Criss Angel & Shaunyl Benson's Son, Johnny, is in Remission
- The couple’s first child, Johnny Crisstopher, 7, was first diagnosed with b-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2015.
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also called ALL) is the most common type of cancer in children.
- Just weeks ago, Johnny rang bells to signal the end of treatment — and officially entered remission for a second time.
That “more” came to a total of 1,095 chemotherapy sessions needed to treat Johnny’s type of b-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a type of leukemia where the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. The disease was first diagnosed in 2015 and returned less than a year after Johnny Crisstopher’s last treatment had ended in December 2019.Read More
Angel, Benson and their family have met many of those “super special” kids through the community generated from video documentaries Benson posts. “We do get quite personal,” she explains about the video project, which begins with the story of what ultimately led to Johnny Crisstopher’s cancer diagnosis — unexplained fevers, bruises that wouldn’t go away, bloody noses.
“I found that making these videos and creating this support community on my platform has been a great outlet for him,” she adds. “It’s also a great way to connect with other cancer families. I’ve made some incredible friendships with families all over the world, having this thing in common: cancer. It’s not something you want to have in common with someone, but beautiful things have come from it.”
Ringing the Bells
Even though Johnny Crisstopher rang the bell — signaling the end of treatment, the beginning of remission for a second time on January 17 — Benson believes they will keep their connection. “This community is something we’re going to keep up,” she says. “It’s something I know Johnny wants to be part of, to keep making these encouraging positive videos.”
She credits Angel, 54, for the focus on positivity that has “always” played a big part in their lives, even before their son’s cancer. “Criss is the hardest working man I’ve ever met in my life,” says Benson. “Whenever he puts his mind to something, he accomplishes it ten times over. Johnny has that kind of attitude where if he was about to get a lumbar puncture, he’s like ‘Oh, this is easy, I got this.'”
Benson credits this outlook with helping them to get through this very difficult time. “Mindset definitely plays a huge role in every part of the cancer journey,” she says. “A lot of people would worry about the pressure of a sick child. The reality is it can destroy families because it’s a lot. When Criss and I go through something that many people can struggle with, we find a lot of strength in each other. When there’s a foundation for strength and positivity you can get through everything.”
Falling Back on Family
Of course Benson acknowledges it’s not all puppy dogs and roses. “As Johnny got older — obviously he’s been doing this since he was very young — when he started to realize what was happening to him and that not every other kid had a port, would go through treatment. He would say to me late at night, ‘Mommy, why can’t I just be a regular boy?’ I’d always encourage him and say, ‘You are a regular boy. You just have a different mission now.’ The first thing he said to me after he rang the bell [signaling the end of his last cancer treatment, again]: ‘Mommy I’m a real boy now.’ I said, ‘Honey, you were always a real boy.’”
It helped knowing that Benson’s parents were always there to lean on, she says. “I was very blessed that while Criss was working so hard I was able to have my parents to fall back on. I could nap here and there while Johnny was in the hospital. My mom, my dad, would come and stay with him in the hospital for a little bit. We’d just all take turns, which is definitely for your own sanity.
“When you have a great support system behind you it feels like everything is possible, that definitely was a big thing for me,” she emphasizes. Like a lot of people facing or supporting a loved one through cancer, Benson says she also found solace in her spirituality. “I am a woman of God. I find it comforting to pray, always,” she says.
Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal cancer surgeon Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous conversation that prayer and positivity can make a huge difference during the cancer journey.
Dr. Zuri Murrell speaks on how prayer and positivity can help during the cancer journey.
“I believe that prayer is very helpful,” he said, noting that this is true regardless of a patient’s spiritual beliefs. “…In some patients who don’t believe in prayer, I believe that a positive attitude is what’s really important — and I believe that, for a lot of people, prayer helps them develop this.”
The Shock of a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis
Benson also shares that after their son’s initial “shocking” diagnosis, she and Angel were both “in denial” all the way up until the “medication” was actually going into Johnny’s body.
“It’s one of those things like a nightmare you wish you’d wake up from,” Benson recalls. “I remember the very moment — the doctor, she couldn’t even look me in the eye when she was about to tell me. [It] still wakes me up at night. That nightmare that we’ve lived twice.”
Yet at the same time they were living through this “nightmare,” Benson and Angel continued to look towards a brighter future, which included expanding their family. “Honestly it’s always in the back of your mind but it didn’t stop me,” says Benson on giving birth to two more children since the family’s cancer journey began. “I just feel like Johnny was such a great example of such a strong kid that having more kids was … whatever happened, it made our family stronger.”
Their second son, Xristos Yanni, who spent his first birthday in the hospital during Johnny Crisstopher’s relapse, is a source of “strength” for his big brother. “They are so good for each other,” says Benson, describing how Xristos would hold his big brother’s hand in the hospital. “He knows that his brother has this special thing he has to do. He’s only turning three but he’s always shown a lot of concern. He just knew when his brother needed him. They have this beautiful connection. He doesn’t really speak a lot of words but what he does speak, Johnny understands perfectly. I’ll often find them sitting in the bed playing games, just watching a movie together. It’s a special bond.”
This past November, they welcomed their first daughter, Illusia Angelina, to their growing brood. Born early at 35 weeks, she was in the NICU at the same time Johnny was doing one of his three day hospital stays for immunotherapy.
Johnny Crisstopher’s Cancer Foundation
As they move forward — again — from their personal cancer fight, this is by no means the end of their commitment to the cause. Benson and Angel will use their good fortune and visibility to continue to advocate for children’s cancer, with the Johnny Crisstopher Children’s Charitable Foundation. After Johnny’s diagnosis, Angel renamed his already established charitable foundation. “We work very closely with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, The Children’s Oncology Group. 100% of the funds go to research and pediatric cancer patients,” explains Benson. “In 2016, Criss held a big event and raised over one million dollars for pediatric cancer. That’s something else we’re going to be doing again in the future.”
To aid in their advocacy, Angel also put up what he calls his “the most important post I have ever made” — right after Johnny rang his bell. The 13 minute documentary, titled 1095 — as in the extraordinary number of his treatments — explores Johnny Christopher’s cancer battle.
“We had an amazing response to that. We had people all over the world sharing it and getting some really good awareness for childhood cancer. That’s all Criss,” says Benson about her husband’s motivations. “He’s always turned something into something better, to help others.”
As for Johnny, he’s ready to go back to his kid life — especially his Jiu-Jitsu training that he had to put on hold during his his six cycles of immunotherapy that required being hooked up to a machine for 28 days. “He’s definitely looking forward to getting back into that and just being an active, happy 7-year- old,” says Benson. “Little things we take for granted, he just can’t wait for.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also called ALL) is the most common type of cancer in children. It affects cells in the immune system called B cells. The disease begins in the bone marrow, where the cancerous cells grow very quickly. This crowds the bone marrow so much that it has trouble creating enough normal cells.
Coming out on the other side after years of treatment, Benson gives all the credit to Johnny Crisstopher for tackling his cancer. “Our son got through this twice because he believed in himself,” she insists. “Yes, he has a great family behind him but at the end of the day, it’s him wearing the cape and believing he can do this battle. He’s the one who has to do this.”