BELMONT CRAGIN — Lucas "Bear" Cervone inspired people throughout the world.
The 5-year-old Belmont Cragin boy gained international attention this spring when his family asked for people to send them birthday cards. Lucas, who had already battled cancer twice, had an incurable tumor and they thought they could surprise him with the cards and help him feel better.
The Cervones asked for 500 cards, but Lucas’ story reached further than they'd anticipated. Thousands of cards from all over the globe came in. Time and time again, people writing the letters said Lucas was their hero or that he had changed their lives and pushed them to accomplish something they thought impossible.
Lucas "Bear" Cervone was just 2 years old when he was first diagnosed with leukemia. [Facebook/Lucas bear Heroes]
Lucas died on May 1, but he stayed strong until the end, his family said. He asked his mother to sing to him and told his parents not to cry.
“If he was scared then he stayed brave for us and we never knew it,” Anthony Cervone said of his son's battle with cancer.
Now, nearly two months after Lucas’ death, Anthony and Rina Cervone are crafting a legacy for their son. They gather to read the cards that were sent to him and speak at events. They've raised money for charities that supported them during Lucas' battle and for Lurie Children's Hospital.
They'll keep fighting cancer for Lucas and for families everywhere, the Cervones said.
Lucas was just two 2 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia the first time. He was treated, deemed healthy and took a Make-A-Wish trip to Legoland. A master builder created a Lego version of Lucas and they put it by a toy pool at the park, a permanent tribute to Lucas’ battle with cancer. He played in the Pacific Ocean with his family.
Just weeks after coming back from the trip, he had a cough and was bruising. Doctors said it was a second form of leukemia. Lucas was just 5 years old.
Lucas received a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. His immune system was compromised and he had to fight off a host of illnesses that left him in the intensive care unit for nearly two months. He was on a ventilator for weeks and was chemically paralyzed. An experimental treatment helped him recover, and he went to rehab, where his parents and experts helped him walk for the first time in months.
He’d beaten leukemia twice.
Anthony Cervone, Lucas' father, got a tattoo to honor his son. The tattoo says "Lucas" in the 5-year-old's handwriting and is accompanied by an orange ribbon. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
But by April 24, Lucas’ stomach hurt. He made it hurt, Anthony said later: He knew he was dying.
Anthony and his wife, Rina, took their son to the hospital. Lucas said his stomach pain was a 10 — unbearable. Through everything else his pain had never been more than a four.
After getting X-rays, Anthony lifted his son onto a gurney and Lucas let out a small burp. “I feel better,” he said.
Anthony teased him: “If we came all the way down here for gas, I’m not going to be very happy.”
Lucas smiled and the X-ray technician laughed.
The doctors wanted to explain Lucas’ X-rays in private, but Anthony insisted they speak in front of his son. It was Lucas’ life and he deserved to know what was happening, Anthony said.
So the doctor told them: There was a tumor wrapped around Lucas’ heart, Anthony said. There wasn’t much more they could do. They could extend Lucas’ life, but they couldn’t “fix this.”
Anthony Cervone says Lucas' parents honored his wish to go home:
“I knelt next to him … I told him, I said, ‘You heard the doctor say they don’t think the medicine was going to work anymore and that you have a tumor in your chest. And they don’t know what more they can do. But they want us to go upstairs for tonight and they want to take some more pictures of you, and in the morning maybe we can talk about something else to fix it,’” Anthony said.
“And I said, ‘I want to know: Do you want mommy and I to keep fighting to help get you better? Because if you do then I will. I’ll find a way — I’ll — I’ll find something to help fix it.’
“He said, without even looking at me, he said, ‘No, dada, I want to go home. I don’t want to be here anymore.’”
It wasn’t his and Rina’s decision to make, Anthony said. They wouldn’t ask him to suffer when there was no cure. Lucas told them what he wanted. His parents would honor that.
Birthday Cards For Lucas
After doctors found Lucas’ tumor, as the Cervones headed home and prepared for the worst, they asked for birthday cards: Lucas would be turning 6 on May 7. They hoped to receive at least 500 cards.
Lucas’ story spread quickly: The family was on TV and celebrities tweeted about Lucas. Schools sent packets full of dozens of cards handmade by students. Steinmetz College Prep had a batch of “happy birthday” cards in its front office so people could fill them out and send them to Lucas without even having to leave the school.
Rina Cervone says Lucas got the cards for his family:
Cards came in from around the world — Afghanistan, the Netherlands, New Zealand — and the Cervones had to go to the post office twice a day to pick up the massive boxes of mail. They couldn’t fit everything at home so they took them to a friend’s house. Bags and bins full of cards, toys, posters, stickers and teddy bears soon filled her basement.
Lucas read the cards with his family at home, but his health was declining. His family hosted an early birthday party, worried he wouldn’t make it to May 7. He said he wanted to see the ocean again, but there wasn’t time.
Lucas received about 20,000 cards before he died on May 1, his parents said.
Even in his last moments, Rina said, Lucas was stronger than anyone she knew. He told her not to cry and asked her to sing “You Are My Sunshine.”
“... I don’t know how can I be as strong as he was,” Rina said. “I know he didn’t get it from me because I’m not as strong as he was. He was my rock.
“I really miss him. He made me strong.”
Erica Schomer, a teacher from Lucas Cervone's school, helps the Cervones read the birthday cards that were sent to Lucas. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
Now, nearly two months after Lucas’ death, Anthony and Rina think they’ve received about 150,000 cards.
