Abraham Cherrix, 16, went through chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease that left him so weak that his father carried the 6-foot-1 youth from the car to the house. Doctors tell him he needs a second round of chemo to get rid of the cancer that reappeared in February.
Abraham says no, and his parents are backing him up.
Now the Virginia family is in juvenile court, the parents are charged with medical neglect and the Accomack County social services agency has joint custody of Abraham. The agency asked the court to order the boy to undergo chemotherapy.
A court hearing continued Tuesday. Each side plans to appeal an adverse ruling, family lawyer Barry Taylor says.
Abraham and his family are treating his cancer with an herbal remedy four times a day and an organic diet under the guidance of a clinic in Mexico. The remedy, called the Hoxsey method, has not been clinically tested, and there is no scientific evidence that it is effective, the American Cancer Society says.
Although he is not old enough to cast a vote or buy an alcoholic drink, Abraham argues that he is old enough to make decisions about treatment to save his life.
"This is my body that I'm supposed to take care of. I should have the right to tell someone what I want to do with this body," he says. "I studied. I did research. I came to this conclusion that the chemotherapy was not the route I wanted to take."
Abraham - full name Starchild Abraham Cherrix - lives with his four younger brothers and sisters and parents in Chincoteague, where his dad, Jay, runs a kayaking outfitter and his mom, Rose, home-schools the kids. A lump on Abraham's neck discovered last year turned out to be Hodgkin's disease, which has a high survival rate with treatment - 85% of patients are alive five years later, according to the American Cancer Society.
Chemotherapy and radiation left Abraham bald, racked with fevers and too weak to play tag with his siblings. "His legs would buckle under him. It pretty much devastated him," his mother says.
Another round, at higher doses, "would kill me, literally. No joke about it," Abraham says. "The first round of chemo almost killed me in itself. There were some nights I didn't know if I would make it."
Mary Parker, director of the Accomack County Department of Social Services, declined comment, citing privacy law. So did a spokesman for Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, Va., where the Cherrix family says Abraham was treated.
In Texas last year, a court ordered 13-year-old Katie Wernecke to live in a foster home for five months while she received chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease. Her parents wanted her to take intravenous vitamin C instead. The court returned Katie to her family after she finished chemotherapy and allowed the alternative treatment. Her website says she is "doing very well ... but she is not cancer-free yet, so there is still a battle to win."
Other families refuse treatment for children for cultural or religious reasons: In 1999, a Massachusetts court ruled that a hospital could give 17-year-old Alexis Demos a blood transfusion after a snowboarding accident even though her Jehovah's Witness faith led her to refuse it.
In deciding whether a child or parents can refuse medical treatment, courts consider the child's age and maturity and the family's reasoning in declining treatment, but also whether the treatment has been shown to work and whether the child has already had the treatment, says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The easiest cases to get a court to order treatment is when the children are young and the treatment is absolutely as efficacious as we have," Caplan says. That, he says, includes treatment for Hodgkin's disease, which "has a proven track record."
"The hardest ones are 17-year-olds who've had (the treatment) before, it doesn't work that well, and they sound like they really understand what's going on," he says.
Rose Cherrix says her son is getting medical care, just not the care that his doctors recommend. "We tried their way, and it didn't work," she says. "We truly want to see him get better, and whatever it takes for him to get better we will do. But if he doesn't have a very good chance of coming through this chemo, which he doesn't, I'd much rather him have quality of life."
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