Four-year-old Cecilia proudly shows off one of her prized possession: a string of beads so long, she has to wind it around her body several times to keep it from touching the ground.
“The black ones are from all the times you got chemo,” Cecilia’s mother says to her daughter, pointing out dozens of dark shiny beads. “And do you remember this rainbow bead from the time you were in the hospital on your birthday?”
This is no ordinary necklace. Each bead represents a milestone in Cecilia’s cancer journey.
Every time she got a needle poke, every time she had chemotherapy, every time she had to stay in the hospital, Cecilia got another “bead of courage” from her care team. She strung them together, one by one, until they grew to be almost 8 feet long – more than twice the size of young Cecilia.
‘She stopped smiling’
Cecilia’s journey started three years ago when her parents noticed bruising on her body. She was also struggling to walk, so Cecilia’s mother took her in for an X-ray. Before leaving, a doctor recommended that Cecilia do a blood test, “just in case.”
“Before we even got our home, the doctor called and asked us to come back. That’s when everything changed,” says Katie, Cecilia’s mom.
Cecilia was only 1 year old when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was immediately sent to Children’s Hospital Colorado on the Anschutz Medical Campus to begin chemotherapy.
Katie says the first few months were the most difficult. As part of her treatment, Cecilia had to take steroids for 30 days to suppress her immune system, causing her small body to become uncomfortably swollen. She wouldn’t let anyone hold her except her mother. Usually a happy, energetic toddler, Cecilia stopped walking and – perhaps worst of all – she stopped smiling.
“In the beginning, Cecilia’s chemo visits were almost constant,” Katie says. “She also needed a lot of spinal taps and transfusions. It was so hard.”
Surviving, then thriving
Watching Cecilia suffer through treatment was devastating, but Katie remained hopeful knowing her daughter was getting the best care. With outstanding patient survival rates, the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Colorado is ranked among the top programs in the country.
“Before Cecilia was diagnosed with leukemia, we had the sense that all doctors are the same. But we quickly realized that the doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital Colorado are true experts in what they do – especially when it comes to kids, because children are so different from adults.”
The day that Cecilia was able to stop taking steroids, she gave her mother a huge smile – her first one in weeks.
“It was amazing,” Katie says with a smile.
Cecilia’s chemo infusions eventually became more sporadic, but there were still struggles. She had to spend her second birthday in the hospital due to a shingles infection -- a side effect of her treatment. Her doctors and nurses tried to make the day special by surprising Cecilia with a cake and decorations.
“Our care team felt like a part of our family,” Katie says. “Every time they came into the room, they made our child feel like the most important person in the world.”
After two and a half years of chemotherapy, Cecilia’s cancer remains in remission. Not only is she back to smiling (all the time), but she’s now running, jumping and playing non-stop.
Katie says her favorite bead on Cecilia’s strand is a bright purple one that she received on her last day of treatment.
“Children's Hospital Colorado does more than just treat illnesses,” Katie says. “Our daughter not only survived under their care, she was able to thrive.”
As a 2019 Patient Ambassador, Cecilia is raising money for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at the new Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs. Donate to her fundraising page.