Anthony Bechelli’s heroes are musicians like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He’s a musician who appreciates the classics.
The twenty-year-old college student from West Frankfort, Illinois, gets a kick out of giving lessons on his custom-made guitar – a guitar designed especially for him through the Make a Wish Foundation.
“Now, I’m a Make a Wish volunteer myself,” explains Anthony. “I use my instrument to teach others to play so I can give back to my community.”
He feels this is the least he can do for the close-knit town that banded together for him when he was at his lowest.
When Anthony was 17, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor called a medulloblastoma, the most common form of brain tumor in children.
“I remember putting up with headaches for months,” says Anthony. His local doctors thought it was an inner ear infection. But when he began experiencing dizzy spells and weakness, they knew they were dealing with something more serious. Doctors sent him to St. Louis Children’s Hospital for additional tests.
That’s where pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Jeffrey Leonard discovered the mass. Anthony’s initial reaction was not fear, but relief.
“I was happy to finally know what was wrong with me and I knew if I got treated in St. Louis I’d be in good hands.”
He was. A multi-disciplinary team of specialists cared for Anthony over the next several months. Dr. Leonard successfully removed the tumor, after which Anthony received a month of radiation and nearly eight months of chemotherapy.
St. Louis Children’s Hospital is the only children’s hospital in the Midwest that offers this unique approach to treating brain tumors. On any given visit, a child in the neuro-oncology clinic will see a neurosurgeon, oncologist, radiation oncologist, endocrinologist, social worker, physical therapist and neuropsychologist - members of a specialized team designed to meet each child's individual needs.
“We know what to watch for,” explains Dr. Leonard. “From the unique issues that can develop after surgery, after therapy, or after radiation - We take care of it all here with a centralized place where cancer is looked at and reviewed.”
Currently, Anthony’s follow up care includes seeing an endocrinologist. Because the mass removed was near his pituitary gland, the surgery impacted the function of his thyroid. Now, he takes regular medication to regulate his thyroid’s production.
“Anthony had a very good overall outcome,” says Dr. Leonard. “And I have every confidence he’ll continue to do very well.”
The only thing as impressive as his medical team in St. Louis was the team of supporters awaiting him at home in West Frankfort.
“I remember I had a bunch of people come to me and talk to me and throw parties for me,” says Anthony. “It was a good feeling to know the people in my community all took it well and were able to communicate about it.”
Folks around town held auctions and fundraisers to help Anthony’s family pay their medical bills. They offered words of support and encouragement. Anthony was never alone.
But sometimes, he still felt lonely.
“It’s a tough time coping with something like that when you’re a teenager. You’re still trying to make yourself. It’s like you can show up as your normal self, but feel so different because other people have changed their outlook toward you. Sometimes I felt like a totally different person.”
But with great strength – and humor – Anthony overcame.
“My friends appreciate it when I can joke about my situation. It gives them space to walk in and makes them comfortable. And putting them at ease helps put me at ease.”
Helping other people cope seems to be a gift for Anthony. He plans to study psychology in college and ultimately use his first-hand experience to counsel others.
Dr. Leonard thinks that’s a great idea.
“There’s nothing better than motivated individuals. I cannot think of any better motivation than surviving this type of event. The positive outlook that children have regardless of what’s happening to them continues to amaze me.”
Anthony isn’t waiting for his diploma to begin helping others heal. He’s already begun spreading his message to anybody who will listen – from current patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital to neighbors in his community. He even spoke on a survivor panel at a recent conference of pediatric cancer patients.
“The most important thing I tell them is to never give up, even when you feel like you’re at the bottom and feel like you can’t do anything. You’ve got to pick yourself up.”
Inspiring words like these could make some impressive future lyrics for this musician.
And there is no doubt Anthony’s melody will spread to everyone he touches, if not by learning the guitar, then certainly by people singing his praises.