Any Bordentown resident would be hard-pressed to spot a part of town that hasn’t been touched by the Planas-Borgstrom family. The kids go to school in the district and are involved with athletics and theater. Mom Tara grew up in town and moved back after going to college in Connecticut, and she’s also taught in the district for about 20 years—“I’m really, really Bordentown,” she said. Dad Francisco was a teacher at the high school.
So when Francisco was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 14 years ago—while Tara was seven months pregnant with Gabriel, their middle child—the community was quick to come together and raise money for the family through a benefit concert.
And then it happened again.
At the beginning of September, Gabriel was also diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And once again, the community stepped in to support the family.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church will host an open mic fundrasier for Planas-Borgstrom Dec. 7 from 7 to 10 p.m.
The Bordentown Township Police Department also set aside its clean-shaven policy for No Shave November, growing beards to raise money for the family. For a donation, participating officers could grow a beard, mustache, or goatee, or paint their fingernails any color. They also sought donations from community members throughout the month. The fundraiser was set to culminate with a group shave-off Nov. 27 at Jimmy’s American Grill. The restaurant said 10 percent of the total profits from that night would be donated to the Planas-Borgstrom family.
The family has also benefited from lemonade stand fundraisers, Jean Days in the schools, “Go Bald for Gabe” shirts and a steady stream of visitors.
“This time has been a completely different experience, and I don’t know if it’s just because Gabe’s active in a lot of things in the community and sports and things,” Tara said. “It was just really overwhelming. We can’t figure out enough ways to say ‘thank you’ or show appreciation.”
Gabe came down with pneumonia at the end of August and went to a walk-in clinic for treatment. Technicians took an x-ray to make sure that everything was cleared out when he went for a follow-up visit, and that’s when they noticed the mass in his chest.
Initially, doctors thought there was something wrong with his heart because the x-ray was difficult to read, so they made an appointment with a cardiologist. Before that happened, though, Gabe’s doctor called and said they thought it could be an effusion—fluid in his chest. Then, Aug. 31, doctors recommended that Gabe be brought to the emergency room at Princeton Medical Center, where doctors thought the mass could be lymphoma. From there he was transported by ambulance to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After four or five days of testing, Gabe started chemotherapy on Sept. 4. He finally came home four days later.
Gabe’s next round of chemo will start at the beginning of December, followed by daily radiation treatments. The constant trips to Philadelphia, medical treatments with intense side-effects, losing hair—that would be a strain on anybody, let alone a freshman in high school. But Gabe has taken it in stride, helped in part by his dry, sardonic sense of humor
“I just thought, ‘Holy crap, there’s a mass in my chest. That’s new. Freeloader,’” he said.
Staying active has kept Gabe’s spirits high. He is still playing soccer (though he’s been instructed to avoid the ball), and he and his older brother train in parkour at The Movement Lab in Hainesport. He spends time with his friends and girlfriend, Naomi, when he can. They were shocked and upset when Gabe broke the news, but Tara said they handled it pretty well, especially for a group of teenagers.
“One of them said they were expecting me to say something worse, so I’m wondering how long he thought I had to live,” Gabe said. “What’s worse than this? Incurable cancer? There’s a list of, like, five things that could be worse than, ‘Hey, your best friend has cancer.’”
Almost immediately after, parents called and texted Tara and Francisco and were quick to visit at CHOP.
He also says his teachers have played a massive role in making everything easier. Gabe, who is enrolled in a number of honors classes, said anytime he gets behind on schoolwork, his teachers are flexible and allow him to turn in assignments when he can.
“That’s a really nice feeling, to see that and to know how understanding they are,” Tara said. “They do help him out a lot. He’s really amazing and he’s very tough and he gets through his day, but I feel better when he’s at school because I know if something does happen, he’s safe and he’s supported.”
Once his new, tougher round of chemo starts, Gabe will be homeschooled. He wanted some sort of routine to help him get up and out of bed during the days he’ll be homebound, he said. He’ll have to be admitted to the hospital while the treatment administered because the medicine will be tougher on his immune system, so recovery will take longer than he’s become used to.
“He might feel a little worse than he’s feeling now,” Tara said. “We say ‘a little’ because we’re very optimistic. He could feel a lot worse, but we’re choosing to say ‘a little.’”
“Don’t worry, if it’s not the medicine, it’ll be the existential dread,” Gabe said. “It could’ve been a lot worse. They could’ve told me, ‘No, this isn’t treatable, you’ve got six months to live.”
Tara laughed, and then agreed with the sentiment.
“We’ve been down this road before, so I kind of know what to expect,” she said. “My husband’s been 14 years cured, so it gives you the perspective.”
Francisco, Sr. said his recovery was “as quick as can be.” He was cancer-free within six months of his first chemotherapy treatment.
“The grace that he has handled this whole thing with, I have no words,” said Francisco, Sr. “It makes you proud as a father, but I had nothing to do with that. That kid was sent down from us from God. Nobody wants to see their child go through anything like this, but he is a phenomenal kid.”
He had similar words for Tara.
“That woman is the strongest person I know,” Francisco said. “Our family has gone through a lot of things, and you can see where Gabe gets it from. That side of the gene pool definitely came from her. She is so inspiring. The strength that she has far outweighs what you see when you see this woman of 110 pounds. That’s why I fell in love with her. To see her emotional strength and the grace that she shows handling not just this but every single thing, it’s phenomenal. She has been the glue that has held this family together.”
The father-son duo is close. Francisco doesn’t have to pull any punches with Gabe. His son is “wise beyond his years,” Francisco said, so the two share a lot with each other. But Gabe doesn’t want sympathy, even from his parents. He doesn’t want them to share his pain.
“We’re going through the same thing, and he’s really helped me on that front, but it’s obviously really different, too,” Gabe said of his father. “I’m a lot younger than he was when he got diagnosed. He had different struggles. He had to get out of bed to go to work in the morning. It was probably harder on his front because he couldn’t keep calling out of work.”
But Francisco, Tara, and Gabe’s siblings Francisco, 15, and Maya, 10, don’t hesitate to let him know that they will be there with him every step of the way, rubbing his back when he’s sick or bringing him a glass of lemonade when he’s thirsty.
“Now that it’s happening to my son, it’s a whole different ballgame,” he said. “Even though you know he’s going to be OK because the technology is so advanced—it was so great when I was diagnosed, but it’s advanced so many steps forward because of the money, hours and passion that people put behind it—it’s painful to watch because you know he’s going through the same types of things. At first, it was a lot of ‘How’s this going to go?’ and it was good to be able to have that first-hand knowledge. He and I have always had an extremely open relationship.”
The whole family has been a great support system, Gabe said, and they’re all looking forward to the open mic night. Francisco hopes Gabe—who played the title role in last year’s middle school production of Aladdin and had a lead role in Fame as a seventh grader—will feel well enough to sing. It’s up in the air since it will be right after his second round of chemo wraps up. The support of the community and the opportunity to thank teachers, students and friends, though, will be a highlight, too.
“It’s a bad thing,” Tara said. “It’s a lot. It stinks. But we’re really lucky to be where we are. If we have to go through it, at least we’re with people who are here to help us go through it.”
Those interested in performing at the open mic fundraiser should send an email to Katie Gens at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up. The evening will also feature a silent auction for themed baskets, as well as refreshments and “Go Bald for Gabe” gear available for purchase. Barbers from the Bordentown Barbershop will be on-hand to shave heads in support of Planas-Borgstrom. All proceeds and donations will go to the Planas-Borgstrom family.