Boy Who Flew Millennium Falcon In Need of Star Wars Love and Support

In October of 2014, ten-year-old Andrew Schmaderer had a perfect day. He spent a number of surreal hours on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He chatted with JJ Abrams and Harrison Ford. He watched as a huge battle scene was filmed outside of Maz Kanata’s temple. Chewbacca walked across the set to give Andrew a lollipop that was stashed in his bandolier.

On his perfect day, Andrew was in the midst of three years of chemo for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). For those of you who aren’t familiar with childhood cancer, leukemias are cancers of the blood and bone marrow. Leukemias are the most common form of childhood cancer, accounting for about thirty percent of all childhood cancers, and three out of four children with leukemia are diagnosed specifically with ALL.

ALL is actually one of the types of childhood cancers that is very responsive to treatment and carries a promising prognosis. Whereas the protocol is long and brutal – three years straight of chemo for boys and two years straight of chemo for girls — the cure rate is high. In the 1960’s, the five-year survival rate for childhood ALL was less than ten percent; today, the five-year survival rate is close to ninety percent. This improvement is in stark contrast to the much lower survival rates for many of the rarer forms of childhood cancers.

As Andrew endured the many months of chemo and hospital visits, he expressed a wish to visit the Pinewood Studios set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Make-A-Wish Foundation worked closely with LucasFilm to make Andrew’s dream become a reality.

Cancer was not invited to the set visit. There were no needle sticks or ports being accessed, no blood counts, no talk of infections, no IV poles, no sadness. It was a place where the Force surrounded Andrew, who was first and foremost a Jedi that day  — not a cancer patient.

I had the great joy of meeting Andrew and his family, because LucasFilm invited our family to partner with the Schmaderer family during their amazing Make-A-Wish set visit. Eighteen months later, and it still feels surreal to recall some of the best moments, such as when Harrison Ford made silly faces at the kids and danced a jig for them in between takes.

My eleven-year-old daughter, Katie, hit it off with Andrew within minutes of meeting, as did all of the combined siblings between our two families. The day was infinitely better for both the kids and the adults because we shared it with new friends, friends with whom we have remained in touch, long after their return to Nebraska and ours to Illinois.

Andrew finished his three years of treatment in August. He was given only a 5-8% chance of relapse. On December 14th, after more than three months of excellent blood tests, he had his port removed. It was just in time for the release of The Force Awakens! His family rented a small theater and held a Force Awakens viewing party to celebrate Andrew’s return to health.

Andrew couldn’t wait to swim without a swim shirt and be a normal kid this summer for the first time in years.  He recently had a physical and the pediatrician told him, “The cancer is in your past. You are just a regular kid, like everyone else now.”

The Nebraska chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society chose Andrew as Boy of the Year. In April, he recorded several radio spots about the honor, as part of the Man and Woman of the Year Campaign.

At the end of April, Andrew and his mom, Lori, went for a routine monthly checkup at the oncologist. Waiting for the results, Andrew worked on his social studies homework. The doctors and nurses came in, blindsided by the numbers.

Andrew’s white blood cell count was soaring. A slew of invasive tests confirmed the horrible and very unexpected news – the cancer was back. “I noticed he was a little tired and moody this month and wanted to sleep in, but I thought it was because he is entering adolescence,” Lori told me.

The relapse changes everything for Andrew.

He has a newly-placed picc line and is undergoing thirty days of intense chemo right now to see if the drugs can wipe the leukemia out.  If this course of chemo works, then Andrew will have a new port surgically inserted, and he will endure two more years of maintenance chemo. But if the first month of intense chemo does not leave a small enough amount of residual disease, a bone marrow transplant will be Andrew’s best option.

“We were supposed to be done,” Lori said. “But it’s starting all over again. Andrew is really down and scared. He wouldn’t even talk about it at all for the first couple days in the hospital. He didn’t want any visitors; he just wanted to immerse himself in Star Wars. He built Star Wars Legos and bought every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars for his iPad, and we are just watching it together. It is his escape from what’s happening.”

Lori and Chuck take turns spending the night at the hospital with Andrew, and the other parent takes care of the younger kids at home.

I think back to the day of our set visit, to one moment in particular. Andrew and Katie were sitting side by side in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, faces alight with pure delight, flying, an imagined universe at their controls.

Now Andrew needs A New Hope. He needs the love and support of the Star Wars community, the light side of the Force to give him strength and perseverance.

When Andrew’s kindergarten brother learned that Andrew was rediagnosed, he was silent for a long time. And then he asked, “Does this mean he gets another Wish?” Lori laughed, a moment of lightness in a heavy heart. Her kids had a phenomenal time in London last year and have wanted to go back ever since.

“We told Andrew that we can’t afford to take everyone to London again, but that he could pick any state he wanted to visit in America, and when he is feeling better, we would go there.” In the meantime, we want to help Andrew get to that point.

I reached out to Ashley Eckstein, who voices Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and I told her that Andrew needs some help getting through his dark days. She was very responsive and is putting together a package to send to him. She is also working to coordinate a phone call with James Arnold Taylor (Obi-wan Kenobi in The Clone Wars) so that they can cheer Andrew up.

I also reached out to the 501st Legion, and the Central Garrison Command Staff has been alerted that Andrew needs some Star Wars love from the local troopers in Nebraska. It turns out that he has done several events with them in the past, so they know him well.

My fellow Star Wars fans, you came out in droves to support my Katie. I’ve often said that my husband and I were the first ones to adopt Katie, but in 2010, she was also adopted by the Star Wars community.

Now another young fan needs your help. Please offer our friend Andrew your words of encouragement here. His mom will show him your comments. Feel free to show your support with the hashtag #MayTheForceBeWithAndrew.

Also, please consider making a donation in Andrew’s honor to either St. Baldrick’s or CureSearch, two of the best organizations in the world researching cures for childhood cancer.

Finally, if you have any amazing Star Wars connections, tell them about Andrew, and ask them to send him a personal message of hope and strength. May The Force Be With You, Andrew, as you once again travel a journey that will lead you to the return of health. We love you and we are thinking of you.

Andrew in 2012

Andrew in 2012

Recording a radio spot in April, shortly before learning of the relapse.

Recording a radio spot in April, shortly before learning of the relapse.

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