He spent eight of his 16 years battling a rare childhood cancer with such grace and grit that his father nicknamed him the “chemowarrior.”
The Cornwall teen, who died June 24, told people to “just live life to the fullest.” He followed his own advice.
When he was 8, doctors diagnosed Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that primarily affects children. His cancer began in his spine and spread to his chest. Four months ago, the cancer left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Eli — a kid who enjoyed video games, Xbox, horror movies, music and cheese — rarely complained about cancer, according to Bret Sidler, his father. He said Eli simply accepted it.
Over the years, Eli underwent four surgeries to remove tumors from his spine. He endured multiple radiation treatments and more than 60 rounds of chemotherapy.
Yet he lived the life of a regular boy, too, attending the Susquehanna Waldorf School in Marietta through eighth grade, then Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon.
Classmate Ezra Rawdon of Lemoyne didn’t even know that Eli had cancer when he met him.
“I just thought of Eli as a cool kid,” Rawdon said. “Eli didn’t bring up the cancer, although he would answer your questions about it. Cancer was never a dramatic battle in him. He had the attitude he could beat cancer. In the end, cancer killed him but it never beat him.”
Rawdon recalled his friend’s high spirits, humor and intelligence. “We would hang out, play XBox, watch TV and just talk,” he said. “He was fun.”
Eli and his parents benefited from the Four Diamonds Fund, a charitable organization based at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to support families of children with cancer. That fund saved the Sidlers tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses over the years.
The Sidlers supported Thon, the Penn State student-run organization that raises money for The Four Diamonds Fund. Eli spoke at THON events at midstate high schools.
“Eli didn’t want to be a poster child for cancer,” Bret Sidler said. “He had cancer, but cancer didn’t have him. He just kept going. His rule was that we would talk about cancer and he would answer questions the kids asked.”
Suzanne Graney, director of The Four Diamonds Fund, said Eli’s courage and wisdom inspired people.
“Eli made a tremendous impact on all of the families here,” she said. “He had the wisdom to live life to its fullest. He and his parents did all they could to have a normal family life.”
When the organization recently made a DVD describing the services of the organization, Eli narrated the Four Diamonds story.
Written by the late Christopher Millard, who died of cancer in 1972, the story deals with a knight who looks for the four diamonds of courage, wisdom, honesty and strength so he could be released from captivity, Those “diamonds” symbolized the traits Millard believed were necessary to overcome cancer.
“Eli’s voice has been captured as he reads that story,” Graney said. “His death was sad for all of us, but we celebrate the life he lived. Eli taught us to live while you can in the best way you can.”
As part of living life to the fullest, Eli Sidler traveled with his parents to Oahu, Hawaii, nearly every July. He told his parents that when he died, he wanted his ashes tossed on the Keiki Beach there. They plan to do that next year.
During the last few days of his life, he told his father “I’m ready to go,” Bret Sidler recalled.
“I said ‘home?’ and Eli said ‘no,’¤” Bret Sidler said. “When his mother came in, he gave her the biggest hug. I told him if he needed to go, he could let go and get out of here. It was like he found the doorway he was looking for. He went out easily.”
The Sidlers will hold a celebration of Eli’s life at 1 p.m. Aug. 2 in the Blair Music Center at Lebanon Valley College, Annville.
Eli died as he lived, simply and with love, his father said.
“I have no regrets,” Bret Sidler said. “Every night, I used to say ‘good night, Kiddo.’ He would say ‘good night, Pappa. I love you.’ I would answer ‘I love you too.’ I still say that to him. Eli knew that we loved him and he loved us, too.”