Vickroy: Cancer brings out tough side of Tinley baby

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Tricia Clifton holds her 7-month-old son Tommy Monday, July 30, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Time for Tommy

A benefit to help defray the cost of Tommy’s ongoing medical care is scheduled for 2 to 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St., Merrionette Park. For more information and to buy tickets, visit

Monetary donations can be sent to Time for Tommy, c/o Archer Bank, 3435 W. 111th St., Chicago, IL 60655. Donated items can be mailed to Time for Tommy, 9116 S. 55th Court, Oak Lawn, IL 60453.

For more information, contact Kristin Kuchyt at (708) 257-8657 or

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While children across the area were dragging their parents out of bed Christmas morning, Tricia and Brian Clifton were welcoming the best gift of all.

Little Tommy Clifton came into the world just before 5 a.m. that day, weighing 7 pounds, 8 ounces. It was a jubilant end to what had been an uneventful pregnancy, Tricia said.

For two days, the Tinley Park couple relished the perfection of it all. They had a healthy son. Their first-born, Joey, had a little brother. All seemed right with the world.

And then the nightmare began.

Vomiting. Tests. Admission to Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn.

On Dec. 30, Tommy was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer that affects about 700 infants a year. It develops from nerve cells, most commonly in and around the adrenal glands, although it can present elsewhere in the body.

Tommy had a tumor growing from his left adrenal gland, which sits atop the kidney.

“At the beginning, we were quite naive about it all,” said Brian, an English teacher at Oak Lawn Community High School.

When given the diagnosis, Brian said, they also were told that neuroblastoma often goes away on its own.

Indeed, it does, said Dr. Jason Canner, pediatric oncologist at Hope.

“Often, the treatment of choice is to simply observe,” he said.

Tricia, a guidance counselor at Sandburg High School, was certain that would be the case with Tommy. But it wasn’t.

Because of his feeding issues, surgeons on Jan. 3 removed a tumor the size of a tennis ball from Tommy’s tiny body.

That was hardly the end of his troubles. Doctors soon learned the cancer had spread to his liver, causing all kinds of secondary complications, including fluid buildup that led to breathing trouble. At the same time, subcutaneous tumors started popping up all over his body.

Fortunately, children, especially babies, are tough, often tougher than adults, Canner said.

“That’s why I can do my job,” he said.

In their favor, they can’t distinguish one illness from another, so they simply fight. And, Canner said, their bodies are brand new, with no debilitating effects of bad choices made over a lifetime.

Like all infants, Canner said, Tommy had an inherent drive to fight. He fought hard. After several close calls, Tommy finally was discharged Jan. 17.

For a couple of weeks, things were as they should be. Tommy gained weight. He cooed and snuggled and smiled. Joey couldn’t get enough of his new baby brother.

And then it all started again.

By the end of January, Tommy’s belly had grown 10 centimeters. The buildup of fluid was interfering with his ability to breathe and eat.

On Feb. 8, doctors removed 250 ccs of fluid. But by the time he made it back up to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit two hours later, his stomach was swollen again, Tricia said.

The next day, Tommy underwent his first round of chemotherapy.

“They had told us that chemo would be a last resort, and all of a sudden, we’re doing chemo,” Tricia said. “The tumors were getting ahead of us.”

At one point, Tricia recalled, doctors told them, “We’re not winning.”

Canner said, “He was definitely very critical. There were a lot of times when we took it day by day, or even half-day by half-day.”

For almost two months, Tommy battled. Tricia and Brian took up residence in Ronald McDonald House near the Christ Medical Center campus. Joey stayed with caring relatives.

“It was crazy,” Tricia said. “How do you explain to your 2-year-old why his mom and dad are gone for months?”

Since Tommy’s birth, the family had been together at home for a collective 21/2 weeks.

After two rounds of chemo, radiation was done on Tommy’s liver, making him the youngest documented patient to undergo such treatment at the hospital.

“Then, a miracle,” Tricia said. “The fluid buildup stopped.”

Tommy’s tummy went from a burgeoning 50 centimeters, at which time his mom said he looked like he had swallowed a bowling ball, down to a normal 7. Slowly, the two towers of IV medications came down.

When they finally took the breathing tube out, Tricia said, “He just smiled.”

On March 30, he came home.

Despite all he’d been through, their “little champ” had an excellent disposition. So did his parents, Canner said.

“Tommy’s parents were extraordinary. They never left his side. They were great advocates for his care,” Canner said.

Tommy’s prognosis is very good, Canner said.

“We expect this to not cause any more problems. We’re hopeful,” he said.

In a world with no definitive answers, Brian said, that’s enough.