WAILUKU >> Nearly nine months ago, Trucker Dukes was flown off-island to undergo cancer treatment with a 30 percent chance of survival.
Walking beside his family through Kahului Airport last week, the 2-year-old was welcomed home by a crowd at baggage claim and, later, hundreds in Paia.
"It’s a little overwhelming but awesome at the same time," Trucker’s mother, Shauna Dukes, told The Maui News. "I feel really grateful because, at one point, I didn’t know if he was ever going to make it back home, so I’m just really stoked. I’m just going to enjoy every day we have with him because we don’t know how long we have."
Trucker’s journey began in November, when he was diagnosed with stage-four neuroblastoma — which means the cancer had spread to other parts of his body. The disease most commonly afflicts infants and young children and is prone to spreading and causing pain and paralysis.
The tumor inside Trucker’s stomach was about the size of a grapefruit and growing half a centimeter a day before he began chemotherapy treatment. He was sometimes forced to arch his neck backwards because he had difficulties breathing with the tumor pushing up on his lungs, hearts and rib cage.
"He looked nine months pregnant when he laid down," said grandmother Judy Stratford.
After about seven rounds of chemotherapy, doctors spent 10 hours removing the shrunken tumor and sweeping Trucker’s body for any other remnants of the disease. Doctors felt confident after the surgery, though 3 percent of the disease is still in his bone marrow — concentrated in the hips, shoulders and eye sockets, Stratford said.
A recent blood transfusion of Shauna Dukes’ "natural killer cells" was given to Trucker to eliminate the cancer, but was unsuccessful. Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York — the top cancer hospital in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report — gave the family a couple weeks to relax at home, while physicians formulate another treatment.
"We’re at the same place we were nine months ago," Shauna Dukes said. "He’s doing really well, but we had a hard conversation yesterday with the doctors. We’re just going to enjoy every day that we have, especially on Maui. I’m overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude."
The Haiku family has been separated over the course of Trucker’s treatments on Oahu and in New York. Trucker’s three siblings — Indiana, Mac and Jedidiah — have seen him a few times, as well as his firefighter father, Joshua Dukes.
Flying home from New York as a family, they plan to stay together as much as possible on Maui.
"I just want to sit on my couch with my family," Shauna Dukes said. "It’s like the simple things that you take for granted when you go through things like this."
Before they could go home, however, Trucker and his family were mobbed by about 40 people waiting for them with signs at the airport and hundreds more along Hana Highway in Paia. The family was driven home in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter limousine bus and greeted on the highway by supporters and Trucker’s favorite — firetrucks.
"We’re still kind of suffering from shock and awe," Joshua Dukes said Friday. "That was fantastic. From the moment Trucker saw all the people there and the firetruck, he was kicking his legs."
An outpouring of support from the Maui Fire Department and others across the country has raised money and other aid for the family. The little boy’s story has generated a social media following under the hashtag "Team Trucker" and supporters have filmed dance routines to hopefully be shown on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
Shauna Dukes’ father, Michael Lauren, said it has been a blessing how much support his grandson has received from the community and that he has become a "minister for God, making people believe in miracles." However, Lauren knows that not all children with cancer receive the same help.
"So many of them are under the radar with families who don’t know what to do or how to do it," he said. "No insurance, no support; Trucker has all of those things."
Shauna Dukes does not take the support for granted.
"Honestly, it’s kept us going," she said.