Twelve-year-old Colin Gillespie has an army of supporters cheering him on as he lives large, battles cancer and sets an example for all ages
by Pam Dillon
Have you heard of Colin’s Army? On Facebook, it’s a public group with nearly 1300 members. Those are some of the people rooting for Colin Gillespie, a 12-year-old Ottawa boy who’s making the most of life while being treated for cancer. Colin, with his big smile, dazzling eyelashes and giant personality, has that kind of an impact on people.
As his mom Laurie puts it, “He’s just a big ball of love. Everybody he meets loves his little personality, loves his interest in kids, loves his interest in adults. This child? He still wants to snuggle.” She glances at her boy and the affection is palpable. ‘There’s just something about him.”
There is. He keeps right on smiling.
In the spring, Colin was diagnosed with acute precursor B cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. One April evening he noticed his leg was swollen. A trip to the doctor led to a trip to CHEO led to a battery of tests and, finally, results they didn’t want to hear. Cancer. Colin’s diagnosis was the third family cancer blow in two years. His grandpa had died of pancreatic cancer and his uncle Chris had been treated (successfully) for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then this. They got the news on a Friday and two days later his Nanny Helen arrived from Newfoundland. She’s still here.
There was a lot of crying in those early days. Dad Jamie grappled with the fact cancer had stricken his dad, his brother and now his son. Little sister Anna, who’s eight and in Grade 3? She, too, had to deal with the uncertainty and life changes that come with such a diagnosis. As her mom says, “She loves this brother, she loves this brother so much.” Always, cancer is a family affair.
But this close-knit family did something remarkable. Despite the stress and anxiety and “45 trips to CHEO in 60 days” they set out to find the positive.
They decided to share their journey publicly to raise awareness of childhood cancer; Colin’s aunt Charlene, who lives a few doors down, set up the Facebook group and galvanized the troops to boost his spirits. Colin? He wanted to give back and to make a difference.
No surprise there. In the past, via lemonade stands, he raised money for another child with cancer. They started a Colin’s Army bracelet campaign and within a day friends and family members donated $1500. Since then, through various fundraisers, another $12,500 has been raised for Candlelighters, an Ottawa-based charity that provides support to young cancer patients and their families. Executive director Jocelyn Lamont says there are 300 member families in any given year. The Candlelighters website, at candlelighters.net, notes 65 children in the National Capital Region will be diagnosed with cancer this year. At CHEO, more than one family a week gets the news.
As Colin’s Army donations started rolling in, Jocelyn called the Gillespies to ask where they wanted the money to go. “I said everywhere,” Colin declares. “Let’s spread it out.”
Update to Colin’s Army Facebook group
Laurie Feltham Gillespie
Low on neutrophils, low on iron, low on platelets. No chemo because his blood just can’t take it this week. Yet, without being asked he started working on his homework for his home teacher.
Some days when I don’t know where I’ll drum up the strength to go forward, this child shows me the way.
Sitting on his living room couch on a weekday afternoon, Colin is anything but shy. “He’ll talk to a tree,” his mother jokes. When asked, he rhymes off a list of favourite things: video games, turtles, frogs, being outside. “And cookies,” he laughs. But his real passion? “Hockey. Any sport actually.”
These days, the ranks of Colin’s Army include many sports stars who’ve rallied to support him. Colin has had the opportunity to meet Ottawa Redblacks football players, to drop the puck at a Nepean Raiders junior hockey game and to attend an Ottawa Senators game at the Canadian Tire Centre.
NHL stars have provided everything from video messages to caps and sticks. Media personality Stuntman Stu, the Sens PA announcer and male voice on Majic 100’s morning show, has been an unwavering supporter. “Man, he’s been by Colin’s side,” Laurie says.
Life treats help balance the rough stuff. Confident and beautifully bald, Colin heads for the fridge and brings back the “magic mouthwash.” It’s for the chemo sores.
To date, he’s had 16 rounds of chemo. At home, he takes four drugs and has two injections daily. Once a month, there’s a lumbar puncture. The good news? The tumour is gone. “They scanned him from mid-skull to mid-calf and there was nothing to see,” Laurie notes. “He has an amazing prognosis.” Nevertheless, Colin’s last chemo treatment will be on July 23 of 2017. “We will ring that bell and I will cry my face off,” says mom.
Update to Colin’s Army Facebook group
This kid. If you need a hero in your life, it’s this boy. Mom and Dad had an early morning ringette game with Anna. Before I got to his house he shows up at my door with his needle, a bag of ice and his iPad. And this giant smile. Seeing what he goes through every day … if this was me I’d be checked out. Done. He just keeps going. Somehow keeps smiling. I honestly don’t know how he does it, but I am forever in awe of him.
For the time being, the Gillespies are managing this new life with grace and humour. All the running to health appointments? Laurie compares it to ferrying a kid to hockey practice. “We get it done. “ She talks about their CHEO family “from the receptionist to the porter” and about the helpfulness of strangers. “You don’t know until you’re in it how kind people can be. It’s mind-boggling. People have brought us meals; they’ve offered to take Anna. I don’t want to rely on people, but I don’t have a choice.” She skips a beat. “You just have to realize you have a whole lot of friends you haven’t met yet.”
This mom is grateful. “A lot of families have it way worse than we do,” she points out.
Colin was able to go trick or treating with his friends at Halloween. The next day, he and Anna launched pumpkins at a fundraiser for Cystic Fibrosis research. Colin sent one flying for his buddy Scotty.
And this kid still laughs easily. He jokes and teases his mom, and doesn’t hesitate when asked what he wants for Christmas: “LEGO Millennium Falcon … hint hint, nudge nudge.” He looks at his mom and there it is—that huge smile.