Young survivors learn definition of cancer first-hand

by The City Wire staff ( 37 views 

Few words strike fear into the heart of a person like a doctor's dreaded diagnosis of cancer. That is, unless you are too young to fully comprehend its true meaning.

Twelve year-old Emilie Couch admits that until just a little over a year ago, she didn't really know what the word cancer meant.

“I had heard the word, but I didn't understand what exactly it was before everything happened,” said Couch.

On Sept. 11, 2011, a then 11 year-old Emilie was rushed to the emergency room by her parents. Her abdomen was swollen and painful and her mother knew something wasn't right.

“We had noticed a little bit of swelling in Emilie's abdomen, but thought she was just gaining a little weight or growing through a growth spurt,” said Emilie's mother, Kimberly. “Then, when she started hurting, we took her to the ER. They thought it was possibly a cyst on her bowel.”

Instead, the doctors soon discovered a cyst on her ovary which contained over a liter of fluid. After draining the mass, the doctors performed a biopsy and learned that the cells were cancerous.

“I had always been terrified of that word,” said Kimberly. “Hearing that was truly my worst nightmare.”

Emilie was immediately referred to Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock where she was placed under the care of Dr. David Becton. The form of cancer girl from Van Buren was

“She was only his sixth-ever case of ovarian cancer in a child,” said Kimberly.

Emilie underwent extensive testing including CT scans, ultrasounds and blood work. A treatment plan was established and over the next several months, Emilie completed three rounds of chemotherapy.

“I was sick a lot,” said Emilie. “And I slept a lot, too.”

To care for her daughter, Kimberly was forced to miss 10 weeks of work. She and Emilie stayed in Little Rock for four days at a time during treatments, before traveling back to Van Buren. Ryan, Emilie's dad, and her younger siblings, eight year-old Ashlyn and four year-old Nathan, stayed behind while mother and daughter trekked back and forth across the state.

“That is a really long trip in the car when you are sick,” noted Emilie. “I hated it.”

Because of the treatments, Emilie was forced to miss a good portion of the school year. Her class at Northridge Middle School in Van Buren often sent her cards and notes of encouragement to let her know that she was missed and to help cheer her on during her treatments.

“I really liked the cards and presents that my class sent me,” beamed Emilie. “It made me feel better.”

After weeks of traveling to and from Little Rock for treatments and long hospital stays, Emilie completed her final round of chemo on Valentine's Day of this year.

Nearly nine months later, Emilie's cancer is in remission. Every three months, she goes in for additional testing, scans and labs to help make sure that the disease doesn't return. As time passes, Emilie will be able to go longer stretches in between testing.

“I am thankful for the cyst in that it helped us catch her cancer,” said Kimberly. “I am happy to have that behind us and be moving on with our lives.”

It was during her battle with the disease that Emilie came to know another young ovarian cancer survivor, Bailee Bise. A 14 year-old Roland, Okla., resident, Bise had battled the disease just a few short years before Emilie when she was only nine.

“It started when my whole right side went numb,” said Bise.

Doctors at first thought she might have Bells Palsy, but soon thereafter, Bailee was rushed into emergency surgery when a grapefruit-sized tumor on her ovary erupted.  Doctors removed two liters of fluid from the tumor.

After formally being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Bailee began chemotherapy. She and her parents, David and Ramie Bise, were also referred to Becton at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. At the time, Bailee was only the third patient with childhood ovarian cancer that Becton had treated.

“I lost all of my hair and I was very, very sick,” said Bailee.

Perhaps the most emotionally painful part of the ordeal for Bailee was getting stared at by people in public after losing her hair.

“Most of the whole time was a big blur, but I remember how much I didn't like the way people looked at me when they saw me getting around in a wheelchair, with no hair, wearing a safety mask, “ said Bailee. “I really hated that part of it all.”

Because of the cancer, Bailee was forced to miss most of her fourth grade year. To keep from getting behind, she completed homework and assignments that her teachers sent home and to the hospital.

Bailee's class also worked hard to encourage her during her treatments. She often received cards and presents during her hospital stays, even receiving a “Get Well” quilt with all of her classmates' names. After completing several rounds of chemo, Bailee's cancer went into remission.

In December 2011, Bailee reached a major milestone: five years, cancer free.

“It is a big deal to go five years without the cancer returning,” said Bailee. “We get a cake every December 18th to mark another year of being cancer free.”

Despite the terrible illness that each girl faced, both have happy memories from certain aspects of their experiences. In telling their stories, both girls light up when talking about the day of their last chemo treatment.

“The nurses brought me a Hello Kitty poster with all their names on it,” said Emilie. “They took a picture of me with it giving a big thumbs up.”

“At Children's, the nurses and staff celebrate when a patient goes in for their final treatment by having a mini-party right there in the hospital,” said Kimberly. The staff really go out of their way to make the patients feel special.”

Bailee, who spent a great deal of time at St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, recalls the incredible nurses and doctors that helped she and her family through the entire process.

“I remember that when I got there, they showed me around and tried to help make me feel more comfortable,” said Bailee. “They showed me a doll with a port and helped me understand what a port was since I was getting one. They really were great.”

Emilie and Bailee have chosen to turn their battles with cancer into an experience to help benefit others. The two participate in awareness activities, including fundraisers and survivor celebrations. In August, Emilie helped with the TEAL (Take Early Action and Live) Night in Tahiti event by modeling Tiffany jewelry that was auctioned off to benefit the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Coalition.

Bailee's battle with ovarian cancer has inspired her to go into medicine after she graduates.

“I am thinking about being either an oncologist, a surgeon or maybe a physical therapist,” she said. “I want to do something that involves medicine and helping kids.”

The young ladies are also very involved with activities at the Donald W. Reynold's Cancer Support House in Fort Smith. The girls volunteer to make signs for the annual Survivor's Challenge and meet on a regular basis with other young cancer survivors in the “Super Survivors” group.

Although they may not have fully understood what cancer meant when they were first diagnosed, Emilee and Bailee could undoubtedly write a book about the illness and about the profound impact it had on their lives.

Having encountered a very “grown-up” disease at such a young age, both ladies have chosen not to be defined  by their experiences, but instead have been inspired to help others by joining the fight to help find a cure.