The Cervones gather with family and friends to go through them on the weekends. They read each card, setting aside the gifts people have sent, occasionally reading a message or a joke out loud.
It was hard to go through the cards after Lucas’ death, they said. They cried and would have to take breaks.
Now, though, the cards help the Cervones remember Lucas.
“The random cards that I’m opening right now and that we’re looking at, wherever we’re from, our son touched that person even for a moment enough for them to go, ‘This little boy wants something. I’m going to take time out of my day, I’m going to take money out of my pocket, to buy him a card with the hopes that he’ll see it and it’ll make him happy,’” Anthony said.
“And these birthday cards unfortunately, and I guess fortunately, have turned into therapy for us.”
Rina Cervone, Lucas' mom, reads a card that was sent to her son for his 6th birthday. The cards are helping the Cervones grieve after losing Lucas to cancer. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
A 16-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, told Lucas she dreamt of going to college and studying to find cures for illnesses like his.
“Your dreams are precious and your life beautiful,” she wrote in one of the cards sent to Lucas. “You are a true hero — even stronger than Superman — and you have the power to make the impossible, possible.”
From Miami: “Life is about being happy even in the hardest situations and not giving up. That’s exactly what you’ve been doing and shown to the world.”
One person sent the family a red cape with a gold star and a “B” on the back.
Others sent superhero toys, cards that spoke and moved, photos, art supplies, homemade posters, colorful banners that rolled out: “Happy B-day, Lucas!” His kindergarten class made a poster and decorated it with photos of Lucas and words that described him: “We miss Lucas. Nice. Smart. We love Lucas,” they wrote. “Lucas is in our hearts. He’s a hero.”
Some of the cards sent to Lucas "Bear" Cervone. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
Lucas’ story touched people, Rina said. His fight made them want to challenge themselves.
He was a hero for his parents, too, they said.
“He would make us think, ‘Why are you being sad? I’m dealing with cancer and I’m happy. What’s your reason not to be happy? There’s nothing wrong with you,’” Rina said. “It makes you think, ‘Yeah, he’s right. I’ve got everything. I’ve got health, I’ve got a job.’ You may not be rich, but what else do you need?”
Lucas changed people, his family says:
Lucas’ legacy goes beyond that: The Cervones raised thousands of dollars to buy robots that helped Lucas “go” to school even when he couldn’t be there. Now those robots will be used to help other children who are sick.
They also hosted blood drives in Lucas’ name and encouraged people to sign up for the Bone Marrow Registry. They reached out to the Latino community to encourage donations, noting that Lucas, who was white and Hispanic, would have an easier time finding a stem cell match if more Latinos were signed up for the Bone Marrow Registry.
Aldermen even read a message from the Cervones when calling upon the city’s Latino population to donate blood more frequently.
The Cervones haven’t stopped advocating for Lucas and kids like him. They’ve spoken at dinners and events. They encouraged people to donate to charities that helped them during Lucas’ battles with cancer. They’re still hosting blood drives in Lucas’ name.
Lucas Cervone's family and friends honored his memory at a 5K for Lurie Children's Hospital, [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
On May 15, two weeks after Lucas’ death, the Cervones went to Move for the Kids 5K, a fundraiser walk for Lurie Children’s Hospital, where Lucas had been treated. Rina and Franco, Lucas’ older brother, walked in the 5K while Anthony spoke to supporters. Attendees had Lucas “Bear” shirts and wore temporary tattoos of his name.
Lucas was supposed to have been there, Anthony said. His son was going to be a “patient champion.” He was going to help them raise awareness of childhood cancer. Instead, Anthony and Rina addressed the crowd after the walk.
“We’ve been asked all day long why we’re here today, and I guess my only answer is: We don’t want any more parents to ever feel what we’re feeling right now,” Anthony said. “The emptiness that we have, the pain that we have, I guess all I can hope is that it drives you to bring more awareness to childhood cancer, to support the hospital, to support organizations, to raise money for research, to find a cure.”
More than 4,000 participated and Lurie Children’s raised $425,000. It was a record for the event.
‘There Can Be Hope For Other Kids’
The Cervones don’t have a definite plan for the future. They have trouble looking at children who are Lucas' age or going to his school. They struggled to go to his kindergarten class's graduation ceremony.
Their loss hits them at night, they said, when they don't have anything to distract them.
“For the last six weeks, I’ve been saying goodnight to a wooden bowl that has Lucas’ ashes in it and a picture,” Anthony said, weeping. He and Rina keep a memorial to Lucas in their bedroom.
Some of the thousands of cards that were sent to Lucas Cervone. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
They do know they’ll continue to help people in Lucas’ memory. The toys and art supplies the Cervones have been sent will be donated. They’re planning to write back to some of the people who sent them cards.
They’ll use the money to take a trip to the Pacific Ocean. Lucas had wanted to see the ocean again during his final days. Now they’ll spread his ashes there.
They'll also share his story. Advocacy will always play a role in their lives, Anthony said. They'll keep pushing for cures for childhood cancer.
Lucas had talked about being a policeman, a firefighter or someone who worked in an ambulance — always something who would help him be a hero.
“It’s hard. I know ... some people don't understand how can a 6-year-old be stronger than me?” Rina said. “He was strong the whole entire time he was here on Earth. He never cried for anything in the hospital. He never cried for anything.
“He was definitely stronger than any of us,” Rina said. "I think I want kids like Lucas to see Lucas' story and [know] just that there can be hope for other kids."
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