'Can't keep a good kid down': Alberta community rallies behind girl battling brain cancer

An Alberta girl undergoing treatment in the United States for a highly aggressive form of brain cancer is finding strength hundreds of kilometres away in her home community of Onoway.

'Little things like that are not so little to us'

Aven Martin, 6, was diagnosed with cancer after falling ill at a school skating party. (Aaron Martin)

An Alberta girl undergoing treatment in the United States for a highly aggressive form of brain cancer is finding strength hundreds of kilometres away in her home community of Onoway.

Six-year-old Aven Martin is battling stage 4 medulloblastoma.

Since her diagnosis, her family has received support from family, friends, and neighbours.

From fundraisers to offers of home-cooked food and free baby-sitting, the outpouring of support from their tight-knit community northwest of Edmonton has been humbling, said Aven's father Aaron Martin.

"It's heartwarming to see the community come together and rally around our family. We've had help from complete strangers," Martin said, surrounded by dozens of his neighbours who gathered Saturday at the Onoway Community Centre for a fundraising event organized for Aven.

"The bills don't stop coming and so little things like that are not so little to us."

'A real shock' 

Aven's ordeal started in November 2018. She had gone ice skating with her Grade 1 class at Onoway Elementary when she fell ill.  

Assuming it was the flu, her family brought her home to rest but the weekend came and went and her symptoms of nausea and fatigue only continued to get worse.

After a whirlwind of doctor's appointments and three separate trips to the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton, Aven underwent a CT scan.

Doctors found a golf-ball sized mass sitting on top of her cerebellum: a tumour.

The news was gutting for Aven's family. She and her twin sister were conceived after years marked by fertility issues, in-vitro therapy and multiple miscarriages.  

"We call them rainbow babies and those are children that are born after a miscarriage," Martin said, his voice breaking.

"We lost twins and triplets and then we had Aven and Lily. And so having them and being able to keep them was a real struggle in the first place.

"And then to find out, we've had her for six years, and she's been hit with this was a real shock."

Aven Martin spends some quality time with her father Aaron Martin. Aven, 6, is undergoing proton radiotherapy treatments in Florida. (Aaron Martin)

Aven had a drain inserted into her brain in an emergency surgery to relieve the dangerous pressure building up.

Two days later, on January 14, Aven had a craniotomy, during which surgeons were able to successfully remove 100 per cent of the golf-ball sized tumour.

"Typically after that kind of surgery, kids are expected to stay in hospital for a month, a month and half or more but Aven's recovery was so fast, she was able to get up and walk out of the hospital on her own after 13 days

"Doctors were very impressed. They said she was kind of a medical miracle."

Despite Aven's speedy recovery from surgery, the risk of the cancer spreading elsewhere through her body remained.

She would have to undergo rounds of chemotherapy for more than a year.

But instead of radiation therapy, doctors recommended Aven undergo proton radiotherapy — a type of highly-targeted particle therapy that uses a beam of protons to irradiate diseased tissue. The therapy is not available in Canada.

On Feb. 19, with medical coverage from the provincial government finally secured, Aven travelled to the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville, Florida to begin her daily treatments.

It changes your perspective of humanity.- Aaron Martin

Martin said his daughter has been incredibly brave throughout her treatments. Her surgery scars have become her battle scars. When Aven had to have her head shaved for the treatment, her twin sister back home cut her hair to match in solidarity.  

Aven should be finished her treatments and ready to come home on April 5.

"She's doing really well. She's strong. She's still smiling. You can't keep a good kid down."

Aven's four siblings, including her twin sister, were on hand for Saturday's fundraiser, the latest show of support from her home community.

Knowing that people back home wish her well has given Aven her parents and four siblings strength to keep fighting.  

"It really has a been a community effort and I have felt a lot of unity within Onoway and the communities surrounding it," Martin said.

"It changes your perspective of humanity."


Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca


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