By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
As children approached the front porch, Cooper Vocelka used his foot to press one of a couple of buttons on the floor. The buttons activated either a man getting electrocuted or a spider that jumped up suddenly. His friends hid in the bushes and scared trick-or-treaters as they approached.
The electronics and scares were part of a Halloween celebration assembled by a friend’s father -- one who really gets into Halloween, Vocelka said.
He had a good night that night, because it was one of his good days.
Cooper, 17, appreciates the good days when they happen. He has a brain tumor, and surgeons have done the maximum amount of treatment and surgery they can do, said his parents, Ron and Sherry Vocelka, of Carl Junction.
Despite the grim reality of a terminal diagnosis, he has plans. He will attend college at Crowder College through the A+ Schools Program and eventually enter into youth ministry.
Over the next few weeks, however, people will see him playing guitar.
Cooper will play around town, wherever he can find a seat, and leave his case open. Any tips he collects will be donated to a fundraising effort to buy Christmas gifts for patients in the oncology ward at Children’s Mercy Hospital, the same place where he received his treatments.
“I just want to buy some toys and take them up there for Christmas,” Cooper said. “I’d like to deliver them, and get some of the kids together. Maybe we can sing some Christmas songs.”
Cooper’s tumor is an anaplastic ependymoma. Though it is the third most common type of brain tumor, it is relatively rare, according to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation. About 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
This is Cooper’s second fight with a brain tumor. His first one was spotted when he was 13, and was successfully treated through a regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The treatment is difficult, according to the foundation: A neurosurgeon physically removes as much of the tumor as possible, while working to cause no damage to the rest of the brain. Damage can result in permanent neurological problems. Radiation therapy is used to target the remaining cells that couldn’t be removed.
Cooper’s second battle started in September 2011, after a new tumor was discovered. He underwent the same procedure of surgery, chemo and radiation that month.
And again in April of this year, when the tumor was found to be growing again. And again in July.
Last month, Cooper’s family learned that the tumor’s growth wasn’t stopping. Doctors felt that surgery could no longer be performed effectively, saying that the tumor could not be cured, only slowed.
That doesn’t bother Cooper, who keeps a strong faith and thinks things will be just fine. He’s beaten a brain tumor before, after all.
“Sometimes it can get kind of hard,” he said. “But sometimes lately, I’ve been having some positive vibes, that things are going to work out somehow.”
Having completed a round of chemo, he’s been feeling better more of the time, he said.
“Some days are better than others,” Cooper said. “Some days I don’t feel as good as others. Now that I’m off treatment, I’ve been feeling better.”
He is a senior at Joplin High School, a member of the National Honor Society and is set for early graduation. He is also a member of the youth group at First United Methodist Church in Carl Junction.
There’s also the guitar -- he has played ever since he was 11, he said.
“When I was first diagnosed, I quit playing,” he said. “When I got back into it, I didn’t enjoy it as much, but then I realized that it was because I was choosing too hard of songs to try and learn.”
Regretting quitting, he picked up the instrument again during a school break. Because surgery has neurological effects, he was surprised to learn he could still read guitar tablature.
“I started messing around, and remembered how to read the tabs,” he said. “I still remembered how to play, so I was able to get back into it pretty quickly. I’ve made lots of progress within the last year.”
Cooper has also discovered that he’s a pretty good artist, thanks to an art class he’s taking. He’s also into photography.
The family deals with the terminal diagnosis the only way they know how: By realizing they don’t have a choice. A strong faith and attitude has helped the family cope through a series of disasters, his mother said.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Sherry said. “That’s why after the tornado, we knew everything was still OK. We lost cars and a house, but we know what really matters.”
Cooper and his mom were at the Ronald McDonald House preparing meals on May 22, 2011. Because the house in Kansas City took Ron and Sherry in during their son’s treatments and surgeries, they pay the gift forward at the Joplin house, Ron said.
Ron was at home when the tornado struck the family’s Duquesne home, destroying it, a camping trailer, all three of the family’s vehicles and a skateboard ramp donated to Cooper by the Make-A-Wish Foundation after his first surgery. Theirs was one of the last properties to be hit before the tornado crossed I-44 and dissipated.
Ron and Sherry said they are still in disbelief about their son’s prognosis. But they deal with it the best they can, through talking with friends, learning more about the disease and practicing their faith.
Sherry said there’s really no choice involved.
“Why sure, if I had a choice, I’d rather be at the beach,” she said. “But this isn’t multiple choice. There’s no box to check for ‘go to the beach.’ And if I let this upset me, what’s that tell my child?”
Ron said seeing his son keep going without dwelling on his situation is inspiring. And the family’s sense of humor helps, too.
“He doesn’t dwell on it,” Ron said. “And he still has a good sense of humor. He has a T-shirt that says, ‘I have a brain tumor. What’s your excuse?’”
As for Cooper, he stays fueled, thanks to his strong faith and his gratitude for the good days. During dark times, he turns to music, poetry and writing to deal with the situation.
Despite his diagnosis, Cooper sees a bright side.
“As bad as what I’m going through is, I know of kids who have the same thing, and it’s much more serious,” Cooper said. “They are going through worse than what I’m going through.”
So the family celebrates, as the parents always have with their only child. Every milestone, every holiday, every good day.
Cooper keeps going to school when he can. He goes to youth group and gives testimonies. And he keeps playing.
Sherry said that the cancer doesn’t define Cooper at all.
“He has every right to be mad,” Sherry said. “But if we give the disease that, we’re giving it negative energy. So we put positive energy forward. If we don’t live life, then we’re letting it beat us.”