PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - Countless young lives are saved every year at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Many of those children are from right here in South Mississippi.
Children like two and a half-year-old Jace Mathews, who is making great strides in his fight against cancer.
Little Jace is now taking early steps with help from a walker, something his parents thought might never happen.
His mom, Jamie Mathews, remembers those early emotional days. "When they did the surgery and did nerve testing they told us there were no nerve responses below the tumor," she said. This means that he may never walk. His steps now serve as a huge accomplishment.
"It's amazing. you can't stop him. So beautiful as a parent to see your child advance," said Jamie.
The battle has been long and hard for the entire family. Their problems started about two years ago. "Jace was perfectly normal until he was about five months old and we noticed an enlargement in his belly," she explained. Those early symptoms led to multiple tests. While they waited for results, the symptoms got much worse and even led to temporary paralysis.
Jamie fights back tears as she remembers those overwhelming moments. She stated, "The most difficult time was not knowing. When he was going through all the pain and discomfort, when he was losing reflexes he should be gaining, we didn't know why."
An MRI that answered many of their questions about Jace in March 2015. It changed their lives.
Jace had a large mass on his spinal cord that took up about one-fifth of his total body length. Soon after an emergency surgery to remove the mass, they learned it was cancer. "Doctors we had then told us he would need radiation to the spine and that would affect his growth and he would never walk," said Jamie.
That's when the Mathew's reached out to St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, looking for hope.
From that moment forward, Jamie says everything changed. "St Jude is the most amazing hospital. You have a team when you first get there so you have people fighting for you and for your child," she detailed.
Doctor's at St Jude re-tested the tumor pathology and determined it was a different type of cancer than originally diagnosed. They said it would be treated with intensive chemotherapy rather than radiation. This would help save his spine. Jamie noted, "Once we got the diagnosis, we knew what to do to move forward and to work for."
Once they got through the surgery and chemotherapy, Jace started play-based therapy several times a week. He has been in and out of the hospital too many times to remember, uprooting the entire family for weeks at a time. His mom, dad, and older sister have been there every step of the way, along with grandparents and a tight-knit circle of family and friends. They definitely have ups and downs, but Jace's bright attitude has made it easier for all of them.
His grandmother, Deborah Pittman, says he's a bright spot in their lives. "He's got the spirit and drive to just go and go. He has been a ray of sunshine, " said Deborah. His sister, Joylynne, loves seeing him get stronger. She said, "He's my best brother and a could never ask for another brother like him."
While the hard work continues; it has now been over a year since any chemotherapy and Jace's mom says there are no signs of active disease. "It's beautiful. Every week he gets stronger and he's so determined," she said proudly.
The Mathews continue to travel to St Jude in Memphis every three months for brain and spine MRI's. As with all patients at St. Jude, there are no out of pocket costs for the parents.
You can help children like Jace by buying a ticket to win this year's St. Jude Dream Home in Gulfport. The home will be given away Sunday during a live broadcast on WLOX-TV. Read more here: Look inside the St. Jude Dream Home, then buy your ticket online