Petersburg sets aside differences for 13-year-old battling cancer

A boy with dark glasses and a white hospital gown with wires on his chest
13-year-old Joseph Tagaban of Petersburg is receiving cancer treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Photo courtesy of the Tagaban family)

The town of Petersburg is like many in Alaska these days, finding its residents split on different issues — whether it’s the coronavirus or politics.

But the Southeast community has come together this year for a single cause: raising tens of thousands of dollars for a 13-year-old boy fighting cancer a thousand miles away, in a cancer ward in Seattle.

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Joseph Tagaban was always a healthy, active kid. He plays basketball and gets good grades in school. So when he noticed his gums swelling up right before Christmas, his family wasn’t too worried. 

“He’s really a good boy, he’s very respectful, very well-mannered, and such a strong kid,” said Je Tagaban, his mother.

“A hardworking kid,” said his father Eddie Tagaban. “Normally he goes fishing, gillnetting with me in the summers.”

But X-rays at his local dentist office showed something wrong.

The family flew to Juneau to see an oral surgeon who found an infection. It took 18 days for pathology results — because of the holidays. The results showed Ewing sarcoma, a rare, but often curable, cancer. That meant a trip to Seattle Children’s Hospital for more tests. They learned it was really a rare form of leukemia, a cancer of the blood.

“It is a kind that is very aggressive,” Je said from Seattle, speaking inside her son’s hospital room. “So they wouldn’t let us leave the hospital.”

Je and her husband sleep in a nearby hotel, but spend most of their time with their son. He’s since been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, also known as AML

Joseph says it’s been an ordeal.

“It’s much harder than it looks,” he said.

Joseph is like other Alaskan kids. He grew up occasionally seeing commercials on TV of children with cancer who lost their hair. He knew cancer was awful but he didn’t know how much until now. 

“Taking the amount of medication… It really drains your energy and spirit,” he said. “I mean, it’s really hard compared to what you would think it would be.”

Get well soon cards and banners cover his walls and gifts, like Lego kits from friends, are displayed nearby. It helps get him through the rough times like the rashes, fevers, nausea, lumbar punctures and bone marrow tests. 

“Especially the pain,” Joseph said. “Like extreme pain. It skyrockets sometimes and I just feel that it gets unbearable sometimes.”

His parents put him in a clinical study for children, which is trying to prevent the reoccurrence of the cancer. The study allows him to receive a new drug that pinpoints a specific gene mutation. 

Je says the side-effects from the treatments have been hard to bear. 

“It’s too hard to watch your child, with his age, he’s just too young to go through this,” she said.

“You know, the last bout of pain he had in the middle of the night was terrible,” Eddie said. “Just seeing the pain in his face and you’re helpless… and trying to hold him.”

The parents are doing what they can.

When their son’s hair started falling out, Eddie shaved his own head in solidarity. About a half dozen of Joseph’s friends followed suit.

A boy with his father in a hospital bed
13-year-old Joseph Tagaban of Petersburg is receiving cancer treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Here he is with his father, Eddie Tagaban who shaved his head in solidarity. (Photo courtesy of the Tagaban family)

“They FaceTimed on the phone and watched each other shave their heads, which was really cool,” said Eddie. “Those are some special buddies he has.”

Overall, Joseph’s attitude has been positive and strong. Strong enough to earn him the title back home, “Joseph Strong.” It’s a logo you see on posters in shop windows and on t-shirts.

“My mom even calls me a celebrity,” Joseph said with a laugh. “So… it’s a little overwhelming.”

The family finds strength through prayer, their tight-knit Filipino family and support from their hometown in Alaska. Petersburg residents have helped raise close to $100,000 through events and soliciting donations. The elementary kids even had a bubblegum day where sales went to the family. Je says Joseph’s medical journey has brought people together who would ordinarily be divided by politics or isolated by the pandemic.  

“It’s not about just us, we’re fighting together for this, everybody’s helping,” Je said. “We’re taking this in a positive way. It brings community together.”

It’s uncertain whether the cancer will go away forever, but the family is hoping for the best.

There are several more rounds of chemo left, which will last more than a month. Joseph is able to walk the hallways when he’s feeling good. He says what he wants to do the most when he gets out is to hug his friends back home.

Local banks in Petersburg have set up accounts for donations to the family. There is also a GoFundMe fundraiser online as well.

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