A Toddler's Cancer Changes a Family
Tears welled-up in my eyes as I overheard my two daughters conversing.
Karalee (age 12): “That baby has curly hair just like you did, Katelyn.”
Katelyn (age 10): “No, I didn’t havethat much hair then…because I had cancer.”
After nine years, the simple thought of my daughter having endured cancer still moves me to tears. Our experience with cancer forever changed our lives.
The 12 Month Check-Up
It was shortly after Easter, 2001, and our youngest daughter, Katelyn, was 13 months old. After some ten years of waiting and praying for a family, God had blessed my husband and me with two beautiful daughters through the miracle of adoption. And it was time for Katelyn’s 12 month wellbaby check-up. The doctor’s office had scheduled Katelyn to be seen at 13 months instead of 12 months because our pediatrician herself was having a baby. No coincidence. God was working on Katelyn’s behalf before we even realized what we would soon face.
We sat in the doctor’s waiting room, Katelyn in a light blue dress sporting a bunny rabbit on the front. When inside the examining room, the doctor laid our daughter down to feel her tummy—a routine procedure. But this time Katelyn began crying. The doctor commented that she thought she felt something in Kateyn’s abdomen, but because she was crying and hardening her tummy, she couldn’t be certain. She asked me to bring Katelyn in the following day, while she was napping, so the exam could take place more easily. I followed her instructions, and this time our doctor was certain something was wrong. A CT scan was scheduled for Monday. Being Friday, we only had to wait the weekend. Time was vital!
A dear loved one called to offer me encouragement. She was sure nothing was wrong with Katelyn, and she wanted me to be positive. But all I could think about were precious children lying in hospitals all over the country—with cancer or other ailments, and I knew we were not exempt. I fell apart in the bathtub, alone, where I could cry and no one but God could see me. I told God we could not lose our Katelyn. Our lives would not be the same…and our house would be too quiet without her!
However, I knew if God allowed us to endure an illness as horrible as cancer, He would give our family strength. I had confidence, no matter how weak I felt at the time, that God was strong enough for us all.
The CT scan revealed Katelyn had a right kidney tumor—and without a doubt, it was cancer. My husband and I sat in the hospital room with our precious baby, rocking her, crying, and trying to sort things out, while she was still asleep from the anesthesia. Our pediatrician soon met with us and cried alongside us. We may have been scared and may have cried, but we also trusted that God had a plan.
Trials before the Trials!
It’s funny how when facing some big trial, little things seem to come along to add stress to the situation. On our two hour drive to Fort Worth, to Cook Children’s Medical Center to have Katelyn examined and surgery scheduled, I looked down and saw Katelyn chasing a scorpion! I grabbed her just before she reached it. My nerves were shattered—and so was that scorpion!
Once in Fort Worth and at our hotel, we began hauling luggage in. There ere stairs leading to the second floor bedroom, and our oldest daughter, Karalee, only three at the time, began walking up the steps. I looked up to see her tumbling down from the top stair, head over heels, cartwheel style, just like in a movie! I saw her and reacted just in time to grab her by the hem of her dress to keep her from hitting the ground!
When the x-rays and blood work began, Katelyn cried all day. And the day before her surgery, a stomach virus came to call. Our hotel room had such an unpleasant odor I felt if I had to clean one more throw-up spill, I would not survive. Then Katelyn began running fever, but by the next day, thankfully, she had been free of fever long enough that the surgeon allowed the operation. Again, time was vital.
Our surgeon, one of the hospital’s best, was confident Katelyn’s tumor was a Wilm’s tumor, an aggressive but treatable kind. It is a type of cancer that usually occurs in small children and usually involves the kidneys.
We did not know it then, but time was most vital with this tumor. The surgeon said it had probably been there only a couple weeks and was already the size of a softball. If even one more week had lapsed, the tumor would have been much larger and Katelyn would have needed radiation treatments to shrink the tumor before her surgery. We were so thankful she was spared from enduring that.
