8-year-old La Crescent boy battling cancer finalist in national art contest

Source: Star Tribune | January 20, 2014

LA CRESCENT, Minn. — Obi Christenson can't play kickball any more, but he can draw. He draws pictures of food, superheroes and his cat, Willow.

The shy La Crescent 8-year-old couldn't quite describe what came over him when he drew for about two hours in a playroom at Gundersen Health System, so intent on his artwork he ran a black marker dry.

"I wanted to draw pictures," Obi said.

Those pictures landed him on the short list of semifinalists for a national contest to design art for facial tissue boxes. Tissue-maker White Cloud sponsored the competition in association with Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

Obi learned about the contest in the hospital. In June, doctors found a hand-size tumor in Obi's abdomen, and the second-grader at First Evangelical Lutheran School has spent the intervening months in and out of Gundersen for treatment.

Obi's design divides four education-related themes across four panels, highlighting his favorite things about school.

One panel shows a teacher in the middle of a math lesson — multiplication is Obi's favorite.

"You get to do fun stuff," Obi told the La Crosse Tribune.

Panels on Obi's box design also depict lunch hour, a school bus and recess, with a looping slide and children playing.

"It's the only time in school when you get to play," Obi said.

People can vote hourly at White Cloud's Facebook page. Polls close Jan. 31.

Obi's drawing will be featured on tissue boxes if his artwork receives enough votes. His design needs to land in the top three to win. The Children's Miracle Network at Gundersen would receive $15,000.

It was about this time last year when Obi and his family went to doctors because of a pain near his left hip, father Chris Christenson said.

Doctors didn't find anything in the X-rays, and a later ultrasound was also fruitless. Obi's pain continued.

During a family vacation, he spent almost the entire time in a lawn chair.

"We said, this is just not right," Christenson said.

An orthopedic doctor at Gundersen found a lump after feeling around Obi's abdomen and rushed him to oncology. Scans revealed the large tumor, and Obi was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

Obi was in surgery just days after the diagnosis, but the seven-hour operation wasn't enough to remove the tumor. It sits behind Obi's heart, wraps around his spinal cord and runs down his left kidney.

"The tumor was so visceral, so gelatinous that they just couldn't have taken it out," Christenson said. "The next step was to shrink the tumor."

Five rounds of chemotherapy weren't enough. Obi had two additional rounds of chemo, and had been scheduled for a December operation in a New York hospital until the date was delayed. The surgery is tentatively scheduled for next month at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Christenson compared the experience to a roller coaster.

"So many ups and downs," he said. "It's been a struggle."

The family has depended on support from members of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in La Crescent, where Christenson works as the pastor, from Luther High School in Onalaska, Wis., and from other members of the community.

"There has been a lot of support — more than you can imagine," mother Liz Christenson said. "It's nice to know people are praying for you."

Obi can still smile, despite hospital visits and the physical toll of chemo. He can be sick one minute and playing video games the next, Chris Christenson said.

"He's still an 8-year-old boy who likes to have fun," Christenson said.