Derek's journey: From being a kid to beating cancer

Derek rings the bell signifying his completion of chemotherapy treatments on Dec. 27, 2019, at Sanford Children's Hospital in Sioux Falls. (Abigail Dollins/The Argus Leader via AP)

DELL RAPIDS (AP) – The floor creaked under 10-year-old Derek Gerlach’s feet as he sat up in his bed.

“I don’t like this part,” Derek said to his mom, Donelle Gerlach.

The Dell Rapids fifth-grader was not dreading going to school but instead the waves of dizziness and nausea that came over him each morning. Donelle was concerned, but thought he might of sat up too quickly.

Her worry only grew after she came home from work one day in November 2018 and found Derek tucked away in the corner of the couch. Her energetic son would normally be playing with his yellow lab or eating a snack. His face looked pale, almost as if he was coming down with the flu. She sat down on the couch and asked him how he was feeling.

Derek could not pinpoint what was wrong, but knew he hadn’t felt right for a while.

Donelle and her husband, Shane Gerlach, scheduled an appointment with his pediatrician.

“I honestly thought we were going to go into the doctor, and she was going to tell us he had a sinus infection,” Donelle said.

Diagnosis: Stage four brain cancer

After Derek confessed the full extent of his symptoms to the doctor, his parents saw more of a cause for concern, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

Derek admitted to throwing up everyday for the past three weeks.

The doctor immediately ordered an EKG for that Friday afternoon, and CAT scan for the following Tuesday. After the CAT scan, Donelle and Derek – not too worried – were driving around Sioux Falls looking at "fancy" houses on the same side of town as the doctor. As they started to drive toward the interstate to go home, they got the call that the whole family needed to immediately return to the doctor’s office. Shane left work to meet them there.

Donelle knew instantly what the black mass on the scans over Derek’s brain meant.

“Immediately there’s that pit in your stomach that you know this is not going to be good,” said Donelle, who herself was diagnosed with breast cancer the year before.

Derek was diagnosed with stage four medullablastoma, a type of brain cancer, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

“It’s going to be okay, Dad,” Derek said as he reached for Shane’s hand.

The next day, Derek was rushed to emergency surgery for the removal of the tumor on his brain. Unpacking their bags in the hospital room, the Gerlachs got their first taste of the sterile environment they would come to know so well in Derek's treatment journey.

'Every single moment': Fighting since day one

Derek has always been a fighter.

Born 30 days premature, he spent the first part of his life lying in a NICU bed, surrounded by tubes and warning signs.

But Derek is no quitter. Named after baseball legend Derek Jeter, he, too, was ready to make his mark on the world.

Derek surpassed doctors’ expectations and went home at just 10 days old.

“From that point on, you cherish every single moment, and you don’t take any of them for granted.” Shane said. “When you fight for so long to have a child and then to almost lose that child, every single moment I get with him from the day he was born has been a moment I thought I would never have.”

From hospital to hospital: Countless hours on the road

The rhythmic sound of cars passing on the interstate made each trip to the doctor feel like eternity.

500 miles round trip from Dell Rapids to Rochester, Minnesota, for proton radiation.

60 miles round trip from Dell Rapids to Sioux Falls for chemo treatment.

Countless hours spent in that same sterile doctor's office environment. Countless hours spent away from home.

This was the Gerlachs new routine.

Donelle and Shane would rotate weeks staying at the Ronald McDonald House while Derek underwent proton radiation.

They are not alone. Between 250 and 500 children are diagnosed with medullablastoma each year in the United States, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A break from the things he loves

Each day came with its own struggles: keeping on weight, the anxiety that comes with continual scans and tests, and neuropathy in his hands and feet that make it hard to do some of the things he loves, like riding his bike and playing piano.

Before the cancer diagnosis, Derek would hop on his blue mountain bike, decorated with scuff marks from use, and ride it for miles. The wind would blow through his bright red hair.

It took him eight years to learn how to ride a bike, and he hopes he remembers how to ride once he’s able to again.

Sense of normalcy at school

Despite the medical challenges, school offers Derek a sense of normalcy.

Derek doesn’t want to be treated differently, and his bestfriend, Ryan Baker, helps to maintain that. The two are often inseparable. When their history teacher asked the class to find a partner, Ryan and Derek immediately locked eyes and pointed their pencils at each other.

“He’s been supportive throughout this year,” Derek said. “He’s just been there to take my mind off all this.”

The support shown to Derek extends beyond his close-knit friend group.

Sixth-grade English and math teacher Kari Hettinger has seen how Derek’s peers have supported him throughout his journey.

“His classmates have done a good job at recognizing that it still affects him without making it a big deal, and I think that’s really important to Derek,” Hettinger said. “They do a good job at not treating him like a child with cancer, but they also do a good job at letting him know that they haven’t forgotten.”

School isn't the only place Derek has received support. People have donated more than $30,000 to the Gerlachs through a GoFundMe page.

The end of his fight and the road ahead

“Scanxiety” — the anxiety that comes with each scan — falls over the Gerlachs as they wait for MRI results.

Every scan has come back clean since the start of Derek's journey.

Since Derek responded well to radiation and chemotherapy, the family is hopeful for the future.

Derek ended his cancer treatment journey surrounded by family and friends on Dec. 27, 2019, at the Sanford Children’s Hospital.

Grasping onto the metal chain, Derek put all his strength into ringing the bell and filling the lobby with its sound. Derek isn’t sure of what’s next, but he is sure that he can handle it.

Derek, now 12 years old, is looking forward to every reason for celebration. The self-proclaimed Star Wars fan is excited to visit Disney World’s Galaxy’s Edge during a trip he’s taking with his family in early February.

It’s also the small victories — getting out of bed isn't so painful anymore.

“It’ll just add toward my strength and courage for the next big thing,” Derek said. “Hopefully we don’t have a next big thing, but if we do I’ll be ready.”

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