TRR photos by Ted Waddell

The flight of his life. Andrew Stephens, 13, is seen at the controls of a Diamond 20 trainer aircraft with flight instructor Alex Cortez of Take Flight Aviation at Orange County Airport.

Boy battling cancer fulfills dream of flying

MONTGOMERY, NY — It is the fight of his life, and the flight of a lifetime.

Thirteen-year-old Andrew Stephens of Middletown, NY was diagnosed with cancer on July 3, 2015, after enduring several months of misdiagnoses that put the youngster and his folks though an emotional wringer.

“We went from doctor to doctor… originally they only gave him months to live,” recalled his mother, Elizabeth Deaver.

Once Andrew was finally diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS) at the age of 11, he started treatment at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Westchester, a course of treatments that included chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), ARMS is a “soft tissue tumor that is most common in older children and teenagers. It begins in embryonic muscle cells (cells that develop into muscles in the body). It can occur at many places in the body, but usually occurs in the trunk, arms or legs….”

As word of his plight traveled around the area, a guardian angel in the form of Gabriel Espinosa, founder of Paying It Forward Sullivan County, stepped in to help with Andrew’s fight with cancer.

“The kid was a trooper, always smiling, never whining even when the chemo made him feel like crap… even as his hair was falling out in his little hands, he had the stamina to joke about it,” recalled Espinosa.

Andrew’s initial round of treatments ended in 2016, but then the cancer returned with a vengeance as he relapsed earlier last year.

During his first stay at the children’s hospital, Andrew would take the time to cheer up other sickly kids in selfless acts, of which Espinosa said, “What 11-year-old boy does that today?”

By the time the correct diagnosis was handed down, Andrew’s cancer had metastasized into Stage 4/Group 4, and with a relapse the picture darkened to a slim glimmer of hope.

In the mission to offer help to those in need, Paying It Forward Sullivan County was joined by the Knights of Columbus Council #550 of Monticello.

“My council, though poor in finances, is super rich in spirit and giving of self, really coming through when a need presents itself,” said Espinosa, a member of the local council.

“As a Knight of Columbus, I definitely integrate my council with each effort, each project in one way or another,” he added.

One thing led to another, and Andrew prepared a Christmas wish list for his mother, which was promptly forwarded to Pay It Forward and the Knights of Columbus: his dream of riding in a Lamborghini (thanks to the Facebook group “What’s Cookin’ Sullivan County,” run by Jennifer Adam; meeting Santa at Taco Bell; and according to his mother he got to meet country singers Darius Rucker and Luke Bryan with a dash of pop singer Rachel Platten thrown into the music mix.

Another of Andrew’s fondest wishes was to fly an airplane, and although this dream was postponed numerous times due to lousy weather, it finally got off the runway  on Saturday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day 2018 at Orange County Airport.

Alex Cortez, a flight instructor with Take Flight Aviation, took the youngster up for his first airplane ride, after giving him a tour of the hanger and some time in a flight simulator.

“I love flying, any time I can help someone or give them the gift of flying,” said Cortez.

Andrew Stephens is on the mend, although the specter of cancer always lurks in the background.

“He has never taken anything negatively…. he said that if he relapses, we’ll fight it again… he makes the choices as to what treatments he wants to do,” said Elizabeth Stephens.

Andrew has his own Facebook page at Team Andrew Strong (, which his mother said, “tells all his followers about his journey.”

In January, Andrew finished a trial of a specialized treatment, and according to his mom, “recovered amazing from it” and is now back in school as a seventh grader, although his is facing surgery to correct issues related to the original onset of cancer, including muscle and bone deterioration in his left calf, the site where cancer was first discovered.

“When I was diagnosed the first time, I was nervous because I didn’t know what cancer was, what it would do to me… I didn’t want to give up my leg to cancer,” he said.

“I wanted to punch through it, no matter how hard it was, to fight it until it was done. I want to live life normally and make other people aware about ARMS.”

For more photos and a story with background on Pay It Forward Sullivan County, visit


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