Meet Tony Salerno. He’s 13. Well, most of him is 13.
“If someone asks me how old I am, I can tell them, ‘Well, part of me is 50, and the other part of me is 13,'” jokes Tony.
Tony just got a new kidney from his dad, so while he’s really a 13-year-old boy, his new kidney’s almost four times as old.
He needed a kidney because the treatments that saved his life also did a lot of damage. At 2.5 years old, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of nerve-based cancer.
At the time, the rate of survival for someone Tony’s age was about 30%, but, thanks to rigorous treatment, he was pronounced cancer-free at age 3.
However, the intense treatments, which included five rounds of chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, and total body radiation, did a number on his little body. Though he is still cancer-free 10 years later, Tony is dealing with a number of health problems as a result.
“I have to take a lot of pills at every meal,” says Tony. “I have to get nightly injections and a weekly injection.”
He has some high-frequency hearing loss from the chemo and cataracts in both eyes. His brain’s processing speed is slightly slower than normal, which means he takes more time on tests and assignments. That said, he’s no less intelligent than the other kids in his class. “I’m smart,” retorts Tony.
His adult teeth have only 20% of the root structure they should. Therefore, eating things like corn on the cob can be tough. He also has only one kidney because the radiation destroyed the other one.
It sounds like a lot for anyone to handle, much less a 13-year-old, but Tony keeps walking tall.
“I’ve nicknamed him ‘the Mayor’ because when he walks into a room, whether it’s filled with adults or kids, he acts like he’s running for office and wants to talk to everyone,” Tony’s dad, Tony Sr., writes in an email.
Tony’s in Boy Scouts. He is often outside, hanging with friends and learning from nature. When he’s inside, he’s usually playing video games or watching movies with his family.
One New Year’s Eve, they were watching “Back to the Future” and Tony’s mom, Karen, remarked on Michael J. Fox’s short stature. Tony’s also always going to be short because the chemo affected his growth. Seeing someone else who’s small be so cool definitely gave him a boost.
In the midst of managing symptoms and living the life of an average 13-year-old, Tony got news that his remaining kidney was failing. He needed a transplant.
Karen was ruled out as a donor candidate because her blood type wasn’t compatible, but Tony’s dad met the long list of criteria.
“My biggest worry next was that they would find something wrong with me,” writes Tony Sr. “And I’m not a perfect match, but I’m the best match we found.”
In November 2016, Tony’s doctors said he’d probably need the transplant within one to three years. However, just a month later, his numbers weren’t looking so good, and they decided to schedule the procedure for summer 2017. Tony had his transplant on Aug. 1, and his family is happy to report that it was a success!
Tony felt a little “weird” about getting a part of his dad, but his dad lightens the mood with jokes.
“Mostly I kid him that he better take care of it, because I will be watching, and that he gets to celebrate not only his birthday, but his kidney’s birthday on my birthday,” writes Tony Sr.
Joking aside, it’s not easy for his parents to see Tony struggle, especially when he’s just trying to live a normal kid’s life.
Tony Sr. writes that it’s hard to watch him “encounter his limitations alongside his friends and schoolmates.” Life after cancer, especially when you’re also a growing boy, can be a roller coaster, and sometimes they just feel like they’re along for the ride.
But with a son like Tony who has beaten so many odds and, despite his limitations, keeps on truckin’, it’s not all scary.
Of course, things would not look nearly so bright if it weren’t for the extraordinary medical support Tony’s had over the years.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in particular really impressed Tony’s parents.
“From a scientific perspective, the things they can find out about him without having to do invasive, exploratory surgery are amazing,” remarks Karen.
In fact, Tony’s case was involved in initial immunotherapy work at the hospital — a less invasive treatment that involves boosting disease-fighting cells to enable them to target the cancer better. Much of their research wouldn’t be possible without funding from companies like Northwestern Mutual.
In the midst of seeing other kids who aren’t as lucky as Tony, these less-brutal treatments give his parents hope.
He’s still got a long road ahead of him, but with his family and doctors by his side, Tony has the best possible support.
What’s more, thanks to the research that’s been done on his case, many other sick kids may have an easier time recovering. That’s a major win for all families going through this. It’s also why Tony’s dad believes this simple truth with all his heart:
“He’s a success, even with all his side effects. He’s a success, because he’s still here.”