When Summerville’s Landon Hartman turned eight in 2020, he knew he was living on borrowed time. Diagnosed with brain cancer the previous year, his family was suddenly pushed into a place where they cried a lot. They knew death was coming, and they were unable to stop it, and they had to watch the inevitable grow darker and closer every day.
Completely aware of his condition but bolstered by an inexplicable sense of purpose as the days around him were running out, Landon simply asked his mom to use his memory as a way to help others with the same kind of illness.
And now, less than three years after his death, Landon is helping others through the Landon Strong Foundation, a nonprofit started in March 2022 by his mom, Nikki Byars, to celebrate the son who inspired its creation and purpose.
“We spent our first year getting our vision and Landon’s story out to the public and establishing relationships with MUSC Children’s Hospital and Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina,” Byars said. “And I have recently joined a group of Lowcountry moms of children with cancer to create a direct relationship with the families we will be supporting.”
The road for the Landon Strong Foundation began in March 2019 when Landon began to have stomach pains for apparently no reason. Acid reflux was an early contender – but as the pains grew worse, laughing, running and even simple trips in the car became torturous.
“I couldn’t go over potholes or railroad tracks without him screaming in pain,” Byars said. “Then he started limping and tripping over his own feet. It got to the point where I had to carry him because the pain was so bad.”
Byars kept asking and searching for the cause. Doctors considered and ruled out both digestive issues and Crohn’s disease.
“We knew something else was wrong,” Byars said. “But we were not expecting cancer.”
Diagnosed in June 2019 with astrocytoma, a comparatively uncommon type of brain tumor, Landon was forced over the next year to undergo steroid injections to improve his appetite and reduce swelling and fatigue; neupogen shots to stimulate the growth of his white blood cells, making him less vulnerable to infections; and infusions to keep his red blood count up.
Unfortunately, an MRI of his brain and spine revealed that the tumor was spreading to his cerebellum and upper spinal cord. Doctors tried chemotherapy to slow its progress, and, eventually, they tried to eliminate it. Landon even spent one month on the Levine Children’s rehabilitation floor learning how to stand, balance and walk again.
In September 2020, on the anniversary of 9/11, Byars and other family members were told there was nothing more that could be done. The tumor had spread, it would only get worse and they would be lucky to have him for even another month.
“But we got three,” Byars said.
After a brief life and a long struggle, Landon Hartman passed away on Dec. 3, 2020.
“And I was not all right – I’m still not,” Byars said. “I mean, how do you pick up the pieces from something like that and start over or keep going?”
But Landon, though gone, had given her part of the answer before he died.
“We were sitting in the clinic one day, and Landon looked at me and said, ‘Momma, can we help people, like the foundations that help us?’” Byars related. “And that’s what led to the foundation – it was all his idea.”
That idea is growing.
In just over a year since its launch, the Landon Strong Foundation has raised $16,000 to support families that are fighting cancer in South Carolina and Charlotte. So far, support has come from Great Southern Builders, based in Charleston; C & B Electrical Services, Inc.; the South Carolina Ports Authority in Mount Pleasant; and Landon’s favorite minor league hockey team, the South Carolina Stingrays.
“On April 8, we’re going to have our first Superhero night just for Landon,” said Mario Picciotto, business development manager with the Stingrays. “Our arena, the North Charleston Coliseum, can hold 11,000 people and we hope to fill it for this special night to help Nikki and the Foundation.”
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates about 15,000 new astrocytomas in all forms are diagnosed every year in the United States. While not as prevalent as other cancerous tumors, the average rate of survival for people with all types of astrocytomas combined is currently about eight years.
Byars said she hopes the Foundation will accomplish Landon’s goal: to make a difference in someone’s life.
“2023 will be filled with more events and opportunities to help our Foundation be the village for families battling cancer,” she said. “It takes a village, and we have the best one.”
By L. C. Leach III