In September of 2011 James Bachmann was a typical eight-year-old. He enjoyed playing, riding his skateboard and riding his bike. Then, he started experiencing some concerning behavior. 

He was watching television with one eye closed because he was having double vision. He was having trouble walking and suffered from frequent headaches. At first, his parents Kristen and Tommy Bachmann thought he was having normal “kid” problems — playing out in the sun too much and sitting too close to the television. The last thing anyone thought was that James had something much more serious.

While on vacation in Switzerland, James’ parents were so concerned they took him to the emergency room before flying home. Within three hours he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — a cancer that grows in the cerebellum area of the brain.

“If we hadn’t gone to the ER, it could have been disastrous,” Kristen said. “It was about the size of a golf ball and he had water on the brain that was pushing on the nerves in his cerebellum.” 

From left, Tommy, James and Kristen Bachmann pose on the deck of their restaurant Tommy’s Kitchen.
Photo by Jenny Kirchner

After months of chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and a nine-hour surgery where doctors were able to remove 80% of the tumor, James went into remission. James had monthly appointments for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to keep an eye on the tumor that was left.

In total, James had five oncologists between the states and Switzerland working for him. Between all five, he was given a 15-25% chance of surviving his first five years after treatment.

“We never allowed ourselves to think he could be cancer-free at some point,” Kristen said as tears welled in her eyes.

In February 2015, he went in for one of his routine MRIs. It took two weeks for them to receive the horrible news that James had relapsed. 

It was two days after his twelfth birthday. 

An abstract painting created by James.
Photo courtesy of Kristen Bachmann

James was rushed into surgery and doctors removed 100% of the second tumor which hadn’t metastasized. 

For the next two years, James was supposed to continue radiation and chemotherapy treatments. However, after 18 months, James and his parents decided to stop treatment. The side effects were worse than the treatment and his quality of life was compromised.

On June 25 this year, and after nine long years of countless treatments, hospital stays and two surgeries, James is now officially cancer-free. 

“We are on cloud nine right now,” said Kristen. “I always said, if I could kiss him goodnight and tell him I love him, it was a good day because of the fear I wouldn’t have him tomorrow. But now, it’s even more important.”

“Today counts, not tomorrow,” James said. “I learned not to really be scared of death. It’s natural. I’ve been through treatment, so I knew if it came back what to expect.”

James found an outlet with painting, which he started in 2016. 

“I love abstract art,” James confessed. “I work with acrylic and watercolors. For me, when I get into a painting, I don’t have a plan of what it will turn out to be. Sometimes happy accidents happen.”

Kristen always did her best to help keep things in perspective for James saying, “I’ve always tried to make him aware that there are other younger children out there that haven’t gotten as far as he’s gotten. We have to keep strong and be grateful for what we have.”

With all of his treatments, it’s taken a toll on his body. The aging process has sped up, but they had a sense of humor about it all. 

“He has Hemiataxia, which means the right side of his body doesn’t react as fast as his left side, so he walks like he’s drunk,” Kristen said laughing.

James also now has scoliosis, major hearing loss and the beginning of cataracts. A ruptured disc was discovered with the last MRI he had in June.

“He’s stopped growing at 4’11”, but that’s good because we get kids meals when we go out,” Kristen said with a chuckle, adding, “If you can’t laugh, you might as well go into a corner and disappear. We make fun of it and each other.”

I asked James what advice he could offer to others going through challenging times. “Don’t be scared and find a hobby that’s yours,” he said. “That’s what got me through it.”

Just before James relapsed, the Bachmann’s opened Tommy’s Kitchen in 2014.

“We put everything into this place,” Kristen said. “We opened in November 2014 and he relapsed in February 2015. The tremendous support by our families and the community has got us through. This community has been so phenomenal. They embraced us and we are here because of them. They’ve helped us stay here.”

There is a chance that secondary cancer could pop up down the line, but for now, the two words “cancer-free” are a reality for Tommy, Kristen, and James for the first time since he was diagnosed nine years ago. 

James’ next big adventure is to go skydiving with his godmother after he turns 18 in February 2021.