‘Dragon Slayer’ wields a sword against cancer

Ten-year-old Ricky Keller’s bedroom is a fortress, literally.

His walls are painted in stone gray squares to resemble the large blocks that form medieval castle walls. There’s a crest of arms on one wall and a treasure chest in the corner.

It’s a far cry from the hospital room where Ricky spent most of his time almost four years ago.

That room was covered with hundreds of notes from students at Nautilus Elementary, handwritten on construction paper cut out in the shape of the students' hands.

One item that was present in both rooms was his sword, a thick foam toy that his uncle bought for his nephew at Disneyland. Ricky kept that sword tucked inside of the back of his shirt so often that he developed calluses on his back where the sword rested.

Ricky was 6 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoplastic leukemia (ALL) on May 11, 2004.

Just 10 days before, the young boy started showing symptoms when he came down with a high fever during the night. His mother, Jan Charles Keller, recalls how she made an appointment to see a doctor the next morning; however, by the time Ricky went to the appointment, he was already running around the office, seemingly healthy.

Four days later, Ricky complained of a sore chest after sliding down a slide at school. Jan found small purple dots on his chest that she thought were a result of a pulled muscle.

Then, on the eighth day since the fever began again, Ricky’s doctor was out of town, but Jan made an appointment for the next day, a Tuesday.

Overnight, spots and petechiae (broken capillary vessels) blossomed on his backside and legs, Jan recalled.

“I had to dress him, just like an infant," she said. "Overnight he went from fever to ‘Oh my God.’”

Their doctor even joked that Ricky must be really sick since he didn’t have his sword with him. But Jan said he knew even before the blood tests came back that it was cancer.

The next few months were spent at St. Jude’s hospital in Memphis undergoing experimental protocol. And it worked. By the end of July that year, Ricky was in remission. However, due to ALL’s aggressive nature, chemotherapy treatment continues for three years to prevent a relapse.

Today there is nothing left of the sick boy; Ricky has now been in remission for three years. Once he hits five years, he will be officially cured. His dark brown hair has grown back to a length that his mom calls an experiment.

But still, his goal is to wipe out cancer — all cancer.

Enter the Dragon Slayers

At the end of 2005, when he was 8 years old, Ricky told his mom he wanted to start raising money to fight cancer.

That’s when Jan found out about Light the Night Walk, an event to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The annual event takes place in dozens of cities across the country and features a short walk of under 3 miles. Walkers carry balloons that are lighted from the inside: Red for supporters and white for survivors.

And that is how the Dragon Slayers were born.

“Aunt Kelly made it up because she thought the cancer was the dragon and I was the slayer,” Ricky said.

The name has remnants from when Ricky was first diagnosed with cancer.

“We struggled to explain it to him, but he was 6, so nothing made sense,” Jan said. “My sister-in-law came up with that explanation. She nicknamed him slayer.”

Ricky’s goal that first year was to raise $5,000, the cost of one of his treatments.

“I was thinking if we got a couple hundred (dollars), then great,” Jan said.

They raised $3,200. This year, they’ve already blown past that number.

The Dragon Slayers have sold wristbands, glow-in-the-dark rubber bands like the Livestrong bands that have "Fight the Night" etched in one side and "Dragon Slayers" on the other. Ricky’s aunt, who works at the soap opera “Passions,” set out a basket on set. So far, the Dragon Slayers have received $500 from the cast for the bands.

Ricky and his friends, including fellow Dragon Slayer and neighbor Halee Van der Goore, went to several Wal-Mart stores in the area, setting up a booth with photos illustrating the effects the cancer had on Ricky.

Ricky, wearing T-shirts he and Halee designed with phrases like "Cancer sucks" and "Just another sexy bald guy" featuring a photo of Ricky bald from the chemotherapy, would talk to passers-by.

Jan and Halee’s mother, Beth Matthews, sit with the kids at the booths, some days up to eight hours a day. The kids also go door to door, asking for donations.

With matching grants from Wal-Mart as well as other donations, the Dragon Slayers will go to the Light the Night Walk on Oct. 6 with $13,000 — with another $2,000 that may or may not get there before the event, Jan said.

“Plus whatever we get the next few weeks,” Ricky added.

Although this year’s event isn’t over yet, Ricky is already planning for next year’s

“$30,000 is the next goal,” Ricky said grinning. “That’s a joke.”

“OK, yeah, $30,000,” Ricky amended after Halee shot him a sideways glance.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Jan said. "These kids always seem to do it."

Contact Kyra Low: or (253) 925-5565.

Ricky and the rest of the Dragon Slayers are still accepting donations for this year's Light the Night Walk, slated for Oct. 6 in downtown Tacoma. To donate, contact Jan Charles Keller at (253) 941-3813. To learn more, visit the following Web sites:

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