Louisville boy beats spine tumor and the BMX competition

Liam Atherton won the Bluegrass BMX championship last fall hours after finishing chemotherapy to conquer a spine tumor that threatened his mobility.

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As Liam Atherton crossed the finish line at the Bluegrass BMX championship last fall, the 11-year-old couldn’t help but smile. Not only had Liam won the race in the sport he loves, but just hours earlier, he finished chemotherapy to conquer a spine tumor that threatened his mobility.

Liam has participated in BMX since he was 3 years old. His family lives down the street from a bike track at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Kentucky. From the first time he got on the track, Liam was hooked.

“I love riding bikes and being with my friends,” Liam said.

By age 5, he was riding with a team, spending hours a day on his bike. He and his younger brother, Madden, began racing in local events. Their success took them to national competitions across the country.

“We love our BMX family,” said Amanda Atherton, Liam’s mom. “It’s a very tight-knit community.”

Diagnosis puts biking in jeopardy

In summer 2021, Liam came home from a basketball camp complaining of shoulder pain. Over the next couple weeks, the pain worsened to the point that Liam couldn’t sleep. They tried physical therapy, but it didn’t work.

“We were terrified,” Amanda said. “I just remember us being a crumpled up mess that weekend.”

The following week, William C. Gump, M.D., neurosurgeon with Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, operated on Liam. During the four-hour surgery, Dr. Gump removed as much of the tumor as he could, which also required fusing together several of Liam’s vertebrae. Shortly after came a diagnosis. Liam had Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH).

LCH is a rare disorder that can damage tissue or cause cancer-like lesions to form in one or more places in the body. The disease is rarely life-threatening, but some patients experience long-term effects, such as orthopedic disabilities, hearing impairment and skin scarring.

For the next six weeks, Liam wore a neck brace and had trouble moving.

“Even getting out of bed was a challenge,” Amanda said. “That’s hard for anyone, much less a child who is always active and playing sports.”

After giving Liam’s body a few weeks to recover, Mustafa Barbour, M.D., pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School Medicine, and a team worked with the family to develop a treatment plan. The plan included medications and 25 rounds of chemotherapy over the following year.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Liam began to regain mobility. He was cleared to play sports and started getting back on his bike.

“Liam was definitely cautious at first,” Amanda said. “But he has no mobility issues at all.”

One day, two big wins

On Sept, 2, 2022, Liam rang a bell at the Novak Center for Children’s Health, symbolizing his final chemo treatment. Turns out, that was only his first big victory of the day.

That afternoon, Liam hopped on his bike at a national competition and shot out of the gate. He blasted past the competition and took first place.

“The team moms had confetti cannons waiting for him,” said Will Atherton, Liam’s dad. “It was like a weight was lifted off us. I was just crying.”

Liam continues to see Dr. Barbour a few times a year, but his scans are clean and he’s off all medication.

Looking back, Amanda reflects on their journey. “It’s a happy ending,” she said. “And I’m grateful to the team at Norton Children’s for helping give us that ending.”