Saturday, January 31, 2015

TOP STORY >> Cabot 8th grader fights cancer

Leader staff writer

Barrett Stark, a Cabot eighth grader who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April, introduced himself with a smile and a joke.

His is one of the first to represent an American Red Cross-sponsored SleevesUp virtual blood and platelet drive.

According to, today is the 19th of 107 days people can use the website to set up a donation appointment or make a financial contribution to the cause.

Stark’s mom, Polly Pettey, told The Leader, “One bag can save up to three people’s lives. It’s not only him you’re going to help. We’ve made a lot of friends with everybody else up here (at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock).”

Stark said he was asked to be the face of one of the first virtual drives after the community held a blood drive in his honor.

He needed between five and six transfusions plus chemotherapy, spinal taps and other treatments, Pettey said.

Stark, who has been in remission since May but still has 2.5 years of maintenance to go through, said his first thought when he was diagnosed was, “How could this happen to me?”

Maintenance means one chemotherapy treatment each month and once-a-week tests, compared to Stark spending several days a week at the hospital.

The family lives in Butlerville, close to Des Arc and Beebe, but Stark attends Cabot schools because the buses drive by his home.

The 14-year-old said he’s always enjoyed sports and being outdoors.

He started playing football last year because the basketball season had ended and he was tired of sitting on the bleachers.

The off-season football team was more active, doing workouts, Stark explained.

And, in 2011, the MMA fighter was the state champion in jiu-jitsu.

Stark said, “I like to hunt, fish, I like to ride four wheelers, dirt bikes, go muddin,’ go trout fishing.”

The teen can still do many of those things, but must be more careful because of his compromised immune system. “It’s fun, but it’s not as fun as it used to be because now I’ve got to look at it totally different,” Stark said.

The first two months after he was diagnosed were difficult, he continued.

Stark explained, “I was just laying in bed and just not talking, sleeping almost all day, every day.”

With time came acceptance and, one day, things changed.

Stark said, “There’s been days where I’ve woke up and totally forgot that I have cancer…That day I woke up and I said, ‘I ain’t got cancer any more. Let’s go and have some fun.’” He drove a four-wheeler from morning until dark that day.

On Thursday, Stark was hoping to go home this weekend, when a youth hunting event will be held.

His mom and her friend, Nicolina Lievsay, pointed out that it would be raining, but Stark responded that he has waterproof gear.

Although the teen doesn’t take things for granted any more, Pettey said, “He really hasn’t let this change him at all as a person. He has stood tough, been strong, fought throughout this whole (ordeal). Whenever I’ve gotten down, he’s been my rock. ‘All it is is cancer, I’ll be fine.’”

The most difficult part, for both mother and son, has been staying away from some relatives to avoid Stark becoming ill.

He has a 9-year-old brother and a 17-year-old stepsister.

The challenges have also included becoming a steroid-induced diabetic and, of course, suffering through chemo treatments.

“The chemo, I hate, really. It burns, and it hurts, and it makes you sick. I’m not a fan of it,” Stark said.

For more than a month, he had to use insulin three or four times daily. The Gatorade and soda-loving teen said having all that taken away so abruptly had him “going nuts.”

But, through this experience, “I’ve learned that my body is a lot stronger than I thought it was,” Stark said.

His mom said she learned, “You just can’t take life for granted. It’s one day at a time, and that has definitely made me stronger.”

Lievsay said the family and their friends have also been brought closer together.

She added that people shouldn’t treat cancer patients differently after they are diagnosed.

Pettey agreed. She said a lot of parents limit their sick kids but she hasn’t.

“All the nurses have told me I did right by letting him be him and not putting him in a bubble, and giving it all to God,” the mom said.

Her son added, “That has helped so much.”

Pettey said forming relationships with the moms of three other children on the same treatment regimen as Stark and being at Arkansas Children’s has also helped.

About the hospital, she said, “They make you feel like you’re family.” Stark’s nurses even posted paper ducks on his wall and made a model of a rifle because he was disappointed about not being able to go duck hunting.

Pettey also said they appreciate all of those in the community who have prayed for her son.

Stark said he would tell others going through the same thing, “It will get better. Don’t let it come between you and your family.”

Pettey said she would want other families in similar circumstances to know, “It’s going to get to you, and you’re going to feel like you can’t go on. But it will get easier.” They should hand it over to God and have faith, she added.