“Mommy, do kids with cancer celebrate Christmas?”

Michelle and Callie

Written by Michelle Cavanaugh, mother of pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma survivor, Callie. She is also a family physician.

“Mommy, do kids with cancer celebrate Christmas?” This was the question that my 7-year-old daughter asked from the backseat, out of the blue, one day as we turned into our drive after a shopping trip with her Grammie and me.

It gave me the worst sinking feeling as I answered her, “Of course, honey.”

She had started complaining of pain in her left leg just a few weeks before, and being a family physician and a mom, the thought crossed my mind as quickly as I tried to push it away— maybe it’s cancer…maybe she has a pelvic tumor pressing on her sciatic nerve. I have always been a worrier and almost laughed at, and I scolded myself for even entertaining the thought.

But my medical background told me that night pain I couldn’t reproduce by examining her leg was a big RED FLAG, as we call it in our business.

I hoped it was growing pains, gave her ibuprofen and gave it two weeks.

The Friday after our shopping trip I almost called into my office to tell them I would be late so I could take Callie to get an x-ray of her leg. I did not want to cause all the chaos, however, of moving patients in my schedule that morning and was nervous about ordering the x-ray myself. I decided to wait and see how the weekend went and contact our family physician for the order.

Work was a good distraction, but it was in the back of my mind all day.

It was Friday, Dec. 4,2015, just three days after her 7th birthday. That evening, we were getting ready for her family birthday party. We had gone out to eat as a family after work, then to the grocery store to pick up last minute supplies for the party. It was late when we finally got home and organized a bit before going up to get ready for bed. Callie was tired and not quite herself.

“Mommy, can you please help me with my shower? I’m too tired.”

My first response was to ask her if she could try to do it herself so I could continue to multitask taking care of laundry and picking up the house.

“Please Mommy, I’m really tired” was her reply.

I went into her bathroom and opened the shower curtain, and as I was putting soap on her washcloth “it” caught my eye as I looked at her from the side. Her lower abdomen was protruding.
I prayed to God it was a hernia.

“Callie, how long has that lump been there?” I tried not to alarm her by keeping the tone in my voice calm, but my heart was pounding and my knees were so weak I was afraid I may fall over from fear. I quickly washed her up, dried her off and took her into her room. I asked her to lay on the bed. I felt the area and immediately knew that the hard mass I felt was not a hernia and was going to be my worst nightmare.
After getting Callie dressed and brushing out her wet, long hair, I yelled for my husband.

I so wished I did not have to worry anyone and keep it a secret but knew that would be impossible. I told our three sons to take care of each other and pray as we took Callie to the emergency room for what would be the first of many scans for our sweet little girl. I was terrified. This couldn’t really be happening.