Aaliyah is a sunshine-loving 9-year-old whose favorite things are candy, music, and people. Easy going and funny, she doesn't find much to complain about in life--which is why her sudden fever surprised us on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. She came home from school and asked if she felt hot. Mama's cheek-to-forehead thermometer showed signs of a fever, and our digital thermometer confirmed: 101.8. The temperature itself was only concerning because Aaliyah hasn't had a fever since she had the flu at age 3 or 4. She has always been extremely healthy. But even though her fever was surprising, we weren't concerned at all. She had no other symptoms - no sore throat, congestion, sick stomach...nothing. Wednesday she woke up with a fever again, and Nate stayed home with her. Later that evening he mentioned that he thought her stomach seemed to be kind of bloated. I checked, of course, and agreed. Still, we weren't concerned. She was active and happy, and begging to go outside and play on the trampoline. Then came Thursday morning, November 10, when a doctor's visit sent us for labs and an ultrasound - and ultimately to the ER. Since that day, we have all been stumbling along, trying to find our footing in this new reality: fighting cancer.
Early in the morning on Thursday, we decided that since Aaliyah's fever was holding steady, and her stomach did seem hard and bloated, we'd bring her to the doctor. We were so unconcerned (truly thinking a virus and maybe constipation), that I didn't feel like driving out to our pediatrician. Instead, I made an appointment with a new doctor at the front of our neighborhood. I had things I wanted to get done that day, and I didn't want to waste too much time at the doctor's office. Aaliyah was happy and active and not in any pain. If the thermometers hadn't been telling us differently, we never would have believed she was sick.
Our appointment was at 9:40, and we were seen quickly. I liked the new doctor, and felt completely at ease. She ran strep and flu tests - both negative. She began the physical exam and was talking about how it was likely viral, and then I mentioned the stomach. She lifted Aaliyah's shirt and said, "Oh." She felt around and agreed it was distended, asking the resident in the room to also feel the stomach. She sent us for lab work and an ultrasound, just to make sure we weren't missing something. I felt kind of frustrated over the drainage of time, and Aaliyah was not a happy camper either. She said she wished we'd gone to our pediatrician, who wouldn't have ordered the extra tests. I agreed and said that sometimes adult doctors probably overreact when it comes to working with children. The office we were at was equipped with the lab and the ability to perform the ultrasound, so we were able to get all the tests done right there - which I realize now was a blessing from God in that the process was expedited.
We were at the office past lunch, and when we finished, we decided to grab Pei Wei to-go and bring it home. We were in good spirits, and aside from the fever, Aaliyah felt fine. We ate at home and she begged to go outside. I told her she could lie down on the trampoline but not jump. She brought her blanket and pillow outside and got comfy on that trampoline under the sunshine, peaceful and happy with the world.
About ten minutes after she went outside, my phone rang. It was Dr. Toni, and she asked me where I was and if I was driving. I told her I was at home, and she said, "Good." Then she proceeded to explain that the results had come back from the labs and ultrasound, and she did not like what she was seeing. I froze. But, still, for a moment, I thought...appendicitis, maybe? An infection that needs a major antibiotic? Instead, she told me, the ultrasound showed a large mass in Aaliyah's abdomen. She stated the dimensions, and I remember grabbing holding of the edge of the countertop with both hands before realizing I needed something to write with. I rifled through drawers as she spoke, and finally found a pencil to write with. With a shaking hand, I wrote down the size of the mass: 8x21x24 cm, and I choked out the question, "What could that be??" She mentioned a tumor and possibly cancer, and I stood there frozen in time, watching Aaliyah through the window, tears streaming down my face, while Dr. Toni gave me instructions on what to do next...
Get someone to take care of the other kids. Pack Aaliyah up and head straight to the ER for an abdominal CT scan. Take deep breaths. Be strong for my baby. Words can't describe the depth of despair and fear that invade a mother's body and soul during a phone call like that. Trembling, I called Nate to tell him the news and ask him to meet us at the hospital. I could barely get my words out, and he couldn't understand half of what I was saying, but I texted him the address and he headed straight there. Then I called my family, while also texting friends to start praying. I reached my mom first, and she knew from the tone of my voice something was very wrong. But her words and encouragement gave me strength with the reminder that I could cry all I wanted to later, but it was time to do what mothers do - pull myself together and go get my daughter to the hospital.
I dropped to the floor at the back door before going outside. I put my face to the ground and begged God for the strength to tell Aaliyah the change of plans - and to do it without crying or scaring her. Then I got up off the floor and walked outside. I told her most of what I knew: the doctor found something on the ultrasound that shouldn't be in her tummy, and we needed a better picture to figure out what it was. Her fear was palpable, and I picked her up and sat with her on a chair and prayed peace and healing over her. Then we were on our way to the emergency room.
By the end of the night, we'd been admitted to the hospital and the mass had been confirmed to be some kind of tumor. Then ensued the most terrifying few days of our lives as we awaited a diagnosis. On Monday, 11/14, she had a surgical biopsy done, and the diagnosis was confirmed: our daughter has cancer. We were then transferred to MD Anderson Cancer Center, and so began this journey no one wants to travel.
Our hope is in Jesus for peace, protection, and ultimate healing.