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'You become so strong': Duncan, B.C., family enrolls infant son in clinical trial to treat leukemia

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A Duncan, B.C., family’s unsuspecting trip to the ER out of due diligence for their son turned into a shock they never imagined: Their infant was diagnosed with leukemia, launching a whirlwind of treatments and many months spent away from home.

“He has just been such a tough little cookie,” says Bennett Cleugh’s mother, Ashley Wager.

At just nine months, Bennett has already spent nearly half his life under the close watch of doctors in hospital.

“It started with just a little bit of vomiting,” says Wager. “A few days went by and he stopped eating completely [and] I was like, ‘I think now is the time to take him in.”

It was September 2023. Bennett’s father dropped Wager off at the hospital and returned home to put their toddler, Madeline, to bed. Within hours of that ER visit, the parents received a diagnosis they never saw coming.

“It was scary. I got a phone call from Ashley and she’s like, ‘Put Madeline to bed.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, what’s going on?’ and I had to call her back a half hour later,” says Bennett’s dad Gilbert Cleugh. “Bennett’s got cancer. I was like, 'There’s no way.'”

Bennett was flown to BC Children’s Hospital that night – where he continues to receive care months later.

“It doesn’t get easier but you become so strong,” says Wager.

The family says Bennett has gone through two rounds of treatment, which has included chemotherapy. Now they’re hoping a clinical trial for treatment linked with physicians in Seattle will put the boy’s cancer into remission.

BC Children’s Hospital says the Seattle-based treatment is known as CAR-T therapy.

“CAR-T therapy harnesses a patient’s own immune cells (T cells) to fight their cancer,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement. “To deliver this treatment, scientists must isolate T cells from a patient’s blood sample, genetically modify and activate the cells to improve their ability to recognize and attack cancer cells; they are then re-administered to the patient.”

CAR-T therapy is not standard care for cancer treatment in B.C., outside of clinical trials.

“So we’re the first ones that are able to do it here at BC Children’s Hospital which we’re so grateful for. It’s hard being away from home as it is,” says Wager.

They’ve largely had to relocate to the Lower Mainland while Bennett receives care. Wager was on maternity leave when her son was diagnosed and her partner has had to step away from sheet metal work to also support his family.

“They’re like, Family comes first, so don’t worry about your job. You have it when you come back,'” says Cleugh.

Their hometown community has helped raise thousands of dollars through a GoFundMe page to help cover lost wages, travel expenses, meals, and eventual home renovations.

A bottle drive is also being organized at Island Return-It’s Duncan location on Feb. 3.

“It’s been a terrible way to figure out how loved we are,” says Wager. “It’s been overwhelming. We’re so grateful.”

If Bennett’s treatment goes to plan, his parents anticipate he’ll receive a bone marrow transplant in March, which they hope puts him on track for a homecoming in June or July.

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