Chelsea Family Seeks Treatment for Son’s Cancer

By Seth Kinker,

On Sept. 2, 2017 life changed for the Burrell family of Chelsea. Nathaniel, 19, son of Michael and Barbara Burrell and the second oldest of four children, was diagnosed with cancer. 

While living in Walkabout Creek Apartments in Dexter, MI. the Burrell’s were house hunting around the time Nathaniel began to feel sick. At the time, he said he was having trouble going to the bathroom, so the Burrell’s went to urgent care. Prior to that, he had begun to feel pain in his back and around the kidneys. 

They took Nathaniel to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chelsea and were told he had a small amount of blood in his urine, that he should be fine, and to get it checked out with their primary care physician after the holiday weekend. 

They did so at Dexter Family Medicine a few days later and had blood work sent to the lab and a CT scan scheduled for Nathaniel. After seeing something on the initial scan, something else got the attention of the staff. 

After a second CT scan, a nurse practitioner called from Dexter Family Medicine on Saturday, Sept. 2, and asked them to come to the office. When they were told that the office would be opened for them despite it being closed on the weekend, they knew something was wrong. 

“We didn’t know what,” said Michael on receiving the call to come in on a Saturday. “Eventually we heard the words.” 

The Burrell’s were told the doctor knew it was cancer but didn’t know what kind. Initial thoughts were lymphoma, but the Burrell’s were told more tests needed to be done to determine the type.

From there, the Burrell’s were told to go home, pack a bag, and head to the ER where they spent the following three weeks. Barbara told The Sun Times his condition worsened quickly.

“He went from having some minor things going on that were bothering him to severe pain all through his legs, couldn’t sleep for more than an hour in the hospital from all the pain,” said Barbara. “After a lot of tests, about two weeks in, we found out what type of cancer it was.”

Nathaniel had Stage IV Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive soft tissue cancer usually found in children and rarely, adolescents. The Burrell’s were given a prognosis of about a 25-30% chance of survival determined from the bone aspiration, a procedure that takes a liquid sample of the soft tissue inside bones. 

Nathaniel (right) and his cousin Alia (left) at the beach. Photo provided by the Burrell family.

“Your world stops,” said Michael. “The song, ‘it’s the end of the world as you know it,’ it’s true, it’s just we don’t feel fine. It’s like whatever direction you’re going in, forget about it. It’s a dead stop and you’re going a different direction.”

Nathaniel had an idea it was cancer and told himself that even before the diagnosis so he wouldn’t worry about it but was still in shock when he was told. 

“I sat there in silence,” said Nathaniel. “I was in denial. But that’s part of it.”

Before Nathaniel could begin chemotherapy, they had to treat his kidney, which had a baseball sized tumor that was causing his problems going to the bathroom. The Burrell’s were told had he not been brought in when he did, he would have been dead in two weeks. 

Nathaniel had just started classes at Washtenaw Community College after graduating from Dexter High School in 2017 when he was diagnosed. With advanced cancer, the family decided to have Nathaniel stop going to school and work. 

Nathaniel told The Sun Times that leading up to feeling pain in his kidneys, he had no indication anything was out of the ordinary. The fatigue was something he had dealt with for a while and he had recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea as well. Besides calling off of work, which was out of the norm for him, and seeming a little more tired than usual there was no indicator anything was majorly wrong. 

With treatment for the tumor, after almost a year, the Burrell’s thought they were in a good place, the treatment had reduced the tumor from being baseball sized to bb pellet size and Nathaniel was thinking about college again – even returning to work. But two months later with only radiation and no chemotherapy, his cancer had begun to affect him with more pain beginning to set in, letting the Burrell’s know something was still wrong. The Burrell’s have since gotten a medicinal marijuana card for Nathaniel that he says has helped the most in dealing with pain on a day to day basis.

Since then, he hasn’t been back to work or school, staying at home and going through on and off periods of chemotherapy treatment five days a week.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael was speaking to Nathaniel’s oncologist. 

“I was reading between the lines, unsure of what she had to say,” said Michael. “A few days later she called back and I’m like enough of this, no BS, shoot straight, are you telling me you cannot save our son? She said, ‘yes that’s what I’m telling you.’”

An unacceptable prognosis to the family, the Burrell’s began putting their efforts into researching alternative treatment for Nathaniel as the cancer has spread throughout his body. While doing research into alternative treatments, the Burrell’s found other countries with treatments that the US doesn’t offer due to Federal Drug Administration guidelines. 

The Burrell’s had nothing but good things to say about the medical staff that has helped them thus far but realize that their hands are tied with how much they can help the Burrell’s. 

One of the places they’ve focused on researching is Germany and have been making plans to travel there for treatment for Nathaniel after hearing the recent news from their doctors here. 

“We had a feeling that it might come to this but really wanted conventional methods to work,” said Michael. “We knew that Nathaniel’s cancer was aggressive, but I am now getting the feeling that they expected this all along as most with Nathaniel’s type of cancer, and given his age, do not survive.”

While not promising to cure Nathaniel, the Burrell family has been in touch with clinics and doctors in Germany who tell the Burrell’s their treatments can help Nathaniel and are awaiting their arrival.

“This is not ‘quackery,’” said Michael. “This is how Germany treats cancer and its working. It’s not 100% but way better than here because they treat the whole body and not just the cancer cells.  They use chemo but not like it is used here; in Germany they attach the same chemo drugs to insulin, causing the cancer to try and use the chemo as food and in turn killing the cancer.  There is also what is called Hyperthermia which basically heats the cancer to such high temperatures so that it kills the cancer and gets it out of the body without damaging any organs. Again, this is not “quackery”, these clinics are literally everywhere in Germany as this is the normal treatment method for cancer.“ 

Nathaniel and Michael will be making the trip to Germany for Nathaniel’s treatment as soon as possible, but still need to wait for their passports to come back and have the necessary money, the Burrell’s have to pay in cash with their insurance not applicable outside of the US. After applying for their passports recently, Michael told The Sun Times they’d be on the plane the second the passports came in if the funds were there. 

The Burrell’s medical bills have totaled over two million dollars thus far, with any funds for a rainy day now non-existent, and are now looking for help with travel and treatment costs coming to around $80,000.

“If there’s an overarching theme to this story,” said Michael. “We’ve done everything we can. We have no other options, to stay here is to surrender. It’s just not in us.”

In addition to planning a benefit dinner at Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Allen Park, MI. to raise money, the Burrell’s have also set up a gofundme ( , a P.O. box (PO Box 504 Chelsea, MI 48118) and a Facebook page ( for support for Nathaniel’s cause. 

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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