Two years ago, Carrie and Steve already had their hands full. As working parents to five daughters and owners of a cattle ranch in central Minnesota, they were a busy family, but happy that way. But when their youngest, Alizabeth, started feeling sick, everything changed.
Carrie remembers the moment clearly – she was putting Alizabeth’s long blonde hair up in a ponytail when she noticed some lumps on her neck. Not long after, her usually energetic daughter began tiring more quickly, wouldn’t eat and wasn’t acting like herself. After a few different doctor visits and a trip to the Emergency Room in St. Cloud, they were referred to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. After a long night, three doctors took Carrie and Steve into a room on the oncology floor to give them the news they feared – Alizabeth had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“We were heartbroken,” Carrie said. “Alizabeth was asleep next to us when we got the news. I’m usually the emotional one, and my husband is the steady rock, but we totally switched roles. He cried and I didn’t – I think I mentally just went somewhere else in that moment.”
Still in shock from the news that their youngest daughter had cancer, Carrie and Steve then called their other daughters to let them know what was going on. A relative had recently died of cancer, and Alizabeth’s sisters were immediately worried for her.
“I still get those questions today,” Carrie said. “We reassured them that Alizabeth’s is a curable type of cancer, but I understand that it’s hard for them not to connect those two situations and worry about her.”
A List of Cant’s
Once she was diagnosed, Alizabeth was put on a long treatment path that included chemotherapy, which caused her to lose her hair, and long hospital stays 92 miles from home. Alizabeth’s treatment left her with a long list of things she can’t do with her sisters. This was especially difficult for her during the summer – some of her favorite activities include showing the family’s cattle, swimming in the lake and riding her bike – all things she couldn’t do anymore because of the risk of illness or injury. Her parents and sisters did the best they could to help her feel included.
“Because she couldn’t swim in the lake over the summer, we got her a little kiddy pool and a unicorn sprinkler in the backyard,” Carrie said. “But it was a really hard summer. We all had a hard time accepting that we couldn’t do some of those things as a whole family anymore.”
A Sparkly Personality
Even when treatments knock Alizabeth’s energy down, her personality shows through. Having 4 older sisters has given made Alizabeth outgoing and optimistic, and she has a love of all things sparkly. She loves unicorns, playing with her puppy and twirling in her favorite dresses. Carrie says she’s constantly impressed by how Alizabeth has adapted and persevered, even when cancer took her old ‘normal’ away from her.
“I was especially impressed when she started losing her hair,” Carrie said. “That was one of the tougher things for me to watch. I left it up to her to make the decision to get rid of the rest of it. She told me she was done with her hair – it was definitely tougher for me than it was for her.”
A New Way to Be a Family
Carrie says this experience has changed the lives of everyone in her family. She is more anxious and attentive whenever any of her daughters show signs of illness, and she misses the days when they could take family outings without worrying about cell counts or medications. Her oldest two daughters have taken on more responsibility than they ever would have had to before cancer, and the worry the girls have for Alizabeth breaks Carrie’s heart. But she says cancer has changed their lives for the better in some ways, too.
“It changed our outlook on life a lot. We do more together as a family now, and we spend more time reading books with the girls and tucking them in at night – it’s really different,” Carrie said. “We have become closer as a family. We definitely pray more and go to church more. There are a million things from before cancer that I wish we could have back, but we have little changes that I appreciate, too.”
Alizabeth has been in the maintenance phase of her treatment since November 2018, and her family is looking forward to May of 2020, which is when they estimate Alizabeth will finish treatment. Until then, they are appreciating the little spots of brightness and looking forward to more days spent together as a family.
“We’re taking things day by day and enjoying the little things,” Carrie said. “Cancer is something you never think you’ll have to go through, but when it happens to you, you just do your best to bring you and your family out the other side.”