The oncologist later confirmed that the tumor was caught early and was still in the first stage. He recommended Katelyn go through chemotherapy, and despite all our fears, we followed his advice.
Katelyn spent five days in the hospital and recovered beautifully. But the hardest day for us was the day of her surgery. God’s peace was holding us together, and my husband and I were working wonderfully as a team. But, just in case, I brought along a bottle of Pepto Bismol with me to the hospital. I had no idea how much that Pepto Bismol would be needed the day of her surgery! It was the most difficult day ever, and I became so sick I barely had strength to stand. But God saw me through, just as I knew He would. He never abandons us.
The hardest thing was Katelyn was so young and could barely talk. She could not understand what was happening. She had a huge incision, stretching from one side to the other, and we knew she was in pain. What hurt me the most was watching her silently lying in bed with tears trickling down her baby cheeks. Her “silent crying” broke my heart. And I just couldn’t take it. Until she recovered, my tears continued to flow.
Katelyn gained her strength with ea ch passing day–and so did I. The oncologist was impressed that she recovered so quickly, and we knew why. God had answered the many pray ers lifted on her behalf.
It may be hard to think of chemotherapy as a gift, but it was to us. In her situation, having to endure only chemotherapy was quite a blessing, as it could have been coupled with radiation. Difficult situations truly help us look for light in the midst of darkness.
We were given our chemotherapy schedule, and we were on the countdown. One by one Katelyn endured the chemo with minor difficulty, although it greatly weakened her. She was barely able to raise her head in her infant seat, and she hardly had strength to smile. She didn’t have the strength to walk until she was nearly 18 months. But we were thankful for so many blessings, such as the nausea medicine and the numbing cream which kept her from feeling the pain of needle pokes. We were thankful and amazed by our oldest daughter’s heart. Every time Katelyn received a band-aid, Karalee wanted a band-aid placed on her body in the same spot Katelyn had
Life after Cancer
Upon Katelyn’s arrival home from the hospital, all she would eat was Cheerios and vanilla ice cream. My husband even came up with a new song, dance and tune: “Cheerios Make me Dance!” … anything to make our baby girl smile! Eventually Katelyn gained her appetite back— and her strength. But all the sickness and treatments left her with feelings of insecurity. We prayed God would teach her to trust again.
And God has healed Katelyn, inside and out. Today she is healthy and happy, with beautiful blond curls—just minus one right kidney. We are down to only a yearly medical evaluation now, and our oncologist has given us permission to “celebrate”!
Throughout our experience with cancer, we saw God work miracles in a myriad of ways on Katelyn’s behalf, and we give Him all glory for her healing thus far. We could not have survived this without God’s strength carrying us. He grabbed hold of us, and we definitely grabbed hold of Him. Psalm 73:28 says, “But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds!”
Before that fateful well-baby checkup, did we have a clue Katelyn was so sick? Not one. When we met for a family Easter gathering a week prior to her cancer diagnosis, the only happening that was unusual was that Katelyn cried when her grandmother tried to hold her. But there was no sign, no symptom visible to the eye. But, in a moment, April 2001, our lives were forever changed—not simply the obvious change, but spiritual change as well. Hardships have a way of bringing us to our knees. And time is always vital. If we cling to God, grab Him by the hem of His garment, draw near to Him, and make Him our refuge, He will forever change our hearts; and we will rise and walk— new persons. We are grateful we had the opportunity to know God in a deeper way—a way we would never have known Him on easy street. And He changed our lives forever.
(Shelli Littleton has been married to her husband, Brian, for 23 years and has been blessed with two beautiful girls, Karalee (12) and Katelyn (10). She lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and serves Travis Avenue Baptist Church. Being one of Katelyn’s caregivers through cancer was the toughest job, yet sweetest honor of her life. Her heart was torn to pieces, but rebuilt by the Potter who continues to use their testimony today. She knows, beyond any doubt, that her God is able.)