Inside Magician Criss Angel's Fight to Save His 2-Year-Old Son from Cancer: 'I'd Rather It Be Me That Was Sick'

"That kid is just a bundle of love. He's the truest form of magic," Angel says of his son

Criss Angel son Johnny cancer

It was 2 a.m. in Las Vegas when Criss Angel got the phone call that his son, Johnny, had been diagnosed with cancer.

“I felt helpless,” the Mindfreak Live! magician says in the current issue of PEOPLE of the moment he found out his son had acute lymphoblastic leukemia last October.

Making matters worse, Angel and his wife Shaunyl Benson had separated and his son had just been relocated to Australia. But Angel dropped everything to fly to Brisbane to be by Johnny’s side.

“I’m locked into a 10-year contract and had never missed one show,” says Angel, 48, who is committed to performing 10 times a week at the Luxor Las Vegas. “But I needed to be with my son.”

Criss Angel son Johnny cancer

Because of his commitment to perform in Mindfreak Live! on the Strip and the taping of a TV special that debuts on A&E in October, Angel was only able to visit his son two more times over the next 10 months.

Still, Angel was supportive long-distance. He and Benson, 26, have not reconciled, but are determined to co-parent Johnny, now 2.

“Honestly, we are really good friends. Whenever I need anything, I know that Criss is there,” Benson tells PEOPLE.

“At the end of the day, it makes Johnny happy to see his parents interacting happily and … it makes me happy seeing my son happy.”

Criss Angel son Johnny cancer

Both say it was difficult watching their son experience the side effects of cancer treatments, which included hair loss and behavioral changes.

“Johnny is a happy, fun, loving boy, but the steroid treatments have a profound effect on his mood,” Angel explains. He began throwing “violent” tantrums. “That’s hard to see, but that’s not our Johnny. That’s the steroids.”

Now Johnny is technically in remission, but will continue treatment for another two years. His immune system is on the rebound, and in August he visited the U.S. for the first time since his diagnosis.

Criss Angel son Johnny cancer
Criss Angel son Johnny cancer

And his father has found new purpose, founding the Johnny Crisstopher Children’s Charitable Foundation to raise awareness of pediatric cancer and search for a cure.

“My son is supposed to outlive me. I’d rather it be me that was sick,” he says. “I want Johnny’s future to be long and happy. That kid is just a bundle of love. He’s the truest form of magic.”

For more on Johnny’s cancer battle — including his family’s emotional trip to Disneyland — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

— Patrick Gomez

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