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Our Familes / Family Stories

Zachary & Peggy

Before cancer, Zachary Gagnon was a healthy, vibrant, precocious little boy. In the spring of 2013, he began experiencing recurring stomach pain while at school. He was in the 3rd grade and was struggling to fit in and find a sense of belonging. So his stomach issues were assumed to be a result of stress and anxiety and his pediatrician prescribed him Miralax. But by August, Zachary began noticing a persistent tingling in his right arm.

At a local urgent care, an x-ray showed an unusual space in his upper arm, which was dismissed as a likely “growth spurt.” Fortunately his mother, Peggy, persisted after finding a large lump under his armpit two weeks later, and Zachary was eventually referred to Mass General for additional testing. Peggy recalls the doctor in Boston making a comment, "It is a good thing that you were very astute."

Mom and son spent a grueling, anxiety-filled week in Boston undergoing testing, and on August 15, 2013, Zachary was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma at the age of 10. Peggy remembers sitting in the examination room feeling like they were in the twilight zone and a tremendous heaviness, as if the world was coming down on them. Peggy says that Zachary asked the doctors, “am I going to die?” It was incredibly disorienting and devastating.

Zachary underwent 11 months of a strenuous treatment protocol for Ewing's sarcoma which consisted of chemotherapy, biopsies, 6 weeks of proton radiation in Boston, and surgery of his right scapula to remove what the doctors felt was left of the tumor. Peggy felt helpless as Zachary became extremely frail and sick during chemotherapy to the point where he could hardly walk. He vomited violently and it was grueling to watch.

Following treatment, Zachary was in remission for about 11 months, then a growth on his lung was determined to be a recurrence of Ewing’s Sarcoma. Zachary underwent multiple clinical trials for another year, however none of them were beneficial. Peggy was given the heartbreaking news that nothing more could be done for him. Because of the location of the recurrence, Zachary had a very hard time breathing and was on 24-hour oxygen. The tumor quickly spread to his esophagus and heart. Despite being on oxygen and a morphine drip, Zachary never lost his will to live and told his mom, "I don't want to die. I am gonna live, do you hear me? I am gonna live!" He said this with such conviction and certainty, Peggy believed him. He also said to her in his final days, "you were a good mom, I love you with all my heart." A little over three years since his diagnosis, Zachary passed away in the comfort of his home, with his mom by his side, on October 22, 2016 at the age of 13 years and 11 months.

Peggy tells us, “Zachary is an old soul." He was always mature beyond his years and would often question why his peers were so mean and immature. He loved people, was empathetic to others, and was interested in educating himself about the world. Interestingly, prior to ever being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, Zachary would cry when he would see commercials on television of St Judes children with cancer. During his treatments, he loved making paracord bracelets and this helped him remain focused and productive. He loved listening to inspirational Christian music on his iPad when he was going through treatments. While in the hospital, he would sing out loud when listening to a Christian song and he would cause the nursing staff to cry as they could not believe how resilient and open-hearted Zachary was. He developed a love for watching social experiment videos on youtube of displaced veterans. During our travels, we encountered people experiencing homelessness which inspired Zachary to want to help. He would often say to me, "what can we do to help them mom?" He also would video tape himself giving inspirational speeches about life, homelessness, and people who are struggling in the world.

Peggy has had a very difficult time the last six years since Zachary died, especially this past Christmas. She lives alone in a remote area and does not have any other children. She still has Zachary’s dog, Ginger, a golden doodle, who keeps her company. Peggy reports that a lot of people in her life have disappeared since Zachary’s passing, which adds to her loneliness. She is currently becoming involved with the Make a Wish foundation to become involved in a positive organization and create meaning of her grief by giving back to others. Peggy previously attended an online grief support group through Rett’s Roost, and felt it was very helpful and beneficial to talk with parents who have undergone the same journey.