8-year-old making ‘incredible’ recovery from brain cancer

After three years of cancer treatment at Norton Children’s, Abel Durham is now able to tackle new challenges — including on the football field.

Through two brain surgeries, months of chemotherapy and a lot of hospital visits over the last three years, “Incredible Abel” had one goal — to be well enough to try football.

“I don’t think he’s ever had the opportunity to be a typical kid, but now he has the chance,” said Ashely Durham, Abel Durham’s mom.

Abel recently was cleared to play tackle football in LaGrange, Kentucky, just a few months after his second brain surgery at Norton Children’s Hospital — the final procedure in his long battle against brain cancer.

Ashley and Ryan Durham, who have an older son, Cameron, adopted Abel and his two brothers shortly before his diagnosis, in December 2020.

Discovering the tumor

“Everything we knew about them was a clean bill of health, superb kids, just needed a home, were looking for their forever home, and that’s what we were,” Ryan said.

But they quickly noticed Abel’s health was taking a turn, observing a noticeable change in his right eye. Ryan’s father, an optometrist, insisted Abel get an MRI. That test revealed Abel’s brain tumor, a glioma. He was 5 at the time.

Glioma is the most common type of brain tumor in children.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that God works in such amazing ways,” Ryan said. “We could have been months to years down the road without catching this had my dad not pushed for an MRI.”

Throughout Abel’s surgeries in the hospital and chemotherapy treatment at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, he earned the nickname “Incredible Abel” for his positive attitude and strength. One of the biggest motivators keeping him going was his desire to play football.

Hitting the field

Now, weeks after his latest brain surgery and officially achieving remission, he’s hitting the field with the Jaguars, fulfilling his dream.

“I’m just thrilled for him, that he gets to be part of a team, and truly be part and not just be on the sideline watching,” Ryan said.

Michael Angelo Huang, M.D., pediatric neuro-oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute treated Abel. According to Dr. Huang, an early diagnosis was key in Abel’s successful recovery.

“I think it’s important for every parent to know what signs to look out for, for brain tumors,” Dr. Huang said. “Headaches or throwing up, especially if it’s first thing in the morning, and especially when throwing up without having diarrhea — that’s always a big red flag.”

Dr. Huang and the team at Norton Children’s will continue to keep an eye on Abel, who will be getting a checkup every few months over the next year.

“We hope the glioma won’t return,” Dr. Huang said. “But if it does, there is a promising, newly approved combination therapy to fight his type of tumor.”

Whatever the future holds, the Durhams will be encouraging and cheering Abel on every step of the way.

“You’re your child’s biggest advocate, so if you think something’s not right, you’re their first-line defense,” Ashley said. “You’re the one who goes for it.”

According to Dr. Huang, Kentucky has the third-highest rate of childhood brain tumors in the country. For a full list of common symptoms of a brain tumor in children, visit this link.