SANDOWN — Michelle Stoddard smiled last week to see her identical twin sons sitting shoulder to shoulder on a backyard bench, heads bowed over juice boxes.

It was just how 4-year-olds Cole and Troy had always sat together.

That's why it hurt so much earlier in the week to see that they didn't rush to each other when Cole returned home after a month of being cloistered in a Boston hospital as he fought neuroblastoma cancer, Michelle said.

Cole, the shy but silly twin, was a changed boy when he returned home.

Troy, the more serious of the twins, was confused, worried to see his brother shaken by his experience, Michelle said.

Cole has a medication tube hanging from his chest that attaches to his heart. But what was hardest on the family following his June 11 admission to Tufts Medical Center was the separation.

Michelle and her husband Tony Stoddard shuttled back and forth between Sandown and Boston, alternating the nights they stayed over at the hospital.

Through it all, they've leaned on their family, their friends, and even a few generous strangers for support.

The Stoddards' journey began in May, when Cole started feeling weak and tired.

His parents took him to the doctor several times, then to Parkland Medical Center in Derry for tests that revealed a mass behind his stomach.

Cole needed to go Tufts Medical Center. He was in so much pain that his mother drove him there at 2 a.m.

Mother and son were admitted to a sterile hospital floor, walking through three sets of double doors — the Neely Foundation Bone Marrow Transplant Floor.

Tony stayed home with their daughter, Tara, 8, and Troy, and traveled to Boston the next day while other family members cared for the children at home.

What came next was tests and waiting.

For Cole, that meant needles, sedation and cramped spaces where technicians captured images of what was happening inside of him.

Devastating news rocks family

After surgery, the couple met with doctors and learned the cancer had spread from an orange-sized mass to some of Cole's bones.

A doctor told the parents Cole had Stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer.

His treatment includes six three-week sessions of chemotherapy, in the hope that it will shrink the mass and separate it from his kidney and pancreas. That would allow doctors to remove the mass, possibly as soon as this fall. Then in December, he will receive a bone marrow transplant, followed by radiation and antibody treatment.

In one particularly gut-wrenching meeting, a doctor told Michelle and Tony that a 4-year-old with Stage 4 cancer has just a 45 to 50 percent chance of beating the cancer.

"My wife and I kind of gasped and held each other." Tony said.

He cannot accept the cure rate. He wants the family to stay together.

They have always done things together — bicycling, going to the beach, eating supper, and just being silly.

A family ritual before Cole got sick was for Tony to come home and talk about his work day at the dinner table.

Cole would always saunter over and put a hand over Tony's mouth.

His parents said Cole likes oversized glasses and crazy straws, and follows every good night kiss with a raspberry, getting a laugh from his father.

Despite his sickness, Cole's humor has not left him. He and Troy have a secret word that usually cracks them up — "looola."

While video conferencing with Troy from Tufts, Cole uttered the made-up word to his brother, prompting them both to burst into laughter.

"I think that is his gift — even though he is suffering, he still wants to make people laugh," Tony said of his son.

Sometimes, when Cole gets angry at the doctors over the pain he feels, he tells them, "You are bad."

Cole is afraid and leans on his parents.

"He wants to be with his mom or dad at all times," Michelle said.

Caring begets kindness, support

Whenever Michelle and Tony were in Boston with Cole, he always wanted to know who was watching Troy.

Cole's caring nature mirrors that of his mother, a first-grade teacher at Golden Brook Elementary School in Windham.

Her caring inspired parents of the children she has taught in her 14 years at the school to help the family during this difficult time.

Mags Adamchek said her son, Finn, 7, really liked going to school when he had Michelle for a teacher.

"He absolutely loved her," she said.

Parent Tracey Dickey jokes that three of her children had Michelle for a teacher, one of them twice.

Though her son repeated the grade, Michelle made him feel like he was her little helper, Dickey said.

Cole's illness came at the end of this school year, but Michelle made a point of returning to say goodbye to her students, even though it was around the time she was hearing the worst news about Cole, Dickey said.

The help the Stoddards have received from family and friends has given them the time to spend with Cole. They're thankful for that help.

Michelle comes from a large family in Atkinson. Her relatives live nearby and are constantly stopping by to help watch the kids.

Family, friends and neighbors have cooked dinners for Troy and Tara. They have even mowed the lawn.

A trash hauler in town whom they did not know and were not a customer of has picked up their trash.

One woman gave the family a laptop computer and put a video conferencing program on it so the family at home in Sandown can stay in touch with Cole when he's in Boston.

Ten neighbors came over and built a play set in the Stoddards' backyard. Cole saw it on the night that he returned home from the hospital. In the dark, he climbed to the top.

A connection too close to be severed

In the backyard last week, the twin brothers played with a cousin on the play set, sliding and swinging.

Cole lost weight and hair after his first round of chemotherapy. At home, he has put a few pounds back on.

"He's doing pretty good; it makes me nervous," Michelle said. "He's doing pretty good."

On this sunny afternoon, the brothers ran around the yard with magnifying glasses, a day before Cole was scheduled to return to Tufts for more treatment and tests.

Later, sitting on the bench with juice and ice pops, the twins overheard their mom and dad being silly. They looked at each other, turned in unison to watch their parents, and laughed.

To follow Cole's progress, go to, and enter ColeNH in the search after signing up.

Marylin Plank is organizing a benefit silent/live auction on Sept. 9 at the Atkinson Resort and Country Club. The evening will include hor d'oeuvres, a cash bar, dancing and live music. Tickets are $25. For those who want to attend or donate to the auction, call 603-303-4436 or go online to

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