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How an unconventional superhero helped this teen get through cancer treatment

Posted at 4:30 AM, May 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-25 08:53:50-04

CINCINNATI -- Thirteen-year-old Kelly Murphy isn't sure if he has the world's worst good luck or its best bad luck, he said Thursday. He was hit by a truck weeks after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; while undergoing treatment, he needed surgery for a burst appendix and a broken knee. 

Either way, the eighth-grader has faced a two-year "walking, talking soap opera" of terrifying incidents with good humor, optimism and the support of his mother.

"He took this whole journey in these past two years better than I could've expected most adults to do," she said.

Lori Mathews describes her son simply as brave. He always has been, she said, which is how she knew it was serious when he began complaining of severe, recurring headaches and nausea in 2016. Within 30 minutes of the family arriving at Children's Hospital April 1, doctors had made a diagnosis: He had a nongerminomatous germ cell tumor.

"It was a mouthful to process, but I knew it was pretty bad," Murphy said. "(I remember my) heart dropping and stomach aching for Mom."

According to the National Cancer Institute, germ cell tumors are a type of brain tumor that typically form near the pineal gland, which is located close to the brain stem. Murphy's headaches were a consequence of the growing tumor blocking the flow of his cerebrospinal fluid.

That tumor and others, Mathews learned, had likely been growing in her son since he was born. Although doctors could relieve the headache by draining the built-up fluid, he would need chemotherapy and radiation treatment to fully recover.

"Worst April Fools joke ever," she said Thursday. 

It wasn't a joke, but the family is able to laugh about it and the subsequent series of health mishaps that befell Murphy and made his mother wish she could swaddle him in bubble wrap: The car crash, the broken knee, the appendicitis.

An unlikely superhero movie helped.

While Murphy was undergoing treatment for his various ailments, he and his mother watched Marvel's "Deadpool" over and over again, even modeling his proton therapy mask after the title character's costume. Deadpool is a cancer patient who discovers that a back-alley experimental treatment has imbued him with the ability to recover from any injury, including broken legs, gunshot wounds, and (at one point) a DIY amputation.

"Deadpool" is an atypical superhero movie in that it's R-rated and violent enough to make Captain America faint but also in that it's primarily a comedy. Despite his troubled past and even more troubled present, Deadpool faces obstacles with a joyful attitude and irreverent sense of humor -- just like Murphy and Mathews.

"I feel like me and Deadpool have a lot in common," Murphy said. "Both of us had cancer. His was rare; mine was rare."

And they're both thrilled to be alive, despite everything. Murphy doesn't have a superhuman healing factor, but he has been cancer-free since his last round of radiation treatment. 

His mother plans to take him to "Deadpool 2" soon.