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Two sons with cancer—one family’s fight

The Higgins family was coping with one son’s leukemia, when they learned his brother had Wilms tumor.

Dark haired boy and younger blonde haired boy sitting in a bed filled with stuffed animals.
These days, you’d never know that brothers John and Ben Higgins were treated for cancer.

When her then 2-year-old son, John, couldn’t seem to shake a post-ear-infection fever, Colleen Higgins, a nurse who lives in Islip Terrace, NY, took him to urgent care, where a routine blood test was ordered. She wasn’t expecting the results to reveal low white blood cell, hemoglobin and platelet counts—a combination that indicated John might be suffering from acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), or cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“I was really worried,” Colleen said. She took John to the nearest emergency department, where they were told he needed to be in a pediatric hospital. “We had a couple of different choices of where to go. Almost everyone I talked to recommended Cohen Children’s Medical Center.”

John was transferred to Cohen Children’s by ambulance, where the family was met by hospital staff, as well as Jonathan Fish, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. Within the first few minutes, Colleen knew that they had made the right choice.

“They gave us such a sense of confidence right away,” she said. “Dr. Fish said to us, even before we got the results of John’s bone marrow aspiration to confirm ALL, that ‘This is what I’m almost certain is going on. Once we get the results, we’ll know how to treat it. We have a plan that is well-established and well-trialed. And John is going to get through this.’ Hearing that, really, it meant everything to us.”

That was the start of a three-year treatment protocol, including chemotherapy, that put John into full remission. After a relapse, he received a bone marrow transplant, thanks to hematologist/oncologist Joel Brochstein, MD. All the while, Dr. Fish and the child life specialists at Cohen Children’s made sure that John felt safe and comfortable.

“The child life specialists explained everything to my son in a way he could understand. They had ways of making these different procedures fun, or at least less scary for him,” Colleen said. “They were always there to play with him and cheer him up during appointments and hospital stays. And they were also there for our daughter, Keira. Siblings are often forgotten, but they remembered her and knew that she was affected by what was going on, too.”

Then more news hit: As John was being prepared for his bone marrow transplant, Colleen gave birth to a third child, Benjamin. And when Ben was 8 months old, when the family was taking a break from treatment on vacation in Cape Cod, MA, Colleen felt a mass in her baby’s belly. “I took him to the emergency room there right away, and they found the tumor.” Ben had Wilms tumor (nephroblastoma), a rare form of kidney cancer that develops in the womb. “As terrible and terrifying as it was, I felt a little better knowing that we already knew where we needed to go. We called the oncology team at Cohen Children’s from the hospital in Massachusetts and drove him there in the middle of the night.”

Dark haired boy and blonde haired boy playing with water guns outside.
The brothers have all the energy and joy you’d expect from boys their age.

Pediatric surgeon Jose Prince, MD, whom Colleen calls the most approachable, compassionate surgeon she’s ever met, spent hours in the operating room, carefully removing Ben’s tumor. After that, Ben underwent chemotherapy, as his brother had before him.

While Colleen said it was a scary, emotional time for her family, she is so grateful for the care both of her children received at Cohen Children’s. Both boys are doing very well, to the point where most people would never know either of them ever had cancer.

“Benjamin is going to be 3 soon and doesn’t remember a thing about it. He’s got a ton of energy, he’s really smart, and he’s just a really happy kid,” she said. “John is 9. He’s doing amazing in school, he’s about to start ice hockey, and he’s just a fun, active guy that likes to hang out with his friends and play sports and video games.”

Two boys and a girl in a red dress with long hair, smiling and cuddling on a brown couch.
The team at Cohen Children’s helped the boys’ sister, Keira, deal with their illnesses, too.

When asked what she’d like the team at Cohen Children’s to know about her experience, Colleen said she just wants them to know how grateful she is. “Everything there is geared toward kids so their approach is well-rounded and compassionate,” she said. “We had an outstanding experience. Our children received great care, we felt so supported and everyone there touched our lives in so many different ways. Their actions and words helped our family during a tremendously dark and scary time. I can never thank them all enough.”