Christina, 7, and brother Drew, 9, stayed with their dad in Richfield.

Ryan and his mother were greeted by a house full of cards, balloons, a banner welcoming them home and a few extremely special keepsakes.

Ryan's fifth-grade class at Rockfield had made a quilt, each student making a tile to form a mosaic of support for their friend and classmate.

"It really is amazing, the number of people, as it just travels through the small school district," Marcie Staniak explained. "Ryan's our oldest, so our kids aren't out of elementary school yet, so to hear (from) people, and receiving cards, just how quickly it spreads."

But there are two items that have likely become Ryan's most prized possessions. University of Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien heard Ryan's story and autographed a football for him. Tolzien also left a personal message on Ryan's Website.

The entire Badgers football team autographed another special Rose Bowl football for Ryan and the two stand side by side in the Staniaks' living room.

The waiting game

If you ask Ryan how he's feeling, he'll tell you he's good and that he doesn't think things are much different for him, the kind of endearingly naïve sense of invincibility he shares with most boys his age.

Since there won't be tests for the next six weeks as Ryan recovers, it will be tough to tell how effective the treatment has been. When those six weeks are up, Ryan will have six months of chemotherapy treatment and his combat with cancer will resume.

He'll be home-schooled for the time being, although the teachers and administrators have talked to the Staniaks about using the videoconferencing program Skype to allow Ryan to be a part of the lessons even if he can't physically be in school - a place he'd certainly rather be.

Even though Ryan won't be in class, his class will be with him in spirit and support. You can look at his house full of balloons and banners as a reminder that a community stands with him. And even though Ryan is, by nature, an unassuming kid who prefers to be out of the spotlight, you can see he feels the support as overwhelming as it may be at times.

When Ryan was asked how he felt about having hundreds of people show up to a fundraiser in his honor, he could barely manage the words.

"It feels good," amid the lump in his throat and the tears welling in his eyes.

It seems appropriate Ryan would be a sports fan because this is about as close as any 10-year-old gets to playing in front of a packed stadium. This is his bases-loaded moment, a chance to win the game on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive or a buzzer-beating basket.

The difference is, of the hundreds of people watching Ryan's game, every single fan is cheering for Ryan to win.


WHAT: help the Staniak family with a donation

WHO: Jane Mandli, Germantown High School

PHONE: (262) 502-7260

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