Kathryn (KK to her friends and family) may only be 5 years old, but she is a no-nonsense girl. When it comes to her leukemia treatments, she wants to know exactly what’s happening, and she lets her care teams know she doesn’t need to be coddled.
“She packs her own bag with the toys she wants to play with,” said her mom, Brittany. “When the sweet child life specialists come in and try to do their job by distracting her from treatment, she’ll say, ‘I don’t need you.’ She’s just matter-of-fact about it all.”
KK’s cancer diagnosis truly came out of nowhere. On a Friday night, she was energetic, running across a football field. One week later, Brittany took her to urgent care with a fever. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but when KK continued to look pale, Brittany took her to her regular pediatrician – who told her to go right to Texas Children’s Hospital. During the three-hour drive from their one-stoplight town in east Texas to the hospital in Houston, Brittany dreaded getting the news. She sent out messages to close family and friends, asking them to start praying. When they arrived at the hospital, she just wanted answers.
“The doctor came in and I just said, ‘Shoot it to me straight,’” Brittany said. “We knew something was wrong. We just wanted a plan. Give me the plan and we can take care of it.”
Brittany’s mother had been treated for lung cancer three times, so she had some idea of what cancer treatment looks like. But she didn’t expect how long treatment would take. Her mom’s treatments were six months – KK’s would be two and a half years.
“She was diagnosed in October 2021, and I was pretty blown away when they said if everything goes to plan, she’ll finish treatment in January 2024,” Brittany said. “That seemed so far away, especially for someone so young. But we just break it down to the eight-week cycles and handle it chunk by chunk.”
So far, KK’s treatments have included:
- 25 chemotherapy infusions, plus more chemotherapy pills
- 8 spinal taps
- 2 bone marrow biopsies
- Steroids which make KK cranky and extremely hungry
- Countless needle pokes
- Holidays in the hospital
- Hours in the car on the way to and from treatments
Brittany says she’s incredibly proud of how her daughter handles the hardships of cancer treatment. When KK lost her hair, Brittany caught her looking in the mirror and asked if she wanted a hat or a wig before going out for the day. KK fingered the thin, wispy hair she had left after chemo and said “No, I think it’s kind of cute just like this, don’t you?”
When KK’s steroids make her moods unpredictable, she’s good at recognizing that it’s not her, it’s an effect of the medicine. Whenever she’s snapped at nurses, her big sister or friends at school, she’s apologized, letting them know “the medicine makes me crabby.”
KK knows what she’s missing out on during cancer treatment – she knows she misses lots of time with friends at school, and she knows it’s not safe for her to go to crowded places when her immune system has been so knocked down by chemotherapy. But she also knows it’s not forever.
“We’ve tried to be honest about not getting to go do things and making sure she knows it’s not her, it’s just the disease,” Brittany says. “Once we get this done with, we can move on with life.”
For KK, moving on with life will look like starting gymnastics again, something she loved to do with her sister, Olivia, before cancer. She and Olivia still practice at home, and KK assures her she’ll get even better when treatment is over. Today, KK loves collecting Barbies and LOL Surprise Dolls, and she’s meticulous with their shoes and other accessories. Even at just 4 years old, she has a great relationship with her doctor and makes it clear she just wants to do what needs to be done to get this whole cancer thing over with. Her doctor tries to give her a sense of control by asking her things like, “Okay I’m going to look in your ears now, do you want me to look in the right one or the left one first?” and she’ll say “Does it matter? You need to look in them both anyways, don’t you?”
“At one clinic visit, my husband and I were talking to the doctor about what the next steps would be, and 5-year-old KK piped up to say, ‘Can you just give them the papers to sign so we can go?’” Brittany said. “Her attitude is, let’s just get this all over with so I can move on with my life.”
This summer, KK will enter the maintenance phase of treatment, which will hopefully be easier on her than the previous phases of hard-hitting chemotherapy. Her family plans to stick with the strategy that’s been getting them through cancer so far – take everything day by day.
“She knows she’s strong, she knows she can do this,” Brittany said. “We’ll just keep breaking the journey down into the smaller steps, because we know we can handle those.”