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Boy’s short life inspires, raises awareness of pediatric cancer

Parents remember ‘little guy’ who ‘touched so many hearts’

Trucker Dukes, 3, of Haiku ended his battle with cancer in the arms of his mother, Shauna, on Friday morning. A celebration of his life will be held Friday at Hope Chapel in Kihei. Photo courtesy of June Harper

Joshua and Shauna Dukes receive hundreds of messages every day about how their 3-year-old son, Trucker, renewed people’s faith and inspired them to love others around the world.

“It’s incredible,” Shauna Dukes said Saturday. “That little guy touched so many hearts, and I’m really proud to be his mom.”

The toddler died Friday morning in his mother’s arms, ending his battle against an aggressive form of cancer. Trucker had been under hospice care with his parents and three older siblings at their Haiku home.

A celebration of his life will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at Hope Chapel in Kihei. The gathering is open to the public, but attendees are asked to bring pupu to share in a potluck.

A funeral procession will follow to Valley Isle Memorial Park in Haiku. Close friends and family also plan to paddle out into the ocean in memory of Trucker on Saturday at Hookipa Beach Park.

Fire departments in New York City (pictured) and Maui County listed Trucker Dukes on their riding lists Friday and Saturday in honor of the 3-year-old, who loved fire trucks and firefighters. Photo courtesy of June Harper

It has been a long and heartbreaking journey for the Dukes family. Trucker, the youngest of four children, underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and life-threatening surgeries after being diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma in November 2014.

At 19 months old, a fast-growing tumor in his abdomen spread throughout 50 percent of his body. Almost a year later, just before Thanksgiving 2015, doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City discovered a new tumor in his brain.

The brain tumor was successfully removed, but the cancer never disappeared.

Last fall, Trucker’s parents decided to stop treatments and to bring him back to Maui to treat him nutritionally in hopes of a better quality of life.

“We’re really just so heartbroken,” Joshua Dukes said. “Almost physically ill from being heartbroken.”

The last month and a half has been the roughest for the family, though it began well with a trip to Whistler, British Columbia, for Christmas. The family was treated to a hotel as well as snowboard rentals and lessons for the children.

“We made some really, really amazing memories, but at the same time Trucker started getting worse,” Joshua Dukes said. “It was a double-edged sword. Shauna and I really enjoyed spending time with the family, but we knew what the next chapter was going to be.”

When the family returned home, Trucker could no longer walk and his legs began swelling. He was in so much pain that he could not sleep for the last month.

“He’d wake up screaming at night from the pain,” his father said. “He’d literally wake up 30 to 40 times a night.”

Neither his parents nor siblings got much sleep as well, and his father resorted to sleeping on the floor of his daughter’s bedroom so he could get some sleep before going to work as a Paia firefighter.

“It was really, really challenging,” Joshua Dukes said. “I think towards the end we started praying that God would heal him or God would take him because we didn’t want to see him suffer anymore.”

The family prayed for a miracle and that Trucker would be healed. If not, they prayed it would be peaceful and with his family to “let him know he is loved,” Joshua Dukes said.

“Honestly, when he died, he took his last breath and that was it. It wasn’t violent, and he was in my wife’s arms and he was home with his family,” he said. “That was a miracle.”

Although Trucker has died, his memory and legacy have endured with thousands of people posting messages and photos on social media. Fire departments in New York City and Maui also have listed Trucker’s name on their riding lists, writing #TruckerRideswithus.

“Most people say from the minute they saw him they fell in love with him,” Shauna Dukes said.

Trucker’s mother, whom he spent most of his time with, said it will take a long time for her to get used to life without him. She said she is taking it one day at a time, a mantra she and Joshua tattooed on their forearms, and is focusing her love on their other three children.

“They’re going through so much being so little and losing their little brother,” she said.

Joshua Dukes said the loss has been hard on their other children, and he worries about them. But he believes God has held them together.

“It’s only God’s grace that we’re still together,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of families who go through this and either the husband and wife get a divorce or the other kids resent their sibling for getting attention, but we’ve actually been really blessed to stay tight and love each other as a family.

“Believe me, I’ve had some honest and frank talks with God. I’ve been mad. I’ve been upset, but my faith has definitely grown.”

Shauna Dukes said that God has always been a focal point to their family and could not imagine going through their loss without their faith. She said she shared many silly and fun moments with Trucker, but there also were a lot of “dark and crappy moments.”

“What we did up until yesterday was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she said. “But now we get to celebrate his extraordinary life. He was a really fun little guy, and he had a really great short little life.

“Even though he went through the harshest treatment, he just had so much joy.”

The Dukes family has become advocates for increased awareness with pediatric cancer. Funding for research into childhood cancer only accounts for 4 percent of the taxpayer-funded National Cancer Institute’s annual budget, according to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Trucker was initially given treatment designed for adults due to limitations in research. Since 1980, only three drugs have been approved that were specifically developed for children and two-thirds of those treated suffer long-term effects, including loss of hearing and sight, heart disease, secondary cancers, learning disabilities and infertility, according to the foundation.

“I don’t know what the future looks like for us, but I’ll never stop raising awareness,” Shauna Dukes said. “Hopefully, one day there’s something less toxic and not as harsh for someone else’s baby.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.