EAST GREENWICH — One day last spring Clarksboro resident and Kingsway High School sophomore, Chase Atkinson, had a surprise announcement for his mother.
“He comes home and goes, ‘Mom, I’m signing up for Luck of the Draw Bull Riding!” according to Robin Atkinson. “I’m like, ‘oh ok,’” she said with a laugh.
She said Chase had gone to watch a friend at Luck of the Draw, a local bull riding school, and she thought that would be the end of it. Instead, as she’d soon learn, her son had found something he’d become passionate about – participating in rodeo events.
“It was freezing,” the dutiful mother said about her first time going to watch her 15-year-old son ride. “I stood out there for almost six hours. I was frozen.”
In short order Atkinson took part in three or four riding sessions, but unfortunately his new endeavor would come to a quick end.
Chase had started missing school with increasingly intense headaches, his mother said.
At first the worried mom chalked it up to the fact that Chase had recently had Covid. Maybe he was suffering the effects of some form of “long Covid,” she thought.
Confusing the initial diagnosis further, Atkinson said, was the fact that she herself had had a brain and spinal condition called a Chiari Malformation, for which she needed surgery in 2011. Perhaps this was hereditary, she thought, and her son was suffering from the same affliction.
But things weren’t adding up, and it was becoming clear they needed to look further into what was going on with him. “Something’s not right,” the concerned mother said.
They tried to get him into Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to be examined, but at first, they couldn’t get in. Next, they turned to DuPont in Deptford, where they were successful after a month-long wait.
They finally got him in for an MRI. They thought they were going in for a typical exam, but it turned out to be anything but routine.
The MRI tech was notably concerned after an initial scan, Atkinson said, and she suggested doing a more detailed MRI with a dye contrast. The only problem was that the doctor needed to perform that procedure had already left for the night.
“’This can’t wait,’” Atkinson said the tech told her, and suggested they go to the hospital in the morning.
“Why can’t I go now?” Atkinson said she asked, sensing that something could be very wrong.
And that’s what they did.
They took a late-night trip to DuPont’s Nemours Children’s Hospital in Delaware.
Another MRI was done that night, and after waiting up all night for results, the next morning she got the call no parent wants to get. Her child was very sick. He had a tumor in his head and was going to need surgery.
She said they next decided to switch to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to seek out treatment options.
The news was still not promising, but they felt Chase was in the best possible hands.
The team at CHOP told the family that the type of tumor Chase had could not be completely removed by surgery due to its location, but surgery was still to be the first course of action. They hoped to get 40 percent of it out. They got 30.
After the surgery, it was confirmed that the tumor was cancerous.
It goes without saying but this was all devastating to Chase’s mom and the rest of the Atkinson family.
“Why didn’t God give this to me?” Chase’s mother said through tears. “I lived my life. Why are you torturing him?”
For now, Chase is on to an oral form of chemotherapy to continue his treatment, taking a total of 10 pills a day.
Unfortunately, Atkinson said her son has suffered from every possible side effect of the drugs, and worse, the treatment doesn’t appear to be working.
“We should have seen some shrinkage by now,” she said. “We have to go more aggressive.”
Right now, they’re waiting on FDA approval of a new once-a-week pill called DAY101, and doing whatever they can to keep him comfortable and functioning the best that he can.
“We have him homeschooled from Kingsway,” she said. “We have him on his own schedule, which is helping him.”
Despite all this, Chase has still been able to stay active, somewhat to the shock of his doctors, Atkinson said.
And through it all, rodeo has been something of a constant in their lives. “He started riding bulls right before we found out (about the cancer diagnosis), and he loved it,” she said.
Due to the cancer diagnosis and brain surgery, bull riding was out, but Chase wasn’t going to let that stop him. He made a switch to calf roping, done from horseback, and perhaps surprisingly, his doctors are all for it.
“They’re thinking that him riding the horse is the best therapy we can give him,” Chase’s mother said.
She said the doctors think the physical and mental activity involved with riding and roping may be serving to strengthen his brain, and they want to see him continue with the rodeo activities.
He’s taken to participating in events through the New Jersey High School Rodeo Association. “It’s exciting to see him doing something that he shouldn’t be able to do,” Atkinson said.
But keeping up and paying for this unconventional type of therapy hasn’t been easy for the Atkinson family. “This is the best thing I can do for my kid, so now I’m not paying my mortgage because I’m renting a horse,” she said. “It’s very expensive.”
“I didn’t realize the cost. We were kind of thinking maybe this is something we have to stop, and the oncologist says ‘no, you need to keep doing what you’re doing.’”
She said she’s new to all this. She’s never been an animal person or a farmer. Her kids all had participated in more conventional sports like baseball and wrestling. She didn’t know how the world of rodeo operated.
“Through other parents they were like, ‘why are you not asking for sponsorships?’” she said. “I was like, ‘what are you talking about? I don’t know anything about this.’”
She quickly learned how expensive a sport rodeo can be, and that it’s common practice for riders to solicit sponsorships from local individuals and businesses in exchange for advertising on everything from social media posts to the trailers used to transport horses to the very shirts on the riders’ backs.
So now that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. They’ve launched a campaign seeking sponsors for the upcoming rodeo season, with various levels of giving from bronze, any amount, to platinum, over $1,000, all with increasing levels of recognition.
Atkinson said her son’s sponsorship efforts are starting to take off, as they’ve recently signed up three platinum-level donors, but there’s still a long way to go.
Atkinson said she hoped interested members of the community will see fit to sponsor her son’s dream, especially since this year, now as a high school senior, will be the last year he can participate in the organization.
“Please come together and help Chase make his dream come true,” Atkinson said. “Let’s fill his western attire with names and businesses. Any amount is truly appreciated and means more than the world!”
She said the community in general has already gotten behind Chase, from everyone at Kingsway and even East Greenwich Elementary Schools, where they held a pretzel sale to raise money for gift cards for Chase, and the students there made him get well cards.
“He was so excited,” Atkinson said. “The little kids made him cards and made him pictures and we still have every one of them. The community, honestly, has been wonderful.”
As far as his treatment goes, Atkinson says for now they have some time. Chase will continue with the oral chemotherapy while waiting for the approval of that new drug.
“He was asked if he wanted to start chemo through IV and he said no,” she said. “He said, ‘I want to walk, I want to be with my friends.’ He has a girlfriend.”
At some point though, if the new medication isn’t approved soon, they may have no choice but to go with an IV form of chemo or explore some other treatment options.
The family also just learned that Chase has been accepted by the Make a Wish Foundation, and they will travel to their castle in a couple months for him to make his wish.
His mom said the thing he wants most to wish for is his own horse, but she said the organization, understandably, can’t grant that wish, due to the cost and extensive commitment involved.
“He is looking into vacations since the rodeo horse can’t be granted,” she said. “I’m not really sure where he is going to pick. This vacation is all about him. It will be exciting to see where he picks!”
The horse Chase has his eye on would cost $9,000 to buy in addition to training and caring for the animal, lessons, a trailer and more, his mom said.
“It’s a very expensive hobby,” she said. “But to Chase this is keeping his brain alive. It’s the best therapy he can receive! So, to us this is his therapy. It’s more than a hobby and dream. It’s needed.”
The rodeo season starts back up in August, and soon after Chase will turn 17 and start his senior year at Kingsway from home.
He and the family are hopeful this season can be a special one with the help of some local sponsorships.
“He has his heart set on buying a rodeo horse,” she said. “He has one already picked out he has been working on at the Legacy Ranch. They are a perfect fit. The horse’s name is Pig!
“So hopefully we can get enough sponsors to make that wish come true from our amazing community. If he can fill those sleeves with sponsorships his dream will come true!”
If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor or donating to Chase’s cause, email the Atkinson family firstname.lastname@example.org or call them at (856) 803-8791.
By Joe D’Aquila