Brayden Harren strung together Beads of Courage beads Oct. 14. When asked his favorite color, smiling, he said “blue.”

That familiar smile is ever-present, an inspiration and a gift to his parents, Andy and Brittany, and older siblings Emmalyn and Carter. On Feb. 12, 2021, Brayden, 7, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, after a cancerous tumor was found on his skull.

Bags filled with colored beads lay on their rural St. Francis kitchen table. Brittany said every time anything medical is done to or for Brayden, he receives a colored bead. 

“It might be when he gets poked, has labs or overnight hospital stays,” she said.

Last October, Brayden started experiencing vomiting episodes, and they thought it was the flu. By February, he was vomiting multiple times a week. Tests ruled out medical conditions. After his parents noticed he had balancing issues and was confused, a CT scan showed Brayden had a golf ball-size tumor on the lower back of his skull.

“The reason he was off balance and confused was the tumor was blocking his spinal fluid from circulating through his brain and was pooling in the ventricles,” Brittany said, Andy adding, “It was putting pressure on his brain.”

Brayden was taken by ambulance to Children’s Minnesota Hospital in St. Paul where an MRI was done to get a clearer picture of what they were dealing with, and a lumbar puncture was performed to test spinal fluid to make sure it had not spread elsewhere in his body.

On Feb. 22, Brayden had surgery to remove the tumor. He was placed on medication to reduce inflammation. Brittany, who became Brayden’s walking medical record, stayed with him during his whole two-week hospital stay and Andy for one week.  

“You hear about families that have cancer and you don’t realize the magnitude of how it changes your life until it happens to you,” Andy said.  

Emmalyn and Carter stayed with Andy’s parents Barry and Colleen Harren, who farm close by. Brittany’s dad, Neil Nathe, of Albany, and mom Stacey Kloek, of St. Cloud, also lent support. It was important to Andy and Brittany that their older children had some sort of normalcy, continued attending school in Upsala and understood what was happening to Brayden, since they were missing one-third of their crew.

“We told them he had something on his brain that shouldn’t be there, and we have to take it out,” Brittany said. 

Thanks to technology, they could Facetime their brother. Medical staff saw how important family was to Brayden, and they were allowed to have a family day in the Child Life family center, which had been closed due to COVID-19.

“It was fun to see the kids playing,” Andy said. “Family means everything to us.”

Their surgeon removed the tumor and it was determined the cancer had not spread.

“We were told it was a slow growing tumor, and he could have had it for years,” Brittany said. 

The neurosurgeon reassured them there was nothing they could have done differently to find the tumor sooner, which was comforting. It was the way Brayden’s cells grew in his brain, Andy said.

During a second surgery March 2, a shunt was placed in the back of his skull to drain his spinal fluid into his abdomen where it was dissolved by the body. 

“He got to the point that they shut the drain off, and he did good for half a day and his incision started leaking and he got headaches and threw up again,” Brittany said. “It was not working, and the fluid was starting to pool again, and they put in his permanent shunt which he will have for the rest of his life.” 

As he grows, the shunt will be replaced. 

His treatment plan included radiation and chemotherapy, so a port was inserted into his chest cavity for administering treatments. 

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, he received 17 rounds of radiation to his brain and spine, and 13 rounds just to his brain where the tumor was. It started March 22 and finished up May 2. 

“He received radiation five days a week for six weeks,” she said.

It affected his appetite and by week four, he started losing his hair.

“And now he won’t let it grow back. He wants to stay bald like daddy,” Andy said. 

Chemotherapy started June 14 at Children’s Minnesota Hospital  and will end in mid-January. He will start his fifth and final cycle of aggressive chemotherapy Oct. 27, followed by two less aggressive cycles.

“He’s been doing fantastic, hasn’t been sick and weans himself off of all his anti-nausea meds,” Brittany said.

They monitor his temperature to ensure he does not have an infection.

He is a trooper each time he needs a transfusion and during his frequent hospital stays, his parents said.

Through this all, the Harrens have not changed their lifestyle.

“We still do things together, like going to church,” Andy said.

“Germs are good and his body needs to learn how to fight them,” Brittany said. “We haven’t put him in a bubble.”

They celebrate little wins, like when they were told by medical staff that Brayden is like a poster child for dealing with cancer because of how well he tolerates everything.

Brayden has a long journey ahead of him, but he has come a long way from last February, learning how to walk and talk again, utilizing physical, occupational and speech therapy. Stringing beads together strengthens his motor skills.

Brittany said it is called posterior fossa syndrome because of the location in the back of the brain where the tumor was located. 

“It affected his speech, balance, emotions, and they told us that it could last weeks, months. They really don’t know, but the good news is, it will come back. They just don’t know when,” she said. 

Custom made braces will strengthen his leg muscles. 

The Harrens do not know what the future and long-term effects will be for Brayden, but they remain optimistic, their faith telling them it is in God’s hands.

“We’ve learned you just don’t give up,” Andy said. “God has a plan for everybody, and he doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

They never felt angry that this happened to their son, but there were frustrations and tears.

To help others, the Harrens chose to enter Brayden in research studies.

“By studying his tumor they can better learn the characteristics of it and individualize treatments,” Brittany said. “If it can prevent another family from going through this, I’m all for it.”

Brayden will need to have audiology exams every month because hearing loss is a possibility. Once chemotherapy is completed, he will have scans every three months for three years and then every six months for two years. 

“If we can get past year five without reoccurrence, the likelihood [that the tumor will grow back] goes way down,” Andy said.

This couple said their support system has been huge from family, friends, employers, community and church family.

A breakfast benefit will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 31, at St. Francis of Assisi Church, their home parish. The day before, Brayden is scheduled to return home following his fifth round of chemotherapy. They plan to attend the benefit. 

“Hulk,” is Brayden’s answer when asked what he will dress as for Halloween.

It is fitting for their little fighter.

“This hasn’t broken his spirit,” Brittany said. “There are days when he feels down and we and his siblings keep him going.”

Brayden cannot wait to go to his grandparents’ farm again and ride his bike.

Until then, he is content to string his Beads of Courage, an indication of what he went through in his young life. Forty-one white beads alone are for his hospital stays. There are even beads for different types of therapy he received.

“I like the pet therapy,” Brayden said, smiling as he placed another bead on a string.

That smile continues to be an inspiration to others.

“He finds the joy in life,” Brittany said.

“He keeps smiling,” Andy said, “And we do too